Night of the Long Knives (7)

20190907_194244000_iOSBy physically eliminating the leaders of the remaining opposition (after Communists, Social Democrats and many other political opponents were arrested and interned in concentration camps), Operation Hummingbird solved a crucial political problem of the Nazi regime (and of Hitler personally). And thus cleared the way for the radical reengineering of Germany.

However (as it happens all the time), it created another problem. A serious problem. A very serious problem. A potentially murderous problem (in a very literal sense). A legal problem.

Contrary to a very popular misconception, even after the Enabling act was passed by both houses of the German parliament and signed into law by Reich President von Hindenburg, Germany still operated under a system of laws – even the Weimar Constitution was legally in force (sans articles temporarily suspended by the Reichstag Fire Decree and the Enabling Act).

Consequently, Hitler and his co-conspirators (and Operation Hummingbird was a conspiracy to commit mass murder – cut and dry, loud and clear, plain and simple) had no legal right to execute their victims without a trial (i.e. without due process).

Consequently, they violated the penal code of the German state. Which from the legal perspective meant that they had just committed a capital crimes, for which they must be immediately arrested, charged, tried, convicted, sentenced to death and promptly executed (being civilians – by guillotine).

Obviously, no one had the real power to arrest these criminals; however, Adolf Hitler desperately needed his regime to look legit as then threat of military action by the French (who obviously had a very dim view of mass murderers in power in Germany) was still a very scary possibility.

Consequently, something had to be done – and done quickly – to take care of this potentially catastrophic problem. As it happens all the time, no one gave any thought to this problem until it arrived in full force.

Hence, the initial actions of the conspirators were… well, not exactly smart or even creative. Hermann Göring (Minister-President of Prussia) instructed police stations on July 2nd to burn “all documents concerning the action of the past two days.”

Reich Minister of Propaganda Josef Goebbels tried to prevent newspapers from publishing lists of the dead. Predictably, it did not work (at that time his ministry did not yet have a complete control over the media) so he had no other choice but to describe (in the radio address) how Hitler and his team had narrowly prevented Röhm and Schleicher from overthrowing the German government.

It did not work well either, so ten days later, on July 13, 1934, Hitler had to justify the mass murder in a nationally broadcast speech to the (now purely decorative) Reichstag:

If anyone reproaches me and asks why I did not resort to the regular courts of justice, then all I can say is this. In this hour I was responsible for the fate of the German people, and thereby I became the supreme judge of the German people.

I gave the order to shoot the ringleaders in this treason, and I further gave the order to cauterize down to the raw flesh the ulcers of this poisoning of the wells in our domestic life. Let the nation know that its existence—which depends on its internal order and security – cannot be threatened with impunity by anyone! And let it be known for all time to come that if anyone raises his hand to strike the State, then certain death is his lot.

There were, unfortunately, two fundamental problems with this address. First, it was a blatant lie as it was perfectly clear no one “raised his hand to strike the State”.

The second problem was far more serious – while the propaganda value of that speech was unquestionably immense, its legal value was exactly zero. Nil. Zilch. Nada. In other words, Hitler et al. were still vicious criminals who had just committed a capital crime. Which in any independent court of law guaranteed the death sentence.

So something still had to be done to solve this problem (i.e. make the mass murder legally sanctioned) – and fast. Adolf Hitler chose the simplest and (as usual) the most radical solution.

He simply had his cabinet pass the “Law Regarding Measures of State Self-Defense” (the Enabling Act of 1933 gave him the necessary power). This law, which consisted of a single sentence, retroactively legalized the murders committed during Operation Hummingbird, adding a legal veneer to the massacre.

This sentence was written by Reich Justice Minister Franz Gürtner, a conservative who had been Bavarian Justice Minister in the years of the Weimar Republic but was eager to demonstrate his loyalty to the new regime.

Germany’s legal establishment further capitulated to the Nazis when the country’s leading legal scholar, Carl Schmitt, wrote an article under a characteristic title “The Führer Upholds the Law” defending Hitler’s July 13th  speech.

However, not everyone in the legal community agreed – several local prosecutors did try to press charges against the murderers. Not surprisingly, the Nazis rapidly quashed these attempts and the brave lawyers lost their jobs and sometimes even their freedom.

There was, however, one more problem to be solved. A huge problem (in terms of numbers). A three-million-men problem. What the hell to do with the Sturmabteilung?

