Between June 30 and July 2, 1934, Nazi Party leadership purged the leadership of the Nazi paramilitary formation, the Sturmabteilung (Storm Troopers; SA). Nazi Party Leader and Reich Chancellor Adolf Hitler had ordered the purge. The Nazi leaders took advantage of the purge to kill other political enemies. Primarily, they targeted those on the German nationalist right. The purge is known as the “Night of the Long Knives” or “Operation Hummingbird.” These murders cemented an agreement between the Nazi Regime and the German army (Reichswehr). This enabled Hitler to proclaim himself Führer of National Socialist Germany and to claim absolute power.

Background to the Purge 

The SA was led by Ernst Röhm, the SA Chief of Staff and a longtime friend of Hitler’s. By June 1934, the SA had expanded to a force of nearly three million men. It significantly outnumbered the German army. The Treaty of Versailles (1919), signed in the aftermath of World War I, had limited the German army to 100,000 men. The SA had provided an intimidating and often violent presence as the Nazi Party rose to power during the 1920s and 1930s. After Adolf Hitler became chancellor in 1933, many political leaders, including President Paul von Hindenburg and Vice-Chancellor Franz von Papen, feared that the SA had become too powerful. 

The SA continued to provide key support to the Nazi regime as it consolidated its power into a dictatorship in 1933. However, the SA leadership had demands to “finish” the Nazi revolution. This behavior became a source of embarrassment and discomfort for Hitler in his dealings with the traditional German nationalist elites. The SA leadership sought to remove the elites from power and replace them with fanatical Nazis. However, Hitler, Nazi Party leadership, and the leadership of the SS (at the time a formation of the SA) understood that the Nazi regime needed to work with the traditional elites. They would need their support to consolidate power and prepare the nation for a war of expansion. 

The SA was not satisfied with what its leaders perceived to be a slowing pace of the Nazi revolution. By the late winter and spring of 1934, their outlook threatened to split the Nazi-Nationalist coalition. SA leaders held ambitions to replace the officer corps of the Reichswehr and the professional army with a “People’s Army.” Such a goal became a threat to the Nazi regime itself. Army leaders responded by demanding the elimination of the SA as a condition for permitting the Nazi government to remain in power. Further, Röhm and his top commandants had lost the confidence of other key Nazi leaders, including Prussian Prime Minister Hermann Göring, Deputy Nazi Party Chief Rudolf Hess, and the SS leadership, Heinrich Himmler and Reinhard Heydrich.   

As early as April 1934, Himmler and Heydrich began to conspire with Göring to persuade Hitler to eliminate Röhm. In mid-1934, they planted rumors and evidence that Röhm was planning to overthrow the regime. Meanwhile, President von Hindenburg, the leadership of the Reichswehr, and Hitler’s conservative coalition partners, including Vice-Chancellor von Papen, issued warnings about the increasingly radical Nazi regime. If the “revolutionary elements” of the Nazi regime were not brought under control, the army leaders threatened to overthrow the Hitler government and place the country under martial law. 

Despite radical rhetoric, neither Röhm nor his top commanders ever planned to seize power in Germany. Hitler was well aware of this and he considered Röhm one of his few friends. He procrastinated over the decision. Tension, meanwhile, increased towards the end of spring 1934. The plot against Röhm took on a more defined shape.

On June 17, Vice-Chancellor von Papen gave a speech at the University Marburg. He was highly critical of the Nazi failure to maintain the rule of law. He seemed to focus Nationalist opposition to the regime. Hitler decided during the last week of June to eliminate the top SA leadership. He did so partly to forestall the formation of nationalist opposition. Primarily, however, he sought to maintain the professional army. He had incorporated the army into his plan for rearmament and military expansion.   

The Purge

Hitler tasked Himmler and the SS with carrying out the purge. On June 28, Hitler ordered Röhm to assemble the top SA leaders at a Bavarian spa in Bad Wiessee. SS units, commanded by Dachau concentration camp commandant Theodor Eicke, surprised the SA leaders on the morning of June 30. They transported them to Munich’s Stadelheim prison. There, SS men shot most of the SA leaders. Hitler remained indecisive about Röhm’s fate until July 1. On that day—on Hitler’s order—Eicke shot Röhm in his cell. All evidence suggests that Röhm was loyal to Hitler until the very end, despite Nazi claims otherwise.

