Weekend Reading: Ta-Nehisi Coates: Shelby Foote and the Convenient Suspension of Disbelief
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Weekend Reading: Winston S. Churchill: 1934: When German "National Socialism" Lost More than 100% of Its "Socialism" Part

Winston Churchill: The Gathering Storm: The Second World War, Volume 1:

The acquisition of power had opened a deep divergence between the Fuehrer and many of those who had borne him forward. Under Roehm’s leadership the S.A. increasingly represented the more revolutionary elements of the party. There were senior members of the party, such as Gregor Strasser, ardent for social revolution, who feared that Hitler in arriving at the first place would simply be taken over by the existing hierarchy, the Reichswehr, the bankers, and the industrialists. He would not have been the first revolutionary leader to kick down the ladder by which he had risen to exalted heights. To the rank and file of the S.A. (“Brownshirts”) the triumph of January 1933 was meant to carry with it the freedom to pillage not only the Jews and profiteers, but also the well-to-do, established classes of society. Rumours of a great betrayal by their leader soon began to spread in certain circles of the party.

Chief-of-Staff Roehm acted on this impulse with energy. In January 1933 the S.A. had been four hundred thousand strong. By the spring of 1934 he had recruited and organised nearly three million men. Hitler in his new situation was uneasy at the growth of this mammoth machine, which, while professing fervent loyalty to his name, and being for the most part deeply attached to him, was beginning to slip from his own personal control. Hitherto he had possessed a private army. Now he had the national Army. He did not intend to exchange the one for the other. He wanted both, and to use each, as events required, to control the other. He had now therefore to deal with Roehm.

“I am resolved,” he declared to the leaders of the S.A. in these days:

to repress severely any attempt to overturn the existing order. I will oppose with the sternest energy a second revolutionary wave, for it would bring with it inevitable chaos. Whoever raises his head against the established authority of the State will be severely treated, whatever his position.

In spite of his misgivings Hitler was not easily convinced of the disloyalty of his comrade of the Munich Putsch, who for the last seven years had been the Chief of Staff of his Brownshirt army. When, in December 1933, the unity of the party with the State had been proclaimed Roehm became a member of the German Cabinet. One of the consequences of the union of the party with the State was to be the merging of the Brownshirts with the Reichswehr. The rapid progress of national rearmament forced the issue of the status and control of all the German armed forces into the forefront of politics. In February 1934 Mr. Eden arrived in Berlin, and in the course of conversation Hitler agreed provisionally to give certain assurances about the non-military character of the S.A.

Roehm was already in constant friction with General von Blomberg, the Chief of the General Staff. He now feared the sacrifice of the party army he had taken so many years to build, and, in spite of warnings of the gravity of his conduct, he published on April 18 an unmistakable challenge:

The Revolution we have made is not a national revolution, but a National Socialist Revolution. We would even underline this last word, “Socialist”. The only rampart which exists against reaction is represented by our Assault Groups, for they are the absolute incarnation of the revolutionary idea. The militant in the Brown Shirt from the first day pledged himself to the path of revolution, and he will not deviate by a hairbreadth until our ultimate goal has been achieved.

He omitted on this occasion the “Heil Hitler!” which had been the invariable conclusion of Brownshirt harangues.

During the course of April and May Blomberg continually complained to Hitler about the insolence and activities of the S.A. The Fuehrer had to choose between the generals who hated him and the Brownshirt thugs to whom he owed so much. He chose the generals.

At the beginning of June Hitler, in a five-hour conversation, made a last effort to conciliate and come to terms with Roehm. But with this abnormal fanatic, devoured by ambition, no compromise was possible. The mystic hierarchic Greater Germany of which Hitler dreamed and the Proletarian Republic of the People’s Army desired by Roehm were separated by an impassable gulf. Within the framework of the Brownshirts there had been formed a small and highly-trained élite, wearing black uniforms and known as the S.S., or later as Blackshirts. These units were intended for the personal protection of the Fuehrer and for special and confidential tasks. They were commanded by an unsuccessful ex-poultry-farmer, Heinrich Himmler. Foreseeing the impending clash between Hitler and the Army on the one hand and Roehm and the Brownshirts on the other, Himmler took care to carry the S.S. into Hitler’s camp. On the other hand, Roehm had supporters of great influence within the party, who, like Gregor Strasser, saw their ferocious plans for Social Revolution being cast aside.

