The Röhm Affair begins; A Three-Day "Legal" Purge of "Internal Nazi Threats"
On This Day in Jewish History: June 30, 1934
On this day in 1934, the Röhm Affair began, a three-day purge carried out under orders from Adolf Hitler to remove any leadership threat posed by high-ranking members of the Sturmabteilung, commonly known as the SA.
The SA was a Nazi paramilitary organization whose leader Ernst Röhm was a supporter of Hitler. For over a decade, the SA, also known as the Brownshirts, had carried out violent assaults against Hitler’s enemies, especially the communists. However, by 1934, Röhm and his followers were dissatisfied with Hitler’s plans for reform, believing they fell short of dismantling economic elites. Furthermore, the SA’s violent tactics, including street violence, were opposed by the high command of the German military or Reichswehr, as were any efforts by Röhm to merge his organization with and take command over the military. To General Werner Von Blomberg, Röhm and his Brownshirts were low-class thugs and any effort by Röhm to be named Minister of Defense was an affront to the reputation of the German military. Hitler’s long-standing allies inside the Nazi Party—Herman Goring, Joseph Goebbels and Heinrich Himmler—all saw Röhm as a threat, despite Röhm’s long-tenure in the Party. Increasingly pressured to purge Röhm, Hitler finally decided that consolidating his power and guaranteeing the support of the military hinged on Röhm’s elimination.
But what came to be called “Night of the Long Knives” went beyond the execution, without trial, of Röhm. Estimates of those killed during the three-day purge rage between 85 and several hundred and hundreds more were arrested. The purge began on June 30 in Munich and was carried out by Hitler’s SS and local police under their direction. Hitler himself took part in ordering arrests and executions, including SA officers accused of violating moral laws through homosexual conduct. Over the next two days SA officers who had been arrested and imprisoned were shot by firing squads. Hitler told the German people as a Munich rally that a traitorous group was being eliminated.
At Himmler’s direction, the Gestapo also carried out executions of the other conservatives within the German government that Hitler either suspected of thin loyalty or against whom he held long-term grudges.
In addition to the consolidation of Hitler’s power, the Röhm Affair illustrated the willingness of the German courts to ratify extra-legal acts or to retroactively define acts of political violence as legal. The Röhm Purge also lends insight into the complex politics of German affairs at the dawn of Hitler’s rise and the ruthless means by which he and his closest allies achieved total loyalty and absolute power.