The SS murdered the top SA leaders both in Munich and around the country. It also took the opportunity to eliminate several other political opponents. They mostly targeted right-wing nationalists, as well as former supporters whom they believed betrayed the Nazis. Among those the SS killed between June 30 and July 2 were: 

  • Ernst Röhm, SA Chief of Staff 
  • Reichswehr General Kurt von Schleicher, Hitler’s predecessor as Reich Chancellor, as well as General von Schleicher’s wife
  • Major General Ferdinand von Bredow, Schleicher's friend and collaborator
  • Gustav von Kahr, the Bavarian chief of state who had refused in 1923 to support Hitler's Beer Hall Putsch
  • Gregor Strasser, a former Nazi leader who had sought in the winter of 1932 to reach an electoral agreement with then Chancellor von Schleicher that would have barred Hitler from rising to power      

In addition, the SS targeted von Papen, who barely managed to escape. They killed two of his aides, Edgar Jung and Herbert von Bose. In all, scholars have identified by name 90 persons killed in the Röhm Purge. The actual total is probably around 100 persons. The police took more than 1,100 persons into protective custody, including many SA officers. 

Actions after the Purge

On July 3, the Reich Cabinet issued a law legalizing the murders after the fact as an emergency action to save the nation. On July 13, 1934, Hitler addressed the Reichstag. He explained that, as supreme ruler of Germany, he had exercised his power against those who threatened the existence of the German nation. 

Reich Propaganda Minister Joseph Goebbels, who had belatedly joined the plot against Röhm, launched a propaganda campaign after the purge. He portrayed it as an effort to root out traitors who planned to overthrow the government and cause political chaos. Nazi Party leaders also referred to Röhm’s sexual orientation to justify the killings. The fact that Röhm was gay had been an open secret in the Nazi Party for years. After the purge, some leaders drew attention to Röhm’s sexuality as part of their efforts to condemn the SA leadership as morally corrupt, debauched, and degenerate. In the years that followed, the Nazis escalated their campaign against male homosexuality

Long-term Consequences of the Purge

The murder of the SA leadership had several important long-term consequences. First and foremost, it cemented an alliance between Hitler and the German army leadership. In return for Hitler purging the SA and prioritizing the needs of the professional army, military leaders supported Hitler in August 1934 when he took the last key step toward full dictatorial control.

The long-ailing President Paul von Hindenburg died on August 2, 1934. With the military’s approval, Hitler and his cabinet had prepared for this eventuality. They agreed to abolish the title of President and combine the offices of President and Chancellor. Hitler became Führer (leader) and Reich Chancellor of the German Reich. On August 19, 1934, a plebiscite vote confirmed this change. As Führer, Hitler’s authority was supreme in the German state. In emergency situations, his power would extend beyond the laws of the state. The military leaders subsequently wrote and swore a new oath to Hitler personally as the symbol of the future and destiny of Germany.  

Second, Hitler rewarded the SS for their loyalty and role in the purge. On July 20, 1934, he decreed the SS independent of the SA. This gave a distinct advantage to the SS in realizing its goal to gain control of the German police. During the second half of 1934, the SS assumed control of a centralized political police force and a centralized concentration camp system. By 1936–1937, Himmler would complete the consolidation of all German police forces under SS control.

Third, the Röhm Purge ended the role of the SA as a political player in the Nazi regime. The SA did continue to exist under Röhm’s successor, SA Chief of Staff Viktor Lutze. It also outnumbered other formations of the Nazi Party and engaged in murderous violence during Kristallnacht. However, the SA never recovered its political clout after the purge. 

Finally, the killings represented a vital watershed. The regime was prepared to commit murder as an act of state for the survival of the nation. This concept was not lost on key Nazi figures at the time. More than nine years later, Himmler gave his infamous speech to SS generals at Posen (Poznań) in German-occupied Poland on October 4, 1943. In this speech, often referred to as Himmler’s Posen speech, he addressed the issue of the so-called Final Solution. In introducing the topic, he explicitly referred to the SS role in the Röhm Purge as a reflection of the SS commitment to do whatever Hitler deemed necessary. He said:

“I wish to bring up to you in complete frankness a difficult chapter. We should be able to talk about it quite openly among ourselves, but we will never speak of this publicly. As little as we [the SS] hesitated on June 30 [1934] to carry out the task that we were ordered to perform and to stand comrades who had gone astray against the wall and shoot them, so little did we speak about that and [so little] will we speak about that [in the future]…. Every single one of us shuddered; nevertheless each of us understood clearly that he would do it the next time if it were ordered and if it were necessary. I mean here the evacuation of the Jews, the annihilation of the Jewish people.”