The first decision was obvious – Hitler made the abovementioned Viktor Lutze (fiercely loyal to him) the new head of the SA. His primary objective (that he diligently fulfilled) was to transform the stormtroopers into what Hitler (and the Reichswehr) wanted – a training organization. In other words, its primary (and practically only) function was now to train all able-bodied men for Wehrmacht and Home Guard units.

The SA was radically downsized – in just a year its membership plummeted by more than 40%. In four years it declined even further – from almost 3 million in August of 1934 to just 1.2 million in April of 1938. With the start of World War II in September 1939, the SA predictably lost most of its remaining members to military service in the Wehrmacht.

Another function of the SA (this one was outright criminal) was persecution of the Jews (to make it omnipresent, the Nazis needed numbers). It was the primary perpetrator of the “November pogrom” (the Kristallnacht) on November 9-10th of 1938 and thus bears the lion’s share of responsibility for destroying about 200 synagogues (constituting nearly all Germany had), many Jewish cemeteries, more than 7,000 Jewish shops, and 29 department stores. And, of course, of about 100 Jews killed during the pogrom.

 

Night of the Long Knives (6)

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At about 04:30 on June 30, 1934, Hitler and his entourage flew to Munich. The night before was marked by almost regular by this time SA rampage on the streets of the Bavarian capital. The stormtroopers got away with all the previous ones – not surprising at all given that the chief of the Munich police August Schneidhuber was SA-Obergruppenführer (three-star general).

This time things played out very differently. From the airport Hitler and his associates they drove to the Bavarian Interior Ministry, where they assembled the SA leaders responsible for the rampage.

Enraged, Hitler tore the epaulets off the Schneidhuber’s uniform for failing to keep order in the city the previous night. A very much proper punishment, if you ask me. Hitler shouted at Schneidhuber and accused him of treachery (which in a way, it was).

On Hitler’s personal orders, Schneidhuber was executed later that day (now that was way over the top). As the SA leaders were placed under arrest (IMHO, the right decision given their “accomplishments” on the streets of Munich) and hustled off to the city jail, Hitler assembled a large group of SS and regular police (as Himmler was in charge of both, by that time there was little, if any, difference between the two), and departed for the Hanselbauer Hotel in Bad Wiessee, where Ernst Röhm and his followers were staying.

With Hitler’s arrival in Bad Wiessee between 06:00 and 07:00, the SA top brass, still in bed, were taken by surprise. Which proves beyond the reasonable doubt that none of them planned any coup – and thus Hitler’s actions were totally and completely illegal.

SS men entered the hotel, encountering no resistance (another proof that no coup was planned) and Hitler personally placed Röhm and other high-ranking SA leaders under arrest (another very much illegal action).

The SS found Breslau SA leader Edmund Heines in bed with an unidentified eighteen-year-old male SA officer. Hitler ordered both Heines and his partner taken outside the hotel and shot.

Which was another criminal act on Hitler’s part. While the infamous Paragraph 175 of German penal code made a homosexual act a criminal offense, the penalty was imprisonment and/or loss of civil rights, not death.

Goebbels emphasized this aspect in subsequent propaganda justifying the purge as a crackdown on moral depravity. Meanwhile, the SS arrested the other SA leaders as they left their train for the planned meeting with Röhm and Hitler.

Shortly afterwards, Hitler delivered a furious speech to the crowd of Party members and loyal stormtroopers. Consumed with range, he made totally unfounded accusations against the SA leaders, calling their actions “the worst treachery in world history” and labeling them as the “undisciplined and disobedient characters and asocial or diseased elements” that would be ruthlessly annihilated.

The crowd predictably shouted his approval (as did the Communists in Russia on similar occasions) and Hitler’s deputy Rudolf Hess, present among the assembled, even volunteered to personally shoot the “traitors”.

After the event was over, Joseph Goebbels, who had been with Hitler at Bad Wiessee, set the final phase of the Operation Hummingbird in motion. Upon returning to Berlin, Goebbels telephoned Göring at 10:00 with the code word Kolibri to let loose the SS death squads on the rest of their unsuspecting victims.

Göring passed the order to Sepp Dietrich (Commander of Leibstandarte SS Adolf Hitler regiment) instructing him to form an “execution squad” and go to Stadelheim prison in Munich (one of the largest prisons in Germany) where key SA leaders were being held.

