Night of the Long Knives (4)


Compared to Adolf Hitler and his top lieutenants, the SA folks were far more primitive individuals and their vision of the future for Germany was far more limited and simplistic (if it could be called a vision at all).

Hitler and his team mostly correctly identified the problems and challenges that faced Germany (with the exception of the “Jewish problem” that existed only in their imagination), but their choice of ways and means to solve these problems was often totally wrong.

The SA characters fared much worse in this crucial department – not only were they almost totally clueless about the real problems and challenges of Germany, but whatever they identified, they grossly misunderstood and thus offered the “medicine” that was not just worse than the “disease”, but outright deadly.

In this respect the SA were very similar to… far-left Russian Communists often called “Old Bolsheviks” or (somewhat incorrectly) “Lenin’s Guard”. Only the “Browns” were nationalists and the “Reds” were internationalists.

Both presented the existential threat to the corresponding regimes; so it is no surprise that both were ultimately eliminated. The difference (and a huge one at that) was only in the number of victims; while Hitler killed about 50, Stalin shot at least a one thousand times more.

The “Old Bolsheviks” and the SA had strikingly similar economic and military vision – both advocated nationalization of just about all land and enterprises (or at least the large ones) and both wanted a “people’s army” (“people’s militia”) rather than a professional military force. The Communist one was to be based on the “Red Guard” and the “Brown” one – on the SA.

The reason for this similarity is simple – both groups were heavily influenced by low-skilled workers. The “Lenin’s Guard” expanded dramatically during the times of the Great War and the subsequent Civil War in Russia that, taken together, had an even more devastating impact on Russian proletariat than the Great Depression had on its German counterpart (and it was exactly the latter event that led to a no less dramatic rise in the number of SA members).

Masses of workers in both Germany and Russia lost their jobs and saw their at least bearable lives completely disintegrate. Hence it was no surprise that they completely lost faith in Imperial institutions (both Russia and Germany were empires led by emperors who happened to be cousins) and thus were craving for something radically new and different.

While Nazism was not exclusively (or even primarily) a working class phenomenon, the SA fulfilled the yearning of many unemployed German workers for class solidarity and nationalist fervor.

Likewise, the Bolsheviks in Russia fulfilled the craving of a huge number of Russian workers for class solidarity and internationalist fervor (the latter powered by the Russian messianic idea)

Many stormtroopers (both rank-and-file and their leaders) believed in the socialist promise of National Socialism (the way they perceived it) and expected the Nazi regime to take more radical economic action, such as breaking up the vast landed estates of the aristocracy.

When the Nazi regime (predictably) did not take such steps, those who had expected an economic as well as a political revolution were disillusioned (to put it mildly).

And not just disillusioned, but openly called for action. And no one in the SA spoke more loudly for “a continuation of the German revolution” (as one prominent SA leader put it) than de-facto commander-in-chief of the SA Ernst Röhm.

Röhm took seriously (far too seriously, as it turned out) the socialist part of National Socialism, and publicly demanded that Hitler and the other party leaders initiate wide-ranging socialist reform in Germany. Ultimately making it almost the nationalist carbon copy of the Soviet Union.

Which for Adolf Hitler (and lots of other powerful and influential individuals both inside and outside of NSDAP) was obviously out of the question.

Infinitely more dangerous, however, was Röhm’s aspirations to become a de-facto military leader of Germany. Not content his command and control the SA (at that time essentially the “second Army of Germany”), Röhm lobbied Hitler to appoint him Minister of Defense, which would have given him a significant (if not total) control of Reichswehr.

At that time, this position was held by the conservative General Werner von Blomberg. Although nicknamed the “Rubber Lion” by some of his critics in the army for his deference to Hitler, Blomberg was not a Nazi, and therefore represented a bridge between the army and the party.

Blomberg and many of his fellow officers were recruited from the Prussian nobility, and regarded the SA as a plebeian, stupid and incompetent mob that threatened not only the army’s traditional high status in German society but the very existence of Reichswehr and the whole German state.

If the regular army showed contempt for the members of the SA (and for the organization in general), the latter returned the feeling, seeing the army as insufficiently committed to the National Socialist revolution. Which was actually more true than not.

Max Heydebreck, an SA leader in Rummelsburg (a district in Berlin), severely criticized the Reichswehr in his address to his fellow brownshirts:

“Some of the officers of the army are swine. Most officers are too old and have to be replaced by young ones. We want to wait till Papa Hindenburg is dead, and then the SA will march against the army.”

Which was very real threat given that form every one soldier and officer of a regular army, the SA could field thirty (!) of its members.

Despite such hostility between the stormtroopers and the regular army, Blomberg and others in the military saw the SA as a source of raw recruits for an enlarged and revitalized army (the future Wehrmacht).

Röhm, however, wanted to eliminate the generalship of the Prussian aristocracy altogether (possibly even physically given the SA propensity for violence and even murder) and make the SA the core of a new German military.

And not just wanted, but took very tangible and concrete action in that direction. In January 1934, Röhm presented Blomberg with a memorandum demanding that the SA replace the regular army as the nation’s ground forces, and that the Reichswehr become a training adjunct to the SA. Which understandably worried the latter (and the whole top brass of the army) to no end.

Von Blomberg promptly sent a copy of the memorandum to Adolf Hitler. The latter was furious (to put it mildly). On February 28, 1934 he convened a meeting of the leadership of the SA and SS (with von Blomberg present, of course).

In no uncertain terms he not only told Röhm to back off, but forced the latter to sign a pledge stating that he (and all stormtroopers that he commanded) recognized the supremacy of the Reichswehr over the SA in all military matters.

Hitler announced to those present that the SA would act as an auxiliary to the Reichswehr, not the other way around. However, after Hitler and most of the army officers had left, however, Röhm declared that he – the former captain of the Imperial Army and the recipient of the Iron Cross First Class – would not take instructions from “this ridiculous corporal” – an obvious and demeaning reference to Hitler.

Which turned out to be a catastrophic mistake as Adolf Hitler neither forgot nor forgave. Ever.

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