Years of Living Dangerously

Continuing review of Berlin Diary

William Shirer published Berlin Diary in 1941, the year following his departure as a correspondent from Berlin. While the book derives largely from contemporaneous notes, it is not the transcript of a daily ledger. There was difficulty getting his notes out of Germany, considerable danger being attached should they be discovered at the border by Nazis. At the least, such inflammatory material would have been confiscated. A consequence is that Shirer composed the bulk of the book once safely outside Nazi Germany.

The book is sectioned, with titles by date, and this series will unroll a month at a time, or by multiple months at a time, until it reaches the 80th anniversary of the date. From that point on posts will correspond with the 80th anniversaries.

Following the events of 1934, Shirer picks up again on 34 June 1934, a pivotal date in the history of Nazi Germany. This was the Night of the Long Knives, when Hitler asserted complete control by eliminating all his rivals, and a few others besides.

PARIS, June 30

Berlin was cut off for several hours today, but late this afternoon telephone communication was re-established. And what a story! Hitler and Göring have purged the S.A., shooting many of its leaders. Röhm, arrested by Hitler himself, was allowed to commit suicide in a Munich jail, according to one agency report. The French are pleased. They think this is the beginning of the end for the Nazis. Wish I could

Shirer, William L.. Berlin Diary: The Journal of a Foreign Correspondent 1934-1941 (Kindle Locations 151-155). RosettaBooks. Kindle Edition.

There was a good reason Berlin was cut off for several hours that day. Wikipedia explains:

The Night of the Long Knives, also called Operation Hummingbird or, in Germany, the Röhm Putsch (German spelling: Röhm-Putsch), was a purge that took place in Nazi Germany from June 30 to July 2, 1934, when the Nazi regime carried out a series of political extrajudicial executions intended to consolidate Hitler’s absolute hold on power in Germany. Many of those killed were leaders of the SA (Sturmabteilung), the Nazis’ own paramilitary Brownshirts organization; the best-known victim was Ernst Röhm, the SA’s leader and one of Hitler’s longtime supporters and allies. Leading members of the left-wing Strasserist faction of the Nazi Party (NSDAP), along with its figurehead, Gregor Strasser, were also killed, as were establishment conservatives and anti-Nazis (such as former Chancellor Kurt von Schleicher and Bavarian politician Gustav Ritter von Kahr, who had suppressed Adolf Hitler‘s Munich Beer Hall Putsch in 1923). The murders of Brownshirt leaders were also intended to improve the image of the Hitler government with a German public that was increasingly critical of thuggish Brownshirt tactics.

Ernst Röhm was the primary target of the purge. Röhm and Hitler were early catalysts for the German Workers’ Party (DAP), which later became the National Socialist German Workers Party (NSDAP) [from Wikipedia], a forerunner for the National Socialist (Nazi) party. Röhm led the failed Beer Hall Putsch of 1923 and received a suspended sentence. Following a hiatus from German politics, during which he consulted for the military in Bolivia, Röhm returned and eventually headed up the SA, the  Sturmabteilung or Brownshirts. The SA was an army of street fighters who enforced for the Nazis during the lead up to the party’s ascent to power in 1933.

After Hitler became chancellor in January of that year, the SA became superfluous, and their power was seen more as a liability and as a rival to Hitler’s. Germany’s military high command disdained the presence of such a group, and likewise German industrial leaders, who had championed Hitler’s rise, saw them as a threat and an embarrassment. In great secrecy the plot was hatched to eliminate all threats to Hitler’s position. Lists were drawn up, assignments were made, and the strike was carried out beginning in the early morning hours of 30 June.

A critical factor was the sexual orientation of Röhm and others high in the SA. Röhm was a notorious homosexual and homosexuality flourished in the group. This was a matter of considerable concern to a movement that championed Christian virtue and Germany’s racial superiority. The pretext for the bloodletting was a supposed plot being hatched within the SA, and that set the stage. Shirer tells the story in another book:

At the moment of 2 A.M. on June 30 when Hitler, with Goebbels at his side, was taking off from Hangelar Airfield near Bonn, Captain Roehm and his S.A. lieutenants were peacefully slumbering in their beds at the Hanslbauer Hotel at Wiessee on the shores of the Tegernsee. Edmund Heines, the S.A. Obergruppenfuehrer of Silesia, a convicted murderer, a notorious homosexual with a girlish face on the brawny body of a piano mover, was in bed with a young man. So far did the S.A. chiefs seem from staging a revolt that Roehm had left his staff guards in Munich. There appeared to be plenty of carousing among the S.A. leaders but no plotting.