There in the prison courtyard, the Leibstandarte firing squad shot five SA generals and an SA colonel. Those not immediately executed were taken to the Leibstandarte barracks at Lichterfelde (a district in Berlin), given one-minute “trials”, and promptly shot by the SS firing squad. Some SA members died saying “Heil Hitler” because they (incorrectly) believed that the plot by rogue SS members had led to their execution.

After taking care of the “SA business”, the SS death squads went after conservatives, Catholic politicians, Hitler’s personal enemies and others perceived to be potential threats and obstacles to his radical reengineering project.

The hit list included Vice-Chancellor Papen (who was ironically one of the key driving forces behind Hitler’s decision to launch Operation Hummingbird) and those in his immediate circle.

In Berlin, on Göring’s personal orders, an armed SS unit stormed the Vice-Chancellery (entered, actually, encountering no resistance). Gestapo officers attached to the SS unit unceremoniously shot the Chief of the Press Division in Papen’s office Herbert von Bose without bothering to arrest him first.

Hitler had more than serious reasons to get rid of the latter as von Bose not only formed a pocket of resistance against the National Socialist system that was later referred to as “the vanguard of conservative resistance”, but was actively plotting to overthrow the Nazi regime. That was not something that Hitler would tolerate.

SS death squads arrested and later executed Papen’s close associate Edgar Jung, the author of Papen’s now famous “Marburg speech” (which ironically was one of the events that pushed Hitler to go after his political enemies), and disposed of his body by unceremoniously dumping it in a ditch.

Then they murdered Erich Klausener, the leader of Catholic Action, and a close Papen associate. Papen was no less unceremoniously arrested at the Vice-Chancellery, despite his insistent (and legally incorrect) protests that he could not be arrested in his position as Vice-Chancellor.

Although Hitler ordered him released days later, Papen’s political career was effectively over. He no longer dared to criticize the Nazi regime and was soon sent off to Vienna as German ambassador (with little, if any, political power).

Then Hitler and Himmler unleashed the Gestapo against Hitler’s personal enemies, Kurt von Schleicher, Hitler’s predecessor as Chancellor, was murdered in his home together with his wife who just happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time.

Other prominent victims included Gregor Strasser, a former Nazi who had formed an opposition to Hitler within the Nazi party, and Gustav Ritter von Kahr, the former Bavarian state commissioner who ruthlessly crushed the Beer Hall Putsch ten years earlier. Kahr’s fate was especially gruesome. His body was found in a wood outside Munich; he had been hacked to death, apparently with pickaxes.

A separate category of victims consisted of the leaders of then already disbanded Catholic Centre Party (Zentrum). The Zentrum , though critical of Nazi ideology (not exactly compatible with Catholicism), but nonetheless voted for the infamous Enabling Act of 1933 which granted Hitler dictatorial authority. Big mistake on their part.

Ernst Röhm was held briefly at Stadelheim Prison in Munich, while Hitler decided what to do with him. Finally, he made the decision and chose Theodor Eicke (Commandant of the Dachau concentration camp), and his adjutant Michel Lippert to deliver it to the SA commander (officially, the SA Chief of Staff).

They entered Röhm’s cell, and handed him a pistol loaded with a single bullet informing him that he had ten minutes to kill himself or they would do it for him. Röhm flatly refused to commit suicide, saying that “If I am to be killed, let Adolf do it himself.”

Having heard nothing in the allotted time, they returned to Röhm’s cell at 14:50 to find him standing, with his bare chest puffed out in a gesture of defiance (Röhm could have been many things but he was definitely not a coward). Eicke and Lippert then shot Röhm, killing him instantly.

Night of the Long Knives (5)

Himmler-Roem

Apparently, Röhm’s concept of honor allowed him to break promises made publicly (and supposedly solemnly) to his boss and formally the closest comrade-in-arms. It was clear that he still clung to his vision of a new German army with the SA at its core (the pledge to Hitler, the government and the Reichswehr be damned).

To add insult to injury (and to make things innumerably worse for him), Röhm was the only Nazi leader who publicly demonstrated his independence from Adolf Hitler thus publicly rejecting the all-important for the latter (and for most of his followers) Führerprinzip.

As well as the open contempt for the party (and state) bureaucracy that Hitler view as a vitally important tool in his reengineering project (and subsequent operation of his Führerstaat).

To make things even worse, Röhm’s SA was not only the most numerically strong paramilitary force (boasting 3,000,000+ members), but it was potentially far better armed than even the Army (let alone police).

