30th June 1934, part I: The Prologue.

In SA organisation, SS organisation on June 20, 2009 at 4:03 pm

SA organisation SS organisation

75 years ago, the last day of June 1934 began the bloody outro for the once powerful SA. During the following 72 hours, the SA leadership of Ernst Röhm and his following as a political power factor was thoroughly decapitated and its previous standing as the support pillar for the Hitler state ultimately shattered. It was at the same time the steady but initially indistinguishable beginning of the SS state. It can be said that the Blood purge became a watershed in the development of the SS, allowing it to finally establish an identity of its own and enjoy a special standing right up to the fall of the Third Reich.

The internal policy developments between the SA, the Reichswehr and the NSDAP following the Hitler’s ascension to power, ultimately leading to the Blood purge are thoroughly covered and I do not attempt to present any views differing from the most widely accepted theories.

The noteworthy turning points in these developments were the setting up of the Hilfspolizei (auxiliary police) in February 1934, leading to reluctant acceptance of the SA as a bearer of the state power. The Hilfspolizei phase opened the doors to the police machinery for the SA, which managed to install its members as Police presidents in almost every major town, closely connected to overall Gleischaltung proceedings. This was followed by the increasing independence of local SA figureheads, establishment of “wild” concentration camps, illegally armed staff guard units and appointment of special SA commissars to major corporations and municipal institutions to look after the interests of the Brownshirts.

To all this was added the massive expansion of the SA up to almost 4 million men during summer and fall 1933 by phased incorporation of the Stahlhelm and certain other paramilitary bodies. On one hand, this maneuver weakened the coherence of the SA but on the other, it won even more influence and presence to its highest echelons. Finally the Ausbildungswesen (AW) programme, initially began in rapport with the Reichswehr and intended to provide the army with means of acquiring “good human material” from the SA, mostly served to strengthen the SA’s illusion of itself as an all-encompassing domestic militia which could one day surpass the regular army. This view was welcome to many former officers now serving in the SA who saw their organization as the People’s army built on ideological basis. The seed of mutual distrust and bitterness between the Reichswehr and the SA began to formulate by late fall 1933.

The role of the SA was still recognized by Hitler in December 1933 by appointment of Röhm as a Reich minister without a portfolio, in par with Rudolf Hess, the Deputy of the Führer. This was seen as a gesture putting the party and the SA on the same level. Röhm however used his new symbolic state authority to enhance the standing of himself and his SA, speaking provocatively and acting all the more independently.

The Hitler state needed the SA but by spring 1934, it was more and more becoming a nuisance, a continuous source of worry, even a direct threat to power. While the SA went its own way and because of its endless ambition and hunger for power, distanced itself from the proximity of Hitler, Himmler and the SS – although still organizationally subjected to the SA Stabschef – distinguished themselves even more as the loyal alternative. Robert Koehl has presented that on the grassroots level, there was not much difference between an individual SA and SS man – for the SS, the SA was still the most important source of new members. The renowned and carefully crafted later image of the SS as the disciplined, conscious elite was still in the middle of formulating process. In the provinces, the SS of 1933 often took part in locally initiated acts of violence (a good example of this is the Eislebener Blutsonntag) and some local SS commanders showed exceptional independece in their actions, such as the Stettin Police president Engel who set up an unauthorized private concentration camp.

Nevertheless, Himmler and his SS leadership corps had their goals more aligned with those of Hitler and the Party and one of their qualities was to stay in the background and wait. The ability to better keep his men in line presented Himmler in a favourable light in comparision to his superior, whose outrageous private life and autocratic clique of SA high leaders mainly aroused aversion and distrust across the Party, still powerful conservative circles and the Reichswehr. Even though almost all of the senior SS officers shared more or less the same social background as the SA leaders, including extensive WWI and Freikorps past, they had modelled their minds according to the SS esprit-de-corps of a conscious elite in which Putsch-like mentality, short-sighted ambition and tendency to questionize had no place.

Most of the scholars nowadays agree that there was never going to be a full-scale “Second Revolution”, although preached by some in SA circles. All the careless moves and strong words of the SA leadership were now deliberately taken as preparations for the coup. Hitler was not the initiating force, almost everything was catered in front of him by the unlikely alliance of Göring (then the Minister President of Prussia and Reich Minister of Aviation), Wilhelm Frick (Reich Minister of the Interior), Walther von Reichenau (Head of the Ministerial Office at the Reichswehr Ministry) and Himmler. Both the SD and the Reichswehr intelligence selectively collected and most probably also fabricated some of the necessary evidence of suspicious SA activities. Only the ultimate decisions and direction of the final act was left to Hitler.

The timing was right, all the parties had their own reasons to rid Germany of the SA. The Reich President von Hindenburg had summoned Hitler to his Neudeck estate and demanded him to break the growing tension. The threat of civil war was hanging in the air and Hindenburg was prepared to mobilize the army if Hitler would fail in restoring the conditions. Hitler had all the reasons to believe that the army would stand in line with the president. Old Hindenburg was seriously ill and sun was setting down on him, the question of his successor remained open and Hitler needed the support of the Reichswehr as well as the conservative establishment to stay in power. Putting down an SA-led “coup attempt” would offer him the domestic propaganda victory as well as a possibility to simultaneously get rid of all other threats to power under the guise of the state of emergency. He had to sacrifice the SA leadership in order to later reach his ultimate goal of completely combining his state and party positions and thus making new Germany the “Führer state”.

The next parts of this series will cover the specific role of the SS in preparing and carrying out the Blood purge as well as significant parts played by individual SS men and also address the organizational changes and developments which followed this “baptism of fire” of German St. Bartholomew’s night.

For the readers interested in the development of the SA-Party-State-Reichswehr conflict, the works of Heinz Höhne, Hermann Mau and Jean Philippon (only available in French but so-far the most detailed study I have come across) perhaps provide the best general view. Hans Bernd Gisevius, once an employee of the Prussian Gestapo and later an important figure of the resistance, observes the Purge events from the point of view of an eyewitness not directly involved in the proceedings. The account of Heinrich Bennecke (“Die Reichswehr und der “Röhm-Putsch””), an SA-Obergruppenführer himself and a Purge survivor provides a somewhat different insider’s view and is also worth studying. Regarding the sociology of the SA, a recent book by Bruce Campbell “SA Generals and the Rise of Nazism” offers good coverage about the background of SA leadership, while “The Making of a Stromtrooper” by Peter H. Merkl presents the architypal SA man, sourced by the Abel collection’s autobiographical accounts of over 500 NSDAP and SA members.

A John Heartfield montage, published in 1934.

A John Heartfield montage, published in 1934. Source: http://www.scottzagar.com/arthistory/timelines.php?page=event&e_id=2319

  1. Very good infos!Could you give us a bibliography? Thanks.

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