Hitler and his inner circle of high Nazi officials now controlled the apex of the state and its police forces. Much of the government, however, was still run by those who had served before 1933. The civil service continued to exist; institutions such as the military, the foreign office, and the judiciary had been infiltrated by Nazi loyalists only to a certain extent. The relationship between the state and the Nazi Party, with its array of subsidiary organizations, remained to be determined. Would Hitler choose to rule through the party or the state?
Ernst Röhm (1887-1934), head of the paramilitary Sturmabteilung [Storm Detachment or SA], epitomized the potentially disruptive forces within the Nazi Party itself. As an army captain, Röhm had helped Hitler transform the tiny Munich club known as the German Workers’ Party into a mass organization in the early 1920s. A brawler, a known homosexual, and an activist who was contemptuous of established elites, Röhm was more than willing to help smash traditional government and private organizations. But Röhm and his SA soon became an obstacle – even a threat – to the Nazi effort to build up Germany’s military strength, since the Reichswehr felt jeopardized by the street toughs who filled the ranks of his enormous paramilitary organization. After Röhm incorporated the Stahlhelm [Steel Helmet] veterans’ organization into the SA, he commanded a force of more than four million men.
Rivalries within the Nazi movement helped bring about a dramatic rupture. SS leader Heinrich Himmler and Luftwaffe chief Hermann Göring, who also headed the Prussian state government, both regarded Röhm and his men as a threat to their respective organizations and ambitions. As a result, they spread rumors that the SA was planning to take over or supplant the Reichswehr, and they helped convince Hitler that Röhm was plotting to overthrow him. Although reluctant at first, Hitler finally decided to eliminate Röhm, one of his oldest comrades. From June 30-July 2, 1934, selected squads of Himmler’s SS murdered more than 85 leading SA functionaries and assorted opponents of the regime in a purge codenamed “Operation Hummingbird.” (The event is mostly referred to as the Röhm Putsch, a designation promoted by the Nazis, since it seems to imply that they had been forced into action to prevent an impending coup.) On the morning of June 30, Röhm was arrested and brought to Munich’s Stadelheim Prison, where he was shot by the SS on July 1. Reich Chancellor Kurt von Schleicher (1882-1934) and his wife were also among those murdered during the SS strike; the couple was gunned down at home.
In one blow, the SA had been eliminated as a significant political force. Hitler could now expand Germany’s military strength on the basis of the regular armed forces. Some army officers were even foolish enough to celebrate June 30th as a victory, overlooking the fact that two former generals (Schleicher and Ferdinand von Bredow) had also been murdered in the purge. But in retrospect, the real significance of “Operation Hummingbird” is that the head of the government, acting independently and on his own initiative, had managed to legitimize outright murder on a large scale – without any legal proceedings whatsoever – and that the country largely accepted the Nazi propaganda that presented this strike as necessary. The cabinet legalized the action after the fact. Even Victor Klemperer was at least partially taken in, writing in his diary: “He [Hitler] does not think he is a murderer. In fact he presumably did act in self-defense and prevented a substantially worse slaughter. But after all he appointed these people to their posts, but after all he is the author of this absolutist system. [ . . . ] The dreadful thing is that a European nation has delivered itself up to such a gang of lunatics and criminals and still puts up with them." (5)
(5) Klemperer, I Will Bear Witness, 1933-1941, pp. 74-75 (entry from July 14, 1934).