Röhm was an expert in hiding even the heavy artillery from the Allied investigators so God only knew which kind of military hardware he was able to issue to his stormtroopers if (or when) needed.

Hence, it was not just Reichswehr and conservatives that viewed the SA as an existential threat. Several of Hitler’s closed lieutenants feared Röhm’s growing power, violence and restlessness – as did Hitler himself.

However, there were others (Hitler’s opponents and competitors, to be more precise) who were willing to go to really great lengths to use the SA (and Röhm personally) to achieve their highly ambitious political objectives.

One of them was, not surprisingly, General der Infanterie (equivalent to three-star general in the US Army) Kurt von Schleicher – a former Reich Chancellor who was forced out of politics after the Nazis seized power in Germany in 1933.

He apparently plotted to convince Reich President von Hindenburg to radically restructure Hitler’s cabinet replacing the Vice Chancellor von Papen with von Schleicher (who in time would replace Hitler as Reich Chancellor). And… replace von Blomberg as Defense Minister with… Ernst Röhm.

Given that von Hindenburg could not stand Röhm (hated his guts, actually), it was a very, very stupid idea. And the decision by some of Schleicher’s followers such as General Ferdinand von Bredow and Werner von Alvensleben to pass along lists of a new Hitler Cabinet (where the arch-enemy of the latter Gregor Strasser was listed as a new Minister of National Economy) was ten times more stupid.

Not surprisingly, von Bredow became one of the victims of Operation Hummingbird. Von Alvensleben was spared for some unknown reason but spent several months in prison and then was confined to his native village of Neugattersleben until it was liberated by the Allies in 1945.

Security of the plot was non-existent and Heydrich’s SD worked very efficiently so Adolf Hitler received the copy of this list in no time. Although initially he was reluctant to go after Röhm (given the military power of the SA), this was the threat that could not have been ignored. Actually, it was more than just a threat – it had look, feel and threat of a full-blown political crisis in the making.

However, the first to take concrete tangible action were (not surprisingly), Hermann Göring transferred control of the Gestapo to Himmler, who, promptly named his deputy Reinhard Heydrich (head of the Party intelligence service) chief of the Gestapo.

Having their own vested interest in doing away with Röhm and severely limiting the power of the SA (both Himmler and Heydrich wanted to make the SS the only Nazi paramilitary force), they immediately started working on a “hit list”.

The list was compiled in no time and predictably shared with top Reichswehr commanders (no mass murder could have been committed in Germany at that time without the consent of the Army).

At the end of May of 1934 two former Chancellors, Heinrich Brüning and Kurt von Schleicher, received warnings from their friends in the Reichswehr that their lives were in danger and they should immediately leave Germany at once.

Brüning was the smart one so he fled to the Netherlands right then and there (in the very beginning of June). Schleicher was the stupid one so he dismissed the tip-off as a “bad joke”. Unfortunately for him, it was no joke – and he paid for his stupidity and arrogance with his life (and the life of his wife).

By the beginning of June of 1934 everything was set and all that was needed to launch Operation Hummingbird was the green light from Hitler. However, Der Führer was still undecided and uncertain about just what precisely he wanted to do, when and how when he left for Venice to meet Benito Mussolini on June 15.

Before Hitler left, and at the request of Presidential State Secretary Otto Meißner (who most likely acted on orders from his boss von Hindenburg), Foreign Minister Baron Konstantin von Neurath ordered the German Ambassador to Italy Ulrich von Hassell to ask Mussolini on his behalf (von Neurath was a former ambassador to Italy, and knew Mussolini well) to tell Hitler that the SA was blackening Germany’s good name. Obviously, Hitler was not informed about this request.

Mussolini who had his own reasons to protect the image of Nazi Germany abroad (he wanted to enter into a strategic partnership with Hitler) readily agreed. During the summit in Venice, Mussolini upbraided Hitler for tolerating the violence, hooliganism, and homosexuality of the SA, which Mussolini stated were ruining Hitler’s good reputation all over the world. While Mussolini’s criticism did not win Hitler over to acting against the SA, it helped push him in that direction.

Another push came (not surprisingly) from Vice Chancellor Franz von Papen (a confidant of the ailing Hindenburg, among other things). On June 17, 1934, he delivered a now-famous speech at Marburg University warning of the threat of a “second revolution” in Germany. in other words, of a takeover of the government (and of the country) by the SA – with catastrophic consequences for “all of the above”.

