When Hitler killed his Nazi ally: After 60 years, Gerard Gould remembers the storm-threatened Night of the Long Knives

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The Independent Online
SATURDAY 30 June 1934 was one of those sultry days that would end in a thunderstorm and bring at least temporary relief from the sweltering heat. I was then 11 years old and living with my parents and sister in an apartment on a main street linking south with north Breslau, capital of Silesia in south-east Germany (now the Polish town Wroclaw).

All day long we had heard rumours of terrible events taking place among the top Nazis, their party having come to power one year previously. Since dawn an operation aimed at massacring the leaders of the Nazi SA Corps (Sturmabteilung - Storm Section) had been personally put into force by Hitler. This militia force had been set up by Ernst Rohm, Hitler's closest friend since the foundation of the Nazi party, shortly after the First World War. No wonder such news was beyond belief.

My parents and my sister went out, as was usual on Saturday evenings, to a Jewish club which was still allowed to function, or to friends. As evening drew on, the oppressive heat made the rooms in our apartment even more stifling. So Clara, our faithful domestic help, who was like a member of the family, decided that we would indulge in one of her favourite pastimes. Placing cushions for comfort on a sill, we leant out of an open window to watch the passing scene on the street below.

Normally on a summer evening there was plenty going on. That Saturday evening, not only was there not a breath of air, not a leaf stirring on the chestnut trees lining the broad avenue, but an eerie silence hovered over the street. Motor traffic was still sparse in 1934. Occasionally, the clanking sound of a passing tram disrupted the silence. It was usual for people to sit in their front gardens, gather at street corners, parade up and down the street. Not that evening. Neither did we see a single uniformed person, whether police or SA.

In the west storm clouds were gathering; thunder began to roll in the distance. I remember a strange reflection in the sky. Clara muttered: 'You mark my words, there will be war.' The events of the day, the approaching storm, Clara's forebodings, all played on my imagination. I was half afraid, half excited.

We listened to the evening news. After keeping the population deliberately in the dark about the day's events, the propaganda machine supervised by Joseph Goebbels went into overdrive. Oozing with oral indignation at the betrayal and depravity of the leaders of the SA, Goebbels, who was in charge of the state broadcasting stations, announced how poor Hitler had found his former friend Ernst Rohm and his followers in bed with Lustknaben and had ordered them to be immediately executed.

'Clara, what are Lustknaben?' I said. Poor Clara] In the darkening light I couldn't see that I had made her blush. 'Oh, they are boys hired to wait at table at great feasts.'

I didn't pursue the matter. Thanks to a good grounding in the Bible and the Classics, I already had some notion what Lustknaben or 'boys for pleasure' might be. What I couldn't understand was their connection with Rohm and the SA. My picture of Rohm was of an obese, coarsely featured creature strutting about in a brown shirt and breeches which outlined an enormous posterior and obscenely protruding stomach. I could not imagine that there would be room for anyone else beside him in bed.

The full irony of Hitler's discovery that this most trusted of his chiefs should have turned out to be a sexual pervert struck me only years later. The party had always preached German purity in both racial and moral senses.

The news broadcast had also told us that Henlein, the Gauleiter (District Leader) of the Breslau area, and his brother had both been found guilty of treason against Hitler and shot in their own apartment, not far from where we lived. Clara's comment stuck in my memory: 'Poor Frau Henlein, losing both sons like this.'

The German people were never told the truth behind these terrible events. All they knew was that Rohm and his followers had planned an insurrection, and Chancellor Hitler was forced to act in self-defence and protection of state security. The fact that some of the rebels were found in the very act of committing sexual offences only helped to spice the tone of moral outrage with which the news was announced.

Hitler had waited a long time for a showdown with Rohm. Like so many Nazis, Rohm came from an underclass of disaffected people. He started his career before 1914 as a lift boy in one of Berlin's grand hotels. In the early Twenties he developed the brownshirts, the SA, as a people's army ready to supersede the regular army. Hitler knew that, in order to gain power, he would have to get the Wehrmacht - the regular army - on his side. He could not afford to alienate that powerful body. To counteract Rohm's ambitions, he formed his own elite corps, the black-clad SS (Schutzstaffel or Defence Brigade).

Once Hitler had become Chancellor of Germany, in 1933, it was inevitable that a great power struggle would ensue between the SA and the SS. Hitler knew that his own survival hung in the balance. President Hindenburg, who had appointed Hitler Chancellor as a bulwark against Communist attacks, made it quite clear that his patience was exhausted by these internal feuds. And Hindenburg still commanded the respect of most Germans. Hitler was on probation, and time was running out.

Hence the massacre of 30 June 1934, known as 'The Night of the Long Knives'. It permanently shattered the SA, which continued only as a small internal party-police organisation. The SS now became a powerful and much-feared organisation. Hindenburg sent Hitler a telegram congratulating him on having 'nipped treason in the bud and saved the German nation from serious danger'.

When the President died only four weeks later, Hitler immediately merged the offices of President and Chancellor into one. The Wehrmacht was required to swear an oath of loyalty to its new leader, and all opposition was suppressed. Clara's prognostication about a war to come had been nearer the truth than she realised.

(Photograph omitted)

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