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Long-Knife Victims September 24, 2012

Author: Beach Combing | in : Contemporary , trackback

Beach has several times over the years enjoyed the nonsense that historians spout about numbers. How many people lived in Roman Britain. How many witches were dragged to the stake in the burning years. How many Christians were sold in the slave markets of northern Africa in modern times? The sheer range of numbers is both a clue to how little actual proof we have; and also how ill disciplined historians prove in assessing these questions. Another guessing game that recently came to his attention was the number of deaths on Hitler’s Night of the Long Knives.

For the uninitiated the Night of the Long Knives  saw murderous Hitler move against his only serious rival in Germany: the SA, a militant branch of his own Nazi party. 29 June 1934 Hitler made a surprise attack on the SA and had tens or scores or hundreds of men arrested – we are going to keep numbers vague for the moment. Some were killed on the spot. Others were killed later. Some were released. Then several other enemies of Hitler’s version of Nazism got deliberately pushed into the cross fire including Gustav von Kahr, the man responsible for crushing the Beer Hall Putsch.

The event showed the ruthlessness of Hitler as  old friends were killed in the slaughter, which ended any resistance to his rule in Germany. Not the least remarkable thing about what happened is that little was heard about it until13 July, over two weeks later. In a speech on that day murderous Hitler was quite frank that he had acted without the courts as he had become ‘the supreme judge of the German people’. He also announced that he had had sixty one ‘executed’ (ahem) and that thirteen others had died while resisting arrest.

What is fascinating here is just how the numbers have varied over the years. Presumably Hitler’s seventy four is our minimum number. It is easy to imagine that a few more may have died in such a way that it suited the Nazi party not to count them, or simply that not all had been counted in the confusion. Reputable modern history books put the number at eighty five while recognising that there may have been others. Then some wilder estimates go from 150 up to four or five hundred: a contemporary book published in 1934 by Hitler’s enemies in Paris claimed 401. In a trial in Munich in 1957 a number of about 1000 was, meanwhile, mentioned: this probably represents confusion with arrests. Many SA members were later rehabilitated: you have to live in a fairly curious society where rehabilitation represents being brought into the SS. But anyway… And where does the truth lie? In Beach’s experience, very rarely in the middle. He bets fewer than 100 but would love to hear alternative opinions: drbeachcombing AT yahoo DOT com

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30 Sept 2012: Jane C writes: I think you’ve made a mistake to put the long-knife deaths in your series of incredible numbers from history (which need, by the way, a tag). The point of the other examples you give is that we have inadequate sources and historians don’t have the self-discipline not to guess. Here we have fairly reliable figures that have been predictably blown up by polemics and misunderstandings. What really matters here is that Hitler is attacking his own and confirming himself to be an absolute shit! Let’s say that Hitler actually killed a hundred that night. He killed three thousand in his first year. It just wasn’t that unusual a day… How many was he killing a day by 1942? Now that number would be interesting and worth arguing over. Thanks Jane!