According to his memoirs, von Papen, a conservative Catholic aristocrat with close ties to army and big business, privately threatened to resign if Hitler did not act against the stormtroopers – and do it quickly, decisively and ruthlessly.

While von Papen’s resignation as vice-chancellor would not have threatened Hitler’s position, it would have nonetheless been an embarrassing display of independence by a leading conservative political partner of the Nazis.

But the final push that doomed the brownshirts came from Hindenburg himself. The Reich President essentially issued an ultimatum to his Reich Chancellor: either the latter takes care of the “SA Problem”, or von Hindenburg will do it himself – by dismissing Hitler from his post, declaring the martial law and handing the full executive power in Germany to Reichswehr.

Hitler had hesitated for months in moving against Röhm, in part due to Röhm’s visibility as the leader of a well-armed national militia with millions of members and in part because the SA made up a large part of Nazism’s most devoted followers.

However, this ultimatum forced him to act because von Hindenburg was the only person in Germany with the authority and the ability to depose the Nazi regime (and Adolf Hitler himself).

So the latter had no other choice but to leave for presidential residence in Neudeck (now a village in northern Poland). Defense Minister von Blomberg, who had been present at a meeting with the Reich President, used this rare opportunity to uncharacteristically reproach Hitler for not having moved against Röhm earlier and thus wasting so much valuable time.

The combined pressure from Hindenburg and Blomberg finally forced Hitler to go against Röhm and the SA in full force. However, in the end Der Führer outsmarted and outfoxed both of them (as well as other conservative and Reichswehr generals).

He left Neudeck with the firm intention of doing away with all his opponents – not only the SA leaders, but also with the conservatives, political Catholics and his personal enemies (first and foremost, with those who wronged him).

Not surprisingly, both Himmler and Göring welcomed Hitler’s decision, since both had much to gain by Röhm’s downfall – the independence of the SS for Himmler, and the removal of threat to the Prussian police (and the law and order in Prussia in general) for Göring.

It as no surprise either that Adolf Hitler entrusted the two abovementioned individuals (his closest lieutenants) with preparation and execution of what will ultimately become Operation Hummingbird (now commonly known as The Night of the Long Knives).

In preparation for the mass murder (let’s call a spade a spade), Himmler and Heydrich, chief of the SD and Gestapo, manufactured convincing evidence that ostensibly proved that Röhm had been paid 12 million Reichsmark by France (the known arch-enemy of Germany) to use the SA to overthrow Hitler’s government.

Which according to a criminal law of any country was high treason – plain and simple. And at that time, the customary punishment for high treason was death. Leading officers in the SS were shown this “evidence” on June 24. It did not make any difference, however because just about every member of the SS was eager to get rid of their rivals from the SS and tom achieve much-coveted and much-valued independence.

Acting on Hitler’s orders, Göring, Himmler, Heydrich, and Victor Lutze (a fiercely loyal to Adolf Hitler SA-Obergruppenführer, police president of Hanover and its provincial governor and state counselor) put together a list of individuals (SA leaders, conservatives, Catholic politicians, personal enemies of Adolf Hitler) to be physically liquidated.

Interestingly enough, one of the men Göring recruited to assist him in this endeavor was one Willi Lehmann, an SS officer and Gestapo official… and the only known Soviet spy in the Nazi security system.

There was, however, one more issue to take care of – obtaining the explicit support of the Reichswehr. Not surprisingly, it was obtained easily and effortlessly as the Reichswehr brass were more than anxious to get rid of the troublesome SA leaders.

On June 25th, Generaloberst (four-star general) Werner von Fritsch (then commander-in-chief of the German Army) placed the Reichswehr on the highest level of alert – to support the SS death squads if something goes seriously wrong with Operation Hummingbird.

On June 27th, Defense Minister von Blomberg and General Walther von Reichenau (then the Reichswehr liaison to the Nazi party, expelled Ernst Röhm from the German Officers’ League, showing loud and clear where their loyalties were.

On June 28th, Hitler went to Essen to attend a wedding celebration and reception; from there he called Röhm’s adjutant at Bad Wiessee (a Bavarian spa town about 50km from Munich) and ordered SA leaders to meet with him on June 30 at 11pm. It was a trap which the SA totally and completely failed to see.

On June 29th, a signed article in Völkischer Beobachter by Blomberg appeared in which Blomberg stated with great fervor (which was no surprise given von Blomberg admiration for Hitler) that the Reichswehr fully, totally and completely stood behind Adolf Hitler.