The Reichswehr also had its rebels. Ex-Chancellor von Schleicher had never forgiven his disgrace in January 1933 and the failure of the Army chiefs to choose him as successor to Hindenburg. In a clash between Roehm and Hitler Schleicher saw an opportunity. He was imprudent enough to drop hints to the French Ambassador in Berlin that the fall of Hitler was not far off. This repeated the action he had taken in the case of Bruening. But the times had become more dangerous.

It will long be disputed in Germany whether Hitler was forced to strike by the imminence of the Roehm plot, or whether he and the generals, fearing what might be coming, resolved on a clean-cut liquidation while they had the power. Hitler’s interest and that of the victorious faction was plainly to establish the case for a plot. It is improbable that Roehm and the Brownshirts had actually got as far as this. They were a menacing movement rather than a plot, but at any moment this line might have been crossed. It is certain they were drawing up their forces. It is also certain they were forestalled. Events now moved rapidly. On June 25 the Reichswehr was confined to barracks, and ammunition was issued to the Blackshirts. On the opposite side the Brownshirts were ordered to stand in readiness, and Roehm with Hitler’s consent called a meeting for June 30 of all their senior leaders to meet at Wiessee, in the Bavarian lakes. Hitler received warning of grave danger on the 29th. He flew to Godesberg, where he was joined by Goebbels, who brought alarming news of impending mutiny in Berlin. According to Goebbels, Roehm’s adjutant, Karl Ernst; had been given orders to attempt a rising.

This seems unlikely. Ernst was actually at Bremen, about to embark from that port on his honeymoon. On this information, true or false, Hitler took instant decisions. He ordered Goering to take control in Berlin. He boarded his aeroplane for Munich, resolved to arrest his main opponents personally. In this life or death climax, as it had now become, he showed himself a terrible personality. Plunged in dark thought, he sat in the co-pilot’s seat throughout the journey. The plane landed at an airfield near Munich at 4 o’clock in the morning of June 30. Hitler had with him, besides Goebbels, about a dozen of his personal bodyguard. He drove to the Brown House in Munich, summoned the leaders of the local S.A. to his presence, and placed them under arrest. At 6 o’clock, with Goebbels and his small escort only, he motored to Wiessee. Roehm was ill in the summer of 1934 and had gone to Wiessee to take a cure. The establishment he had selected was a small chalet belonging to the doctor in charge of his case. No worse headquarters could have been chosen from which to organise an immediate revolt. The chalet stands at the end of a narrow cul-de-sac lane. All arrivals and departures could be easily noted. There was no room large enough to hold the alleged impending meeting of Brownshirt leaders. There was only one telephone. This ill accords with the theory of an imminent uprising.

If Roehm and his followers were about to revolt, they were certainly careless. At seven o’clock the Fuehrer’s procession of cars arrived in front of Roehm’s chalet. Alone and unarmed, Hitler mounted the stairs and entered Roehm’s bedroom. What passed between the two men will never be known. Roehm was taken completely by surprise, and he and his personal staff were arrested without incident. The small party, with its prisoners, now left by road for Munich. It happened that they soon met a column of lorries of armed Brownshirts on their way to acclaim Roehm at the conference convened at Wiessee for noon. Hitler stepped out of his car, called for the commanding officer, and, with confident authority, ordered him to take his men home. He was instantly obeyed. If he had been an hour later, or they had been an hour earlier, great events would have taken a different course.

On arrival at Munich Roehm and his entourage were imprisoned in the same gaol where he and Hitler had been confined together ten years before. That afternoon the executions began. A revolver was placed in Roehm’s cell, but as he disdained the invitation the cell door was opened within a few minutes and he was riddled with bullets. All the afternoon the executions proceeded in Munich at brief intervals. The firing parties of eight had to be relieved from time to time on account of the mental stress of the soldiers. But for several hours the recurrent volleys were heard every ten minutes or so.

