Adolf Hitler’s violent purge of his political rivals in Germany, begins on this day in 1934.
The Night of the Long Knives, sometimes called Operation Hummingbird or, in Germany, the Röhm Putsch, or sometimes mockingly Reichsmordwoche (Reich Murder Week), took place in Nazi Germany from 30 June to 2 July 1934, when the Nazi regime carried out a series of political extra-judicial executions. Leading members of the left-wing Strasserist faction of the Nazi Party (NSDAP), along with its figurehead, Gregor Strasser, were killed, as were prominent conservative anti-Nazis (such as former Chancellor Kurt von Schleicher and Gustav Ritter von Kahr, who had suppressed Adolf Hitler’s Beer Hall Putsch in 1923). Many of those killed were leaders of the Sturmabteilung (SA), the paramilitary Brownshirts.
Hitler moved against the SA and its leader, Ernst Röhm because he saw the independence of the SA and the penchant of its members for street violence as a direct threat to his newly gained political power. Hitler also wanted to conciliate leaders of the Reichswehr, the official German military who feared and despised the SA—in particular Röhm’s ambition to absorb the Reichswehr into the SA under his own leadership. Additionally, Hitler was uncomfortable with Röhm’s outspoken support for a “second revolution” to redistribute wealth (in Röhm’s view, President Hindenburg’s appointing of Hitler as German Chancellor on 30 January 1933 had accomplished the “nationalistic” revolution but had left unfulfilled the “socialistic” motive in National Socialism). Finally, Hitler used the purge to attack or eliminate critics of his new regime, especially those loyal to Vice-Chancellor Franz von Papen, as well as to settle scores with old enemies.
At least 85 people died during the purge, although the final death toll may have been in the hundreds, and more than a thousand perceived opponents were arrested. Most of the killings were carried out by the Schutzstaffel (SS) and the Gestapo (Geheime Staatspolizei), the regime’s secret police. The purge strengthened and consolidated the support of the Reichswehr for Hitler. It also provided a legal grounding for the Nazi regime, as the German courts and cabinet quickly swept aside centuries of legal prohibition against extra-judicial killings to demonstrate their loyalty to the regime. The Night of the Long Knives was a turning point for the German government. It established Hitler as “the supreme judge of the German people,” as he put it in his 13 July 1934 speech to the Reichstag.
Before its execution, its planners sometimes referred to it as Hummingbird (German: Kolibri), the code-word used to send the execution squads into action on the day of the purge. The code-name for the operation appears to have been chosen arbitrarily. The phrase “Night of the Long Knives” in the German language predates the massacre itself and refers generally to acts of vengeance. Germans still use the term Röhm-Putsch to describe the murders, the term given to it by the Nazi regime, despite its unproven implication that the murders were necessary to prevent a coup. German authors often use quotation marks or write about the sogenannter Röhm-Putsch (“so-called Röhm Putsch”) for emphasis.
The New York Times, in an article published the next day, stated that Hitler had acted to crush a revolt and that Röhm had committed suicide.