The massacre started in the morning of the next day.

Night of the Long Knives (4)

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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.

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.

Night of the Long Knives (1)

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Nacht der langen Messer (the Night of the Long Knives) officially called by its perpetrators Unternehmen Kolibri (Operation Hummingbird) was a series of political extrajudicial (i.e. illegal) executions ordered by Adolf Hitler and carried out by the SS (paramilitary organization within NSDAP), Gestapo (political police of the German state) and Göring’s personal police battalion (ditto) from June 30 to July 2, 1934. For all practical purposes, it was a totally and completely illegal mass murder.

The Night of the Long Knives is often referred to as “the Röhm Purge” or “the SA Purge”. Which is not exactly correct as Ernst Röhm and other SA leaders murdered during Unternehmen Kolibri were not the only victims of this massacre.

In addition to their SA rivals, the SS and Gestapo (by that time already controlled by the SS) murdered leading members of the left-leaning “Strasser faction” of the Nazi Party, including its figurehead, Gregor Strasser, and several prominent conservatives and anti-Nazis, such as former Chancellor Kurt von Schleicher and Bavarian politician Gustav Ritter von Kahr (who had suppressed Hitler’s Munich Beer Hall Putsch in 1923).

In addition, more than 1,000 individuals deemed by the Nazis to be a threat to their regime, were arrested and sent to concentration camps without trial (which was legal due to the infamous Reichstag Fire Decree).

Hence the legal definition of this crime was twofold: (mass) murder and conspiracy to commit murder. A substantial number of individuals who did not actually commit murders could have been charged with either felony murder (being present at the time and place of the murder) or at least accessory to murder.

Actions committed by the abovementioned perpetrators were illegal (i.e. criminal) according to German law in effect at that time because even if Röhm and other SA leaders planned a coup (and they did not) against Adolf Hitler and Nazi government (both legit at the time), there still was a legal due process to be followed to deal with them.

Nazis did not follow this due process and executed their victims without trial thus committing a crime. And a capital crime at that.

Concerned with presenting the massacre as legally sanctioned, Hitler had his cabinet approve a measure on July 3 that declared:

“The measures taken on June 30, July 1 and 2 to suppress treasonous assaults are legal as acts of self-defense by the State.”

Reich Justice Minister Franz Gürtner, a conservative who had been Bavarian Justice Minister in the years of the Weimar Republic, demonstrated his loyalty to the new regime by drafting the statute, which on the surface added a legal veneer to the purge.

Signed into law by Hitler, Gürtner, and Minister of the Interior Wilhelm Frick, the “Law Regarding Measures of State Self-Defense” retroactively legalized the murders committed during the purge. Which was illegal – plain and simple as laws (especially those that legalize mass murder) can not be applied retroactively.

And even if they could as there were no “treasonous assaults” (even planned, let alone committed), the whole Operation Hummingbird was totally and completely illegal (i.e. was a heinous crime).

Officially, the Nazis admitted to murdering 83 individuals – the SA leaders and Hitler’s actual, potential or perceived political opponents (or just “political undesirables” which included several Jews).

The unofficial estimates run from 89 to a whopping 1,000. However, most historians agree that the total number of victims does not exceed a hundred. For comparison – during the Great Purge of 1937-38 Stalin’s mass murdered killed ten times that every day.

Crushing the Opposition to the Nazis

SABy itself, elimination of political opposition by the leaders of the country committed to making a Quantensprung of the magnitude that the Third Reich had to make, is not a crime.

It is actually a necessity as country leaders are facing problems and challenges of such an enormous magnitude that they simply can not afford any opposition. Hence it is no surprise that no quantum leap of a comparable scale (comparable to Nazi Germany that is) was achieved in a democracy.

It has been achieved by either a ruthless dictatorship (Soviet Union – twice, Nazi Germany, China, South Korea, Taiwan, etc.) or under occupation administration (post-WW2 Germany and Japan).

Democracy works (sometimes well, sometimes not so much) during periods of stability; in the times of a severe crisis (especially existential crisis) it can be outright deadly. During those times only the ruthless dictatorship can save the nation in question. In other words, to prevent the country from being destroyed, one must destroy the opposition.

Using the optimal tools and methods. Including deportation and even internment (under house arrest, in jail or even in a concentration camp) of leaders of opposition and other individuals deemed by the security agencies to be a threat to the Quantensprung. And unlike in the democratic environment, during the times of crisis it is far better to “over-detain” than to “under-detain”.