Meanwhile in Berlin Goering, having heard from Hitler, followed a similar procedure. But here, in the capital, the killing spread beyond the hierarchy of the S.A. Schleicher and his wife, who threw herself in front of him, were shot in their house. Gregor Strasser was arrested and put to death. Papen’s private secretary and immediate circle were also shot; but for some unknown reason he himself was spared. In the Lichterfelde barracks in Berlin Karl Ernst, clawed back from Bremen, met his fate; and here, as in Munich, the volleys of the executioners were heard all day.

Throughout Germany, during these twenty-four hours, many men unconnected with the Roehm plot disappeared as the victims of private vengeance, sometimes for very old scores. Otto von Kahr, for instance, who as head of the Bavarian Government had broken the 1923 Putsch, was found dead in the woods near Munich. The total number of persons “liquidated” is variously estimated as between five and seven thousand. Late in the afternoon of this bloody day Hitler returned by air to Berlin. It was time to put an end to the slaughter, which was spreading every moment. That evening a certain number of the S.S., who through excess of zeal had gone a little far in shooting prisoners, were themselves led out to execution. About one o’clock in the morning of July 1 the sounds of firing ceased. Later in the day the Fuehrer appeared on the balcony of the Chancellery to receive the acclamations of the Berlin crowds, many of whom thought that he had himself been a victim. Some say he looked haggard, others triumphant. He may well have been both. His promptitude and ruthlessness had saved his purpose and no doubt his life.

In that “Night of the Long Knives”, as it was called, the unity of National-Socialist Germany had been preserved to carry its curse throughout the world. A fortnight later the Fuehrer addressed the Reichstag, who sat in loyalty or awe before him. In the course of two hours he delivered a reasoned defence of his action. The speech reveals his knowledge of the German mind and his own undoubted powers of argument. Its climax was:

The necessity for acting with lightning speed meant that in this decisive hour I had very few men with me…. Although only a few days before I had been prepared to exercise clemency, at this hour there was no place for any such consideration. Mutinies are suppressed in accordance with laws of iron which are eternally the same. If anyone reproaches me and asks why I did not resort to the regular Courts of Justice for conviction of the offenders, men all that I can say to him is this: In this hour I was responsible for the fate of the German people, and thereby I became the supreme Justiciar of the German people…. I did not wish to deliver up the Young Reich to the fate of the Old Reich. I gave the order to shoot those who were the ringleaders in this treason….

Then followed this mixed but expressive metaphor: And I further gave the order to burn out down to the raw flesh the ulcers of this poisoning of the wells in our domestic life, and of the poisoning of the outside world. This massacre, however explicable by the hideous forces at work, showed that the new Master of Germany would stop at nothing, and that conditions in Germany bore no resemblance to those of a civilised State. A Dictatorship based upon terror and reeking with blood had confronted the world. Anti-Semitism was ferocious and brazen, and the concentration-camp system was already in full operation for all obnoxious or politically dissident classes.

I was deeply affected by the episode, and the whole process of German rearmament, of which there was now overwhelming evidence, seemed to me invested with a ruthless, lurid tinge. It glittered and it glared:

This is not the only Germany which we shall live to see, but we have to consider that at present two or three men, in what may well be a desperate position, have the whole of that mighty country in their grip, have that wonderful scientific, intelligent, docile, valiant people in their grip, a population of seventy millions; that there is no dynastic interest such as the monarchy brings as a restraint upon policy, because it looks long ahead and has much to lose; and that there is no public opinion except what is manufactured by those new and terrible engines--broadcasting and a controlled Press. Politics in Germany are not as they are over here. There you do not leave office to go into Opposition. You do not leave the Front Bench to sit below the Gangway. You may well leave your high office at a quarter of an hour’s notice to drive to the police station, and you may be conducted thereafter very rapidly to an even graver ordeal.

It seems to me that men in that position might very easily be tempted to do what even a military dictatorship would not do, because a military dictatorship, with all its many faults, at any rate is one that is based on a very accurate study of the real facts; and there is more danger in this kind of dictatorship than there would be in a military dictatorship, because you have men who, to relieve themselves from the great peril which confronts them at home, might easily plunge into a foreign adventure of the most dangerous and catastrophic character to the whole world...