June 30, 1934. Adolf Hitler orchestrates the mass assassination of his political enemies, consolidating power at the helm of the Nazi Party. *** Get an exclusive NordPass deal plus 1 additional month for FREE at nordpass.com/historydaily
It’s June 30th, 1934; in a wealthy suburb on the outskirts of Berlin.
A housekeeper is washing the dishes in the kitchen of a large villa, when suddenly… she hears the distant growl of a car engine. The housekeeper looks through the window as a black Mercedes-Benz pulls through the front gates, its wheels crunching over the gravel driveway.
The housekeeper watches as four men wearing trench coats and fedoras climb out of the car and begin walking toward the house.
The housekeeper quickly turns off the tap. Then she unties her apron and rushes through the lobby.
She opens the front door and looks suspiciously at the men standing on the stoop. “Can I help you, gentlemen?” she asks. One of the men steps forward and removes his hat. He smiles at the housekeeper, but behind his round spectacles, his eyes contain no warmth. “Guten tag, fraulein” he says. “Is General von Schleicher home?”
The housekeeper hesitates. She knows her employer is in the nearby study, likely pouring over papers or talking on the phone. But she doesn’t remember him saying anything about guests. So she’s about to turn the men away. But then… she hears Schleicher’s voice drifting from the study. The men hear too and exchange glances.
They push past the housekeeper, stride through the lobby… and barge into Schleicher’s study. Schleicher stands from his desk annoyed at the intrusion. One of the men barks: “are you General von Schleicher?” Schleicher nods. But before he can utter a word of protest, the men reach inside their trench coats and pull out Luger pistols.
Schleicher falls back into his chair, blood oozing from two bullet wounds in his chest. And their mission complete, the assassins turn to head for the door. But at that moment… Schleicher’s wife steps into their path, her eyes wide with fear. The assassins don’t hesitate. They raise their pistols again…
The men stride through the foyer and leave through the front door.
The housekeeper watches – frozen with shock – as the Mercedes-Benz pulls away, its wheels throwing up a cloud of dust as it rounds a corner and vanishes from sight.
Soon, word of Schleicher’s death will reach the ears of the man who ordered the assassination. German Chancellor Adolf Hitler is pleased to learn that the Gestapo’s hit on Schleicher, one of his many political opponents, was a success. But Hitler’s terror doesn’t stop there. Over the course of the weekend, hundreds more high-ranking German officials will be assassinated. The murders are part of Hitler’s plan to purge the government of all potential rivals, and to clear a path to absolute and uncontested power; a scheme that began with a series of bloody killings known as The Night of the Long Knives beginning on June 30th, 1934.
From Noiser and Airship, I’m Lindsay Graham and this is History Daily.
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Today is June 30th, 1934: The Night of the Long Knives.
It’s February 27th, 1933 – over a year before the mass murder of Hitler’s opponents.
On a cold winter’s night in Berlin, a young man approaches the Reichstag building – the home of Germany’s parliament. A biting wind howls down the empty streets as the man, a Dutch bricklayer named Marinus van der Lubbe, slips unnoticed through an open side door. Marinus hurries through the maze of hallways, his shoulders hunched, and his hands thrust deep inside his pockets. When he reaches a meeting room, Marinus takes a breath, steadying his nerves. Then he steps aside and strikes a match.
And only moments later, the entire building is engulfed. Flames surge along corridors and leap through smashed windows, reducing the interior to a charred skeleton, and belching acrid black smoke over the city.
Drenched in sweat and his heart pounding, Marinus races through the burning building knowing that it could collapse at any moment. He needs to get out fast. But he can barely see through the smoke. He staggers forward, coughing violently, when a figure suddenly looms through the choking haze. It takes Marinus a moment to realize – with a sickening jolt of dread – that it’s a police officer. Marinus tries to run. But it’s too late. He is promptly placed under arrest for suspected arson.
Meanwhile, across the city, Adolf Hitler is having dinner with his propaganda minister, Joseph Goebbels. Their meal is interrupted by the telephone ringing. Hitler looks up from the table and scowls. He doesn’t like to be disturbed when he’s eating.
Last year, Hitler and his fledgling Nazi Party experienced a surge in popularity amidst rising dissatisfaction with Germany’s dire economic situation. Hitler exploited this discontent when he ran for president. On the campaign trail, Hitler promised to restore national pride and prosperity; he scapegoated Jews and communists for Germany’s problems. And he came very close to securing the presidency, losing narrowly to the incumbent, 84-year-old Paul von Hindenburg. But Hindenburg’s victory was hollow. His share of the vote had fallen dramatically, while Hitler’s had risen steeply. And in July, there was a further round of federal elections. The Nazi Party made significant gains, becoming the single largest party in parliament.
It’s clear which way the wind is blowing. President von Hindenburg is a relic of the past. Adolf Hitler and the Nazi Party are the future. So last month, in a bid to appease Hitler and contain his ambition, Hindenburg appointed Hitler as Chancellor – the second most powerful position in the German government, behind the President.