Consequently, annihilation of the opposition by the Nazis was criminal (although nowhere as criminal as the one committed by Stalin and his henchmen at exactly the same time) not because of their objective (which was absolutely necessary for the very survival of Germany), but because of the tools and methods that were used. Tools and methods that were far more brutal, murderous and criminal than necessary.

I will cover in sufficient detail the whole Nazi project of eliminating the opposition (including the infamous Night of the Long Knives) in the chapter devoted to Hitler’s crimes. In this section I will only briefly cover the four key tools used by the Nazis – the Sturmabteilung (SA) paramilitaries, secret political police (Gestapo), detention centers (concentration camps) and special political courts (Sondergerichte).

Contrary to a popular misconception, in just about all their peacetime endeavors (with the exception of those related to their “racial” and “Jewish” questions) were highly pragmatic.

Consequently, they understood that (a) positive motivation was far more powerful than the negative one; and (b) an ounce of prevention (of anti-Nazi activities) is far more valuable than a ton of punishment.

Hence in their management of their German subject they put emphasis on positive stimuli (i.e. on propaganda and actually caring for the German people by identifying their needs) rather than on a negative one (fear of being punished by the Nazis).

And the fundamental objective of their political repression system was to prevent anti-Nazi activities from happening in the first place rather than to punish the “wrongdoers”.

Consequently, the primary function of the SA (until they were relegated to political oblivion in July 1934), Gestapo, concentration camps and special courts was intimidation, not punishment of actual or potential political opponents.

Historians generally agree that these instruments of intimidation (especially the much-feared Sondergerichte) performed their functions very well and had a strong deterrent effect against active opposition to the Nazis. The latter appears to be was sufficiently intimidated through psychological terror to refrain from active (or even passive) resistance to the Nazis.

The Sturmabteilung (SA) was the only “terror and intimidation” tool (and a very efficient one at that) used by the Nazis prior to their acquisition of absolute power in the end March of 1933.

Nazi stormtroopers beat up their political opponents; prevented, disrupted and dispersed meetings and rallies; attacked and destroyed the premises (headquarters and branches) of political parties; kidnapped and detained opposition activists (by the time Nazis came to power, the SA operated a vast network of illegal detention centers).

After the Nazis had obtained the absolute (plenary) powers in Germany after the Reichstag Fire Decree and especially the Enabling Act became laws, they no longer needed the SA to suppress the opposition. Now they had the whole law enforcement system of Germany (police, prosecutors, the courts and the penitentiary system) to do this job for them.

Actually, this was the primary reason for the spectacular fall of the SA in 1934 – they simply had nothing to do any more. Their last valuable contribution to Nazi cause was made weeks before the Enabling Act – just before the March 1933 elections (the last multi-party elections in a unified Germany until 1990).

The SA unleashed a nationwide campaign of violence against the Communists, Social Democrats, other left-wingers, trade unionists and even the centrists. Which, however, did not achieve the desired outcome – Nazis still got only 44% of the votes (still short of an absolute majority).

After the Night of the Long Knives when just about all SA leaders were either murdered or incarcerated, SA functions were reduced to just one – attacks on the Jews.

For over four years, the Brownshirts were the main perpetrators of anti-Jewish violence which culminated on the infamous Kristallnacht in November of 1938.

After the murder of German diplomat Ernst vom Rath on November 7th by Herschel Grynszpan (a Polish Jew), the SA were used for “spontaneous demonstrations” against this very much terrorist act (which, however, does not justify the subsequent pogrom at all).

In very violent riots, the stormtroopers shattered the glass storefronts of about 7,500 Jewish stores and businesses (hence the name Kristallnacht – “Crystal Night”) given to the events. Jewish homes were ransacked throughout Germany.

Members of the SA and SS (and a lot of “ordinary Germans” who participated in the event en masse) damaged and in many cases destroyed, about 200 synagogues (nearly all Germany had), dozens of Jewish cemeteries, more than 7,000 Jewish shops, and 29 department stores. Dozens of Jews were beaten to death and more than 30,000 Jewish men were arrested and taken to now very much legal concentration camps (just about all of them were soon released).

Thereafter, the SA predictably became overshadowed by the SS, and by 1939 had little (if any) remaining significance in the Nazi Party and in the Third Reich in general.