Assessment: Night of the Long Knives: Consolidation of Hitler's Power?

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Night of Long Knives

Summary of Evidence.

"The Night of the Long Knives" (also known as "Operation Hummingbird" or "Rohm-Putsch" in Germany) occurred on the days between June 30 and July 2, 1934, when the Nazi regime committed a series of political executions. The majority of those killed were members of the Sturm Abteilung (SA) (also known as the "brownshirts") as well as its most influential leader -- Ernst Rohm. Hitler also wanted to pacify Reichswehr leaders, the official German military who both feared and hated the SA -- especially Rohm's desire to merge the Reichswehr into the SA under his own leadership. Rohm had a lot of power as leader of the SA and he would have an inordinate amount of power if he ever decided that he wanted to get rid of Hitler and his party. Hitler knew this and he spent much time coming up with a plan for eliminating this threat. This is the story of the Night of the Long Knives. Hitler used this attack -- or "purge" as it is often called -- to get rid of those who critiqued his authority. At least 85 people were executed during the purge, although the ultimate death toll could have been in the hundreds, and more than a thousand arrests of the SA were made.

By 1934 it seemed that Hitler had absolute control over Germany, but like most dictators, he was constantly anxious over the potential of being ousted by those who wanted his power -- or wanted for someone else to have the power. In order to protect his position from a potential coup, Hitler had to use "divide and conquer" strategies and he encouraged other leaders like Goering, Gobbels, Himmler, and Rohm to compete with each other for senior positions. These men developed a very serious dislike for one another because of Hitler's machinations, but Hitler knew what he was doing. He was setting them all up for failure so that he could remain in absolute control.

Hitler initially liked Rohm and he was one of Hitler's very first supporters. Without Rohm's help in securing army funds in the early days of the regime, it is questionable as to whether the Nazis would have ever become established. The SA -- under the leadership of Rohm -- also played a very critical role in destroying the opposition during the elections of 1932 and 1933. Still, Hitler came to see that Rohm had to be removed because the SA had a force of over 3 million men and they could easily absorb the German Army into its ranks and Rohm would end up being the overall leader.

On June 29th, 1934, Hitler, along with the Schutzstaffel (SS), Hitler's personal bodyguard, went to Wiesse and personally arrested Rohm in his hotel room. Over the next 24 hours, 200 other senior SA officers were taken into Nazi custody on the way to Wiesse. Many were executed as soon as they were captured, but Hitler pardoned Rohm because of his past service to the Nazi movement. There was too much pressure from Himmler and Goering about Rohm needing to die. At first Hitler insisted that Rohm commit suicide, but Rohm refused and thus was shot by two SS men. The Night of the Long Knives was very important in securing Hitler's power because of his constant worry about being overthrown. If Hitler hadn't taken down Rohm and other key SA figures, it is nearly for certain that the course of the world would have been radically different.

Section C: Evaluation of Sources.

Richard J. Evans' book, The Third Reich in Power (2006), devotes much time to the events leading up to the Night of the Long Knives. Of particular interest, Evans discusses the importance of the power of the SA and how it dwarfed the size of the German Army. Not only that, but the SA was far better equipped and much better trained, according to Evans. Because the SA was led by Rohm, Hitler had good reason to be wary of the SA and what it could do to his regime had they ever decided to form a coup and take power away from him. This was one of the main reasons for Hitler's decision to initiate the purge that became known as the Night of the Knives.

Likewise, Paul R. Maracin's book, The Night of the Long Knives: Forty-Eight Hours That Change the History of the World (2007), notes how the purge that took place in June of 1934 did change the course of the world because by eliminating SA head, Ernst Rohm, and other enemies of the Nazi party, Hitler was able to "consolidate" his power. The book gives sufficient background to the events leading up to the purge as well as information about what happened after. Both are essential perspectives to know when making sense of Hitler's attack against the Rohm and the SA. Maracin is quite adept at showing the reader how Hitler went from a rather mediocre army corporal to becoming the orchestrator of some of the most heinous crimes in all of history. The transition from determined demagogue to vicious dictator happened on the Night of the Long Knives and Maracin illustrates this by putting together a very intricate puzzle of deceit and murder.

Section D: Analysis.

The Night of the Long Knives is perhaps one of the least known events in the history of Adolf Hitler's schemes, yet it is, arguably, the most important because it is the event that catapulted him from an ambitious and emotive dictator to the monster that the world came to know him as. The elements of the events leading up to the Night of the Long Knives are rather muddled as they were most likely intentionally obscured, according to Maracin. From the burning of the Reichstag -- Germany's parliament -- to Hermann Goring's arrest list containing the name and address of every one of Hitler's so-called "enemies," the steps all lead up to the night that Hitler burst into Ernst Rohm's hotel room with a gun. By eliminating Ernst Rohm, Hitler was taking the most important step towards his rise as the head of the Nazi party and Germany. If Hitler hadn't arrested and subsequently assassinated not only Rohm but also key members of the Nazi party, it is questionable as to whether or not he would have ever been able to commit the atrocities that he did in Europe.

Hitler decided to make the move against the SA and Rohm because he believed that the independence of the SA, its strength in numbers, and its incredible skill as an army was a direct threat to his authoritative power. Hitler was also threatened by the SA's gang-like behavior, as the SA was known for being a somewhat revolutionary type of force as well as gangster-esque in the fact that the extorted money from business owners and often showed off their wealth. Hitler could not have another presence like the SA if he was to continue with his plan to become a leader of Nazi Germany as he was very able to see that the strength that Rohm had with the SA was a major force to be reckoned with if they ever had reason or desire to stop Hitler and, undoubtedly, this would have happened at some point.

Hitler later justified his murders at the Nazi controlled Reichstag saying that he was responsible for the German people and therefore he was to be the supreme judge of the German people (History Place 1996). The Night of the Long Knives is indicative of the way that Hitler described the bloody purge: if a person should raise a hand to strike the State, then they would face certain death (1996). Hitler had placed himself far above… [END OF PREVIEW]

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