And with that, Hitler’s rise to power is almost complete; but he still isn’t satisfied. Despite being the largest single party in the Reichstag, the Nazis still don’t have an overall majority. The main opposition to the Nazis comes from the next two largest factions in parliament – the Social Democrats and the Communists. As long as these two parties remain in power, Hitler’s authoritarian aspirations are stymied.
But everything is about to change.
As the telephone rings in Goebbels’ apartment, the propaganda minister mumbles an apology to Hitler and dabs his mouth with a napkin, and goes to take the call. When he returns to the table, Goebbels’ complexion is gray. His voice trembles as he informs Hitler that the Reichstag building has fallen victim to an arson attack and that they must leave at once.
When Hitler and Goebbels arrive at the scene, the fire is still blazing. Hermann Göring – Hitler’s right-hand man – rushes up to the Nazi leader and exclaims: “Herr Chancellor, this is the work of Communists! One of the culprits has been arrested.” Goebbels asks who the culprit is. And Göring turns and fixes Goebbels with a resolute stare. After a pause, he replies: “We don’t know. But we will make him confess.”
Hitler doesn’t say anything. He stares into the roaring flames, deep in thought. Without looking away from the blaze, Hitler eventually says: “This is a sign from God. If this fire proves to be the Communists’ work, then nothing will stop us from crushing this parasite with an iron fist.”
Following a brief, brutal interrogation at the hands of the Gestapo – the Nazi secret police – Marinus van der Lubbe makes a full confession. He admits to starting the fire as a protest against the conditions of the German working class. He claims he acted alone. But Hitler chooses to believe that the crime is part of a wider Communist conspiracy. One year later, Marinus will be executed by guillotine at the age of twenty-four. His confession was extracted under torture and should not be taken as fact. To this day, the true cause of the Reichstag fire is uncertain.
What is certain is that Hitler swiftly turns the Reichstag fire to his advantage. Within hours, the leaders of the Communist Party have been rounded up and imprisoned. The following day, Hitler persuades President von Hindenburg to pass the Reichstag Fire Decree, a measure which purports to strengthen national security by stripping citizens of their civil liberties. The decree abolishes free speech and increases the authority of the Gestapo. One month later, the Nazis push through the Enabling Act, a law that gives Hitler authority to enact legislation without the approval of parliament.
By summer, over 100,000 Communists, Social Democrats, and trade union leaders have been arrested. In the space of only a few months, Hitler has transformed Germany from a democracy into a dictatorship. But Hitler’s authority is still not absolute. Soon, challenges to Hitler’s leadership will emerge – and not from the Communists, or from foreign enemies, but from inside his own party.
It’s February 28th, 1934; one year after the Reichstag fire.
Adolf Hitler is delivering a speech during a Nazi Party conference in Berlin. Hitler scrutinizes the faces of his deputies as he speaks, studying their expressions for signs of disobedience. Since becoming Chancellor last year, Hitler has gradually cemented his grip on power – banning rival parties, abolishing unions, and clamping down on free speech and the press.
But one obstacle to absolute power remains.
Hitler is concerned about the growing strength of the Nazi Party’s militia, the SA – also known as the Brownshirts. With its 3 million members, the SA has become increasingly powerful and unruly. Their jack-booted stormtroopers have developed a reputation for being disorderly, drunken thugs. And Hitler wants to project an image of Nazi Germany as a bastion of order and discipline. With the Brownshirts running amuck in the streets, Hitler feels his authority is being undermined.
The biggest problem of all is the SA’s chief-of-staff, Ernst Röhm. Röhm is an old friend of Hitler’s and one of the earliest members of the Nazi Party. And for a while, the pair were ideologically inseparable. Both wanted Germany to be strong militarily. But recently, their visions for the Fatherland have diverged. Röhm believes the SA should become Germany’s main military force, absorbing the much smaller Reichswehr – the regular German Army. But Hitler knows how unpopular the SA is among the German military high command and he doesn’t want to upset them. He still fears the Generals. They command more than enough men and weaponry to force him out of power. So Hitler called Röhm to this conference with other high-ranking Nazis and Army leaders, to lay down the law.
As Hitler makes his speech, he looks directly at Röhm who sits in the audience. Hitler stares Röhm down and declares that the SA will never be a military force in Germany, but will be limited to certain political functions. Röhm’s battle-scarred face remains stony as he reluctantly voices his compliance. Hitler is satisfied, believing he has muzzled the disobedient friend. But within days, word reaches Hitler that Röhm has been bad-mouthing him behind closed doors. According to an SA informant, Röhm called Hitler a ridiculous, disloyal man, incapable of leading. Among his loyal SA troops, Röhm begins promoting himself as the future of Nazi Germany. There are rumors of rebellion within the Nazi party.
But despite Röhm’s disobedience, Hitler does nothing. While his deputies encourage him to take decisive action, Hitler cannot bring himself to turn his back on a former ally.