Shirer, William. The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich (p. 221). RosettaBooks. Kindle Edition.

Hitler’s icy nature is shown  in full glory as he deals with an old friend:

Shortly after dawn Hitler and his party sped out of Munich toward Wiessee in a long column of cars. They found Roehm and his friends still fast asleep in the Hanslbauer Hotel. The awakening was rude. Heines and his young male companion were dragged out of bed, taken outside the hotel and summarily shot on the orders of Hitler. The Fuehrer, according to Otto Dietrich’s account, entered Roehm’s room alone, gave him a dressing down and ordered him to be brought back to Munich and lodged in Stadelheim prison, where the S.A. chief had served time after his participation with Hitler in the Beer Hall Putsch in 1923. After fourteen stormy years the two friends, who more than any others were

Shortly after dawn Hitler and his party sped out of Munich toward Wiessee in a long column of cars. They found Roehm and his friends still fast asleep in the Hanslbauer Hotel. The awakening was rude. Heines and his young male companion were dragged out of bed, taken outside the hotel and summarily shot on the orders of Hitler. The Fuehrer, according to Otto Dietrich’s account, entered Roehm’s room alone, gave him a dressing down and ordered him to be brought back to Munich and lodged in Stadelheim prison, where the S.A. chief had served time after his participation with Hitler in the Beer Hall Putsch in 1923. After fourteen stormy years the two friends, who more than any others were

Hitler, in a final act of what he apparently thought was grace, gave orders that a pistol be left on the table of his old comrade. Roehm refused to make use of it. “If I am to be killed, let Adolf do it himself,” he is reported to have said. Thereupon two S.A. officers, according to the testimony of an eyewitness, a police lieutenant, given twenty-three years later in a postwar trial at Munich in May 1957, entered the cell and fired their revolvers at Roehm point-blank. “Roehm wanted to say something,” said this witness, “but the S.S. officer motioned him to shut up. Then Roehm stood at attention—he was stripped to the waist—with his face full of contempt.”* And so he died, violently as he had lived, contemptuous of the friend he had helped propel to the heights no other German had ever reached, and almost certainly, like hundreds of others who were slaughtered that day—like Schneidhuber, who was reported to have cried, “Gentlemen, I don’t know what this is all about, but shoot straight”—without any clear idea of what was happening, or why, other than that it was an act of treachery which he, who had lived so long with treachery and committed it so often himself, had not expected from Adolf Hitler.

Shirer, William. The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich (pp. 221-222). RosettaBooks. Kindle Edition.

The TV series The World at War chronicles the rise of Nazi power in Episode 1, and it features army officer Edwald von Kleist describing the events of the Nazi purge. He notes that not only Röhm and other direct threats to Hitler were purged, but people considered to be merely unpleasant were added to the list. The Wikipedia entry states, “At least 85 people died during the purge, although the final death toll may have been in the hundreds.” Among those scooped up was  Kurt von Schleicher, who had preceded Hitler as Germany’s chancellor.

The S.A. men were not the only ones to fall on that bloody summer weekend. On the morning of June 30, a squad of S.S. men in mufti rang the doorbell at General von Schleicher’s villa on the outskirts of Berlin. When the General opened the door he was shot dead in his tracks, and when his wife, whom he had married but eighteen months before—he had been a bachelor until then—stepped forward, she too was slain on the spot. General Kurt von Bredow, a close friend of Schleicher, met a similar fate the same evening. Gregor Strasser was seized at his home in Berlin at noon on Saturday and dispatched a few hours later in his cell in the Prinz Albrechtstrasse Gestapo jail on the personal orders of Goering.

Shirer, William. The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich (p. 222). RosettaBooks. Kindle Edition.

One who escaped was Franz von Papen, the person primarily responsible for installing Hitler as chancellor. Several in Papen’s immediate circle were caught up, including his secretary, Herbert von Bose, who was shot in lieu of being arrested. Papen was arrested but spared, He survived the war and was subsequently tried at Nuremberg, along with Nazi principals charged with war crimes. Papen’s crime seems to have been just what he did, ushering Hitler into power and supporting his early programs. He was acquitted and walked free from that trial, but was subsequently tried and jailed by a German court. He died in 1969, having considerably exceeded his life expectancy.

Shirer continued to report from Paris until August, at which time he was hired by Universal Service and commenced his reporting from Berlin. The next in this series is an introduction to Berlin and Nazi Germany.

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One thought on “Years of Living Dangerously

  1. Pingback: Years of Living Dangerously | Skeptical Analysis

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