Night of the Long Knives (3)

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Interestingly enough, Adolf Hitler was practically forced to commence Operation Hummingbird by a whole bunch of very different individuals who had very different reasons to do so.

The most influential individual (by far) was Reichspräsident Paul von Hindenburg – Hitler’s boss (of sorts) and the only individual who had the political power to dismiss Hitler from the position of Reich Chancellor and to do away with the whole Nazi regime altogether.

Other individuals that put some serious pressure on Adolf Hitler to “do something with the SA” (but not with his other political opponents) were Heinrich Himmler, Hermann Göring, Vice-Chancellor Franz von Papen, defense minister general Werner von Blomberg, top commanders of Reichswehr, Presidential State Secretary Otto Meißner (indirectly), Foreign Minister Baron Konstantin von Neurath (ditto), Benito Mussolini (that was a real surprise)… and SA themselves (first and foremost, its de-facto commander-in-chief Ernst Röhm).

Paul von Hindenburg was a textbook Prussian general – an embodiment of the military-style “law and order principle”. Consequently, he viewed the SA as a totally rogue paramilitary force which – if left unchecked – would plunge Germany into a total chaos and lawlessness in a matter of months (if not weeks).

That was something that he would never allow “on his watch”. Consequently, he made it very clear to Hitler that he would not hesitate to declare martial law and turning the government over to the Reichswehr if Hitler did not take immediate, decisive and ruthless steps against Röhm personally and his out-of-control brownshirts.

Conservatives (von Papen, von Neurath, Otto Meißner, etc.) wanted exactly the same thing – restore law and order (at least what passed for it in already Hitler’s state). In other words, to prevent the SA from taking over Germany – or destroying the latter in another way.

Von Blomberg and top commanders of Reichswehr were determined to prevent Röhm and his SA from becoming a de-facto German Army and making the former no more than its training auxiliary. And Mussolini was interested in a strategic partnership with Nazi Germany and thus wanted to make sure the latter does not damage its reputation (and thus fascist Italy’s) beyond repair.

In short, Ernst Röhm and his lieutenants very successfully created a “critical mass” of genuinely mortal enemies (which means that they were not very smart or savvy, to put it mildly). Which quite predictably led to their very physical demise.

Röhm and other SA leaders started working towards that suicidal objective long before Hitler came to power – and even before the official formation of the Sturmabteilung.

The SA evolved out of the remnants of the infamous Freikorps movement of the post-World War I years (which, however did an excellent job suppressing Communist coups thus essentially saving Germany from being Bolshevised).

The Freikorps were nationalistic organizations primarily composed of disaffected, disenchanted, and angry German combat veterans founded by a number of military entrepreneurs (ex-officers) in January 1919 with tacit support from the Republican government to deal with the very real threat of a Communist revolution. The reason for this support was plain and simple – there was simply not enough loyal troops to win this essentially civil war with the Reds.

A very large number of the Freikorps believed (incorrectly) that the November Revolution had betrayed them when Germany was alleged to be on the verge of victory in 1918.

Hence, the Freikorps were in opposition to the new Weimar Republic, which was born as a result of the November Revolution, and whose founders were contemptuously (and also incorrectly) called the “November criminals”.

And at the same time served that Republic protecting it from being destroyed by the Communists. A bit schizophrenic, true – but happens all the times in a civil war.

Captain Ernst Röhm of the Reichswehr served as the liaison with the Bavarian Freikorps. Röhm was given the nickname “The Machine Gun King of Bavaria” in the early 1920s, since he was responsible for storing and issuing illegal machine guns to the Bavarian Freikorps units.

And not just machine guns – it was later estimated that one out of three items of military hardware possessed by the brand new Wehrmacht in 1935 came from storage depots set up by Röhm.

Röhm left the Reichswehr in 1923 and later became de-facto commander-in-chief of the SA (nominally, Adolf Hitler was one as the SA was an integral part of the NSDAP).

During the 1920s and 1930s, the SA functioned as a Nazi party militia (political paramilitary force) used by Hitler and other Nazi leaders to intimidate rivals and disrupt the meetings of competing political parties, especially those of the “lefties” – the Social Democrats (SPD) and the Communists (KPD).

The SA became notorious for their street battles with both of the latter (who also had paramilitary organizations – and quite vicious at that). The violent confrontations between the Nazis and the “lefties” (Reichsbanner Schwarz-Rot-Gold of the SPD and the Rotfrontkämpferbund of the KPD) significantly contributed to the political destabilization of the Weimar Republic.

In June 1932, one of the worst months of political violence, there were more than 400 street battles, resulting in 82 deaths. Contrary to a very popular misconception, more Nazis were killed by Communists than the other way around.

In 1919-33, Adolf Hitler was the “Gross Master of violence” – his skillful utilization of the latter made a vitally important contribution to Nazi’s ascent to power. Unfortunately, the SA had a fundamental problem that made it ultimate downfall inevitable – it was a purely destructive force.

In that respect it had far more in common with the far-left Bolsheviks (far left to Lenin and Stalin that is) that all but destroyed Russia at about the same time than with the Nazi leadership. Consequently, it is no surprise that ultimately both the Russian far left and the SA leaders met the similar fate.

It is not surprising either that even Hitler’s appointment as chancellor, followed by the suppression of all political parties except the Nazis, did not put an end to the violence of the brownshirts.

Deprived of KPD or SPD or any other party meetings to disrupt, the stormtroopers would sometimes run riot in the streets after a night of drinking; they would attack passers-by and then attack the police who were called to stop them.

Complaints of “overbearing and loutish” behavior by the brownshirts became common by the middle of 1933. The Foreign Office even complained of instances where brownshirts manhandled foreign diplomats (many SA members hated all foreigners – Communists, capitalists, Jews – everyone).

This brutal and violent all-out assault on law and order (sacred for just about every non-SA politician and government official) was already more than enough for conservatives, nationalists and even quite a few Nazi leaders to call for an urgent reigning in of these “hoodlums” and “street thugs”.

Unfortunately for the SA, they were adamant about destroying not only the law and order on the streets, but just about the whole German state – and the very fabric of German society.

Both Adolf Hitler and the SA leaders (first and foremost, Ernst Röhm) wanted to perform a radical reengineering of German politics, government, economy, culture, state and the whole German society.

However, while Hitler and his lieutenants (Himmler, Göring, Goebbels, Hess, etc.) wanted to preserve certain fundamental components of the “old system” and to incorporate most of the “old guard” (politicians, government officials, the military, academics, business owners and managers, landowners, etc.) into the “New Reich”, the SA leaders wanted to destroy the whole system and then build the new one from scratch.

Again, in this respect they were far closer to the Russian Bolsheviks (this time including Stalin and his clique) than to then leadership of their own party. Which not surprisingly, wasted no time in declaring its objectives and its strategy.

On July 6, 1933, in a speech to the Reichskommissars (Nazi governors of German states – now provinces) in the Reich Chancery in Berlin, Hitler officially declared the success of the National Socialist “brown revolution”. Now that the NSDAP had seized the reins of power in Germany, he said, it was time to change its objectives – and the means to achieve these objectives:

“The revolution is not a permanent state of affairs, and it must not be allowed to develop into such a state. The stream of revolution released must be guided into the safe channel of evolution.”

That’s not what the brownshirts (both rank-and-file) and its leadership wanted to hear.

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