So on June 4th, Hitler summons Röhm for a private meeting. The two old friends survey each other with distrust. Hitler tells Röhm that he does not look well. He orders him to take temporary sick leave at Bad Wiessee, a holiday resort in the Bavarian mountains. Hitler is stalling, hoping that with Röhm away, tensions will simmer down.
But his hopes will be in vain.
Two weeks later, the German vice-chancellor Franz von Papen delivers an address at the University of Marburg. Even though he serves in Hitler’s cabinet, Papen does not belong to the Nazi Party. He is a close ally of President von Hindenburg and a popular figure among moderate conservatives.
In his address, Papen criticizes the excesses of the Nazi regime – especially the disorderly, drunken behavior of the SA and its leader, Ernst Röhm. To loud roars from his crowd of supporters, Papen declares that Germany cannot “live in a continuous state of unrest”. In the eyes of conservatives like Papen, Röhm is both an embarrassment and a threat. And if Hitler won’t do anything about him, Papen says, then perhaps Germany would be better off in the hands of a different leader…
On June 21st, Hitler visits President von Hindenburg at his country estate. The ailing 86-year-old President sternly advises Hitler to do something about Röhm and restore order to Germany. Hitler knows he must listen to Hindenburg. The old man could use his presidential powers to have the Army oust Hitler from office. The pressure on Hitler to act is mounting, and by the time he leaves Hindenburg’s estate, his mind is made up.
Hitler turns to the leaders of the Nazi security forces: Heinrich Himmler, head of the SS, and Reinhard Heydrich, head of Gestapo. Hitler orders Himmler and Heydrich to assemble a dossier of fabricated evidence implicating Röhm in a plot to overthrow him. He also asks them to draw up a list of people to be killed: SA leaders, conservative politicians, and anybody who poses a threat to Hitler’s authority.
A few days later, Hitler will attend the wedding of a Nazi official. And amid clinking champagne flutes and swooping trays of canapés, Hitler will smile and chat politely. The purpose of his appearance is to present the illusion of calm; he'll try to create the impression that all is well inside the Nazi Party. But in reality, a fateful plan is about to be set in motion, a bloody purge, that will cleanse Germany of anyone who might stand in Hitler’s way.
It’s the early hours of the morning of June 30th, 1934.
A convoy of black cars slowly approaches a hotel on the shores of the Tegernsee, a lake in the Bavarian Alps. In the backseat of one of the cars, Adolf Hitler straightens his leather gloves. Then he reaches inside his holster and pulls out a pistol.
Two days ago, Hitler phoned Ernst Röhm and instructed him to assemble a meeting of SA leaders here at the holiday resort of Bad Wiessee. Röhm promptly did so. His deputies arrived at the hotel and spent the night drunkenly carousing – oblivious to their fate.
Now Hitler strides down the corridor to the room where Röhm is sleeping. He pounds on the door with his gloved fist. Moments later, the door opens. Röhm stands there half-dressed, his eyes bleary with sleep. Hitler confronts Röhm with the dossier of falsified evidence, calling him a criminal and a traitor. And finally, Hitler points his gun at his old friend and says: “Ernst, you are under arrest.” Throughout the hotel, SS agents begin kicking down doors, and dragging SA officers from their beds.
With Röhm arrested, Hitler returns to Nazi Party headquarters in Munich. Meanwhile, his propaganda minister, Joseph Goebbels, telephones Hermann Göring in Berlin. Goebbels speaks the code word: Hummingbird, setting the purge in motion.
Armed with their lists of targets, the Gestapo hit squads begin knocking on doors, murdering anyone deemed to be an obstacle to Hitler’s supremacy. On the list of political adversaries – like the former Chancellor, Kurt von Schleicher; and the former Bavarian state commissioner, Gustav Ritter von Kahr. Von Kahr’s murder is especially gruesome; his body will be discovered days later in a wood outside Munich, hacked to death by a pick-axe.
Over the course of the next three days, at least 200 prominent German officials are massacred. On July 1st, an SS officer visits Röhm in prison, presents him with a loaded pistol, and orders him to commit suicide. Röhm refuses, saying “if I am to be killed, let Adolf do it himself.” Later that day, the SS officer shoots him dead.
Following the Night of the Long Knives – as these three days of bloodshed will come to be known – Hitler’s path to uncontested power is assured. Within two months, President Hindenburg will die of lung cancer, and all his presidential powers will transfer to Hitler, along with a new title: the Leader; or in German, Führer.
And soon, Hitler will lead Germany down a dark path toward war and genocide; his ambition unbridled; his authority unchecked; an outcome that was set in motion following the Night of the Long Knives, which began on this day, June 30th, 1934.
Next on History Daily. July 1st, 1863. Confederate troops engage with their Union adversaries outside of Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, setting off one of the bloodiest and most important battles of the American Civil War.
From Noiser and Airship, this is History Daily, hosted, edited, and executive produced by me, Lindsay Graham.
Audio editing and sound design by Derek Behrens.
Music by Lindsay Graham.
This episode is written and researched by Joe Viner.
Executive Producers are Steven Walters for Airship, and Pascal Hughes for Noiser