Night of the Long Knives (8)


By June of 1934, the SA were perceived by just about everybody in German society as a highly dangerous and very destructive enemy (hence Ernst Röhm is a textbook example of how NOT to run a paramilitary organization).

Hence, just about everyone (outside of SA, of course) wanted their Führer to do something (what exactly – they did not care) to make this “brown menace” go away. Consequently, the overwhelming majority of Germans (and all German elites) felt deeply relieved when they learned about the demise of the SA leaders.

Whether the latter were guilty of treason or any other major crime no one really cared. This goons and thugs were gone – and that was the only thing that counted (in the aftermath of the purge, Viktor Lutze and the SS ruthlessly put an end to SA rampages and brawls).

In the following days and weeks after Operation Hummingbird, arrests and dismissals continued, directed in particular against the rowdiest and most corrupt elements amongst the stormtroopers. Heavy drinking, homosexuality, embezzlement, riotous behavior – in short, all the things that had lent the brownshirts such public notoriety over the previous months (if not years), were ruthlessly purged.

Ordinary Germans were at last relieved that Hitler had acted against the ‘brown bigwigs’ and that the streets would now be safe from the excesses of drunken and disorderly stormtroopers (they actually were).

Elimination of the “SA threat” not surprisingly, significantly increase the level of support for the Nazi regime (and for Hitler personally) from all social groups in German society – from the common folks to the elites.

The day after the action, crowds gathered in front of the Reich Chancellery and the Propaganda Ministry, singing the Horst Wessel Song and protesting their loyalty to their Führer in a sincere demonstration of relief and enthusiasm.

There was a problem however – in addition to the universally hated “SA goons”, SS death squads killed a not insignificant number of conservative, Catholic and other politicians which, even if not supported, were deeply respected in German society.

To solve this problem, Adolf Hitler (predictably) used his speech to the Reichstag on July 13th to accuse General von Schleicher (and implicitly all other non-SA victims of the purge) of conspiring with Ernst Röhm to overthrow the government.

To make this charge especially shocking and repugnant, he used “evidence” manufactured by Heydrich and Himmler to alleged that both Röhm and von Schleicher were in fact traitors paid by France to replace German patriotic government with the one comprised of French puppets.

Since it was widely known that von Schleicher was a good friend of the French Ambassador to Germany André François-Poncet, and because of his reputation for political intrigue, the claim that Schleicher was working for France had enough surface plausibility for most Germans to accept it – so they did.

The “evidence” was so fraudulent, however, that François-Poncet was not declared persona non grata as would have been usual if an ambassador were involved in a plot against his host government. What was sufficient for the German public and the elites, would not have worked with the French government.

Relieved by the elimination of the existential threat (and Röhm’s SA definitely was one for the Reichswehr), the German Army Almost unanimously, the army applauded the Night of the Long Knives, even though two of their own – generals Kurt von Schleicher and Ferdinand von Bredow were among the victims of the purge.

Major-General Walther von Reichenau (an outspoken ally and advocate of Hitler and the Nazi Party) went even further – he publicly supported Hitler’s fraudulent accusations that von Schleicher and von Bredow had been plotting to overthrow the German government.

Then things took a really bizarre turn. General Kurt von Hammerstein-Equord (then retired and subsequently an active member of anti-Nazi resistance in Germany) and Field Marshal August von Mackensen (also retired), did not buy the official rationale for the purge and… started a campaign to have Schleicher rehabilitated by Hitler.

And, believe it or not, they succeeded! In late 1934 – early 1935, Werner von Fritsch (then Commander-in-Chief of the German Army) and Werner von Blomberg (then Minister of defense), had been sufficiently shamed by the abovementioned retirees to join the latter’s campaign for rehabilitation of murdered generals.

At the end of 1934, both Fritsch and Blomberg suddenly claimed that as army officers they could not stand the exceedingly violent press attacks on Schleicher and Bredow that had been going on since July, which portrayed them as the vilest traitors, working against the Fatherland in the pay of France.

At that time, Reichswehr was still sufficiently powerful to put a successful pressure on Hitler (the pressure that got results) so Hitler was forced to state (in his speech gon January 3, 1935 at the Berlin State Opera – of all places) that both Schleicher and Bredow had been shot “in error” on the basis of false information, and ordered their names to be immediately restored to the honor rolls of their regiments at.

Hitler’s speech was not reported in the German press, but most of the Reichswehr received it and was appeased by the speech. However, despite the rehabilitation of the two murdered officers, Hitler continued in private to accuse Schleicher of high treason.

Adolf Hitler neither forgot, nor forgave – ever. So it was no surprise that both Fritsch and Blomberg paid dearly for this victory. In early 1938, Hermann Göring and Heinrich Himmler (obviously acting on Hitler’s orders) orchestrated the so-called “Blomberg–Fritsch Affair” which resulted in resignation of both generals from their positions.

Reaction to Operation Hummingbird outside Germany was a different story entirely. Former Kaiser Wilhelm II, who was in exile in Doorn, Netherlands, was predictably horrified by the purge. He asked, “What would people have said if I had done such a thing?”

Hearing of the murder of former Chancellor Kurt von Schleicher and his wife, he also prophetically stated:

“We have ceased to live under the rule of law and everyone must be prepared for the possibility that the Nazis will push their way in and put them up against the wall!”

I will cover the reaction to the purge in Britain, France and in the USA in the section that will explain why this mass murder was a colossal blunder of the Nazis (and of Hitler personally).

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