Porey Lin – Lessons from the Third Reich

Note: This post is based on a lecture to be given as part of OxERN’s Hilary Term Seminar Series on Tuesday, February 9nd at 2pm at the Oxford Internet Institute. 

A key example of extremist politics is the Third Reich of Germany.  The Third Reich was rife with extreme political behavior such as repression.  I analyze one specific repressive action of the Third Reich that is curious for its seemingly-contradictory nature: the Blood Purge of 1934.

In the summerof 1934, the Nazi Party of Germany embarked on a three-day rampage known as the Blood Purge to assassinate Jews, political rivals and strangely, members of its own government. Fourteen members of the German legislature were assassinated,despite most of them being part of the Nazi Party as well as having diplomatic immunity.  Why were these legislative members assassinated by their own government?

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The official explanation of the Blood Purge, as declared by the Nazi Party, was that certain legislative members were plotting a coup to overthrow Adolf Hitler.  The mastermind of this purported coup was Ernst Röhm, who, in addition to being a legislative member, was also the leader of Hitler’s paramilitary wing, the Sturmabteilung (SA).  The influence over Germany’s paramilitary meant that Röhm possessed enough credible military threat to theoretically overthrow Hitler.

However, the Röhm-coup explanation for the assassinations of the Blood Purge make little sense.  No hard evidence suggests that Röhm or any other legislative member were formulating a coup against Hitler; in fact, the opposite is found, with Röhm at his deathbed continuing to declare his loyalty to Hitler.

Why then were the legislative members killed?  Is the Röhm-coup explanation sufficient in explaining the targeted assassinations?  Or did Hitler have an ulterior motive and used Röhm’s purported disloyalty to cover up the real reason for the assassinations?

I argue that Hitler’s official explanation for the Blood Purge, the Röhm-coup, could actually be sufficient enough in explaining the legislative assassinations.  Specifically, I argue that while Röhm and his legislative colleagues may not have had any pretenses to overthrow Hitler militarily, their political and military strength would have made them too much of a threat to Hitler, warranting their assassinations.

To analyze the Röhm-coup explanation, I focused on the political and military backgrounds of legislative members, including those assassinated and those who were not.  Using an archival text of the 1934 legislature, I created a dataset of the fourteen assassinated legislative members and 31 randomly-selected legislative members who were not assassinated.  I then quantified each legislative member’s political and military experience such as whether or not he was a member of Röhm’s paramilitary.  Finally, I ran statistical regressions using proxy variables for political and military strength.

The results from the statistical regressions provide evidence that political and military strength of the legislative members significantly predicted the likelihood of assassinations in the Blood Purge.  Considering that assassinated legislative members possessed a credible threat to Hitler with their political and military strength, I suggest further investigation into the possibility that Hitler may have genuinely believed in the Röhm-coup, regardless of whether the coup was actually being formulated.

Porey Lin is a MPhil (Master’s) in Politics at St. Antony’s College, Oxford University. His main research interests are non-democracies, political violence and political institutions.  He is currently researching how different types of elites in non-democracies respond politically during economic crises.  Prior to studying at Oxford University, he pursued his undergraduate degree at UCLA in Los Angeles, California, where he studied political science and Russian studies.