Order 66 and the Night of the Long Knives

Growing up with the Original Trilogy, Star Wars fans vaguely learned of the destruction of the Jedi at the hands of Darth Vader and the Empire. Apart from the untrained Luke Skywalker, Obi-Wan Kenobi and Yoda seemed to be all that was left of a once powerful and mystical group of warriors. During the "Dark Years" between the OT and the prequels, fans were left imagining the horrible events that resulted in the Jedi's defeat. When the prequel trilogy hit theaters in the late 1990's and early 2000's, it was exciting to know that the true story would finally be revealed.

To tell this story, George Lucas once again turned to the history of World War II for inspiration, mirroring the evil actions of Emperor Palpatine with one of the modern era's most ruthless dictators, Adolf Hitler.

The Night of the Long Knives

Adolf Hitler with members of the SA in 1928.

Operation Hummingbird, more commonly known as The Night of the Long Knives resulted in the annihilation of the Nazi’s SA leadership and others who threatened Adolf Hitler’s grasp on power. The purge of SA leaders would solidify Hitler’s role as the unrivaled leader of the Nazis and ensure that the SS or Schutzstaffel would become the true military power in Germany.

The SA, also known as the “Brown Shirts,” were a militia or paramilitary (highly organized but unofficial army) group controlled by the Nazis. Being a private militia, thus not violating the Treaty of Versailles, allowed the SA to have an unlimited size. By 1934, the SA membership had grown to over 3 million. Their membership far outweighed the 100,000 soldiers allowed in the actual German Army.

As Hitler and the Nazis rose in power, the SA was used to “strong arm” opponents to accept their rule. SA members were always present at Nazi rallies to protect Nazi leadership, show strength and also forcefully remove naysayers. It was SA soldiers who would beat up and sometimes kill political opponents of the Nazis. SA members would also storm and disrupt rallies hosted by rival/enemy political parties.

In 1933, Adolf Hitler was granted total power in Germany through passage of the Enabling Act amendment to the Weimar Constitution. Despite this increase in power, Hitler continued to feel threatened by many within the Nazi Party. The Fuhrer was concerned that the regular German army had not pledged their allegiance to him, thus compromising any power he may have over them.

Although they were Nazis, the SA fell under the leadership of Ernst Röhm, a loyal crony of Hitler since the earliest days of the Nazi party. Since its inception, Hitler had primarily used the SA to intimidate his political opponents by disrupting their meetings and speeches. After becoming Chancellor in 1933, the SA was also used as law enforcers. These brilliant displays of power, coupled with the uniforms, swastikas, songs, and marching drew young men to join the movement. Membership swelled and by mid-1934, the SA had grown to over three million men.

Hitler and Rohm in 1933.

Despite having no evidence, Hitler began to believe that Röhm and his control over the SA were a threat to his power as leader of Germany. Other Nazi leaders like Heinrich Himmler and Joseph Goebbels were also concerned with Röhm’s growing power. They had little trouble convincing Hitler that something needed to be done about Röhm and other SA leaders.

There were also growing concerns over the SA within the regular German army which was grossly outnumbered by the SA’s three million members. Furthermore, it was not helpful that Röhm had expressed interest in absorbing the German army into the SA. Like Hitler, army leaders needed little convincing that Röhm and the SA were a threat to their power. In 1934, Hitler and the army’s leadership forged a plan to eliminate Röhm and the SA’s looming control over Germany. The army demanded that the SA be placed under their control, while Hitler demanded the army swear an oath of loyalty to him. The two sides agreed and the fates of Röhm and other SA leaders were sealed.

The Night of the Long Knives began on June 29, 1934 and continued into the next day. Soldiers from the SS and Gestapo hunted down and arrested the SA leaders. Nazi political opponents like Gustav Ritter von Kahr (who had stopped Hitler’s Beer Hall Putsch) and former Chancellor Kurt von Schleicher were also arrested.

At the conclusion of the purge, Ernst Röhm, von Kahr, von Schleicher and at least 80 others had been murdered. As promised, the SA was placed under the control of the German army and Hitler received the pledge of loyalty he so desperately desired. The actual number of those murdered in the Night of the Long Knives is often believed to include hundreds more people.

Because so many prominent Germans were murdered in the purge, Hitler knew he had to create reasons for their arrest and murder. In a speech given on July 13th 1934, Hitler revealed the arrests and executions to members of the Reichstag. In this speech, Hitler made it clear that he was the "supreme judge" of Germany and the SS and Gestapo had acted according to his orders.

In this hour I was responsible for the fate of the German people, and thereby I became the supreme judge of the German people. I gave the order to shoot the ringleaders in this treason, and I further gave the order to cauterise down to the raw flesh the ulcers of this poisoning of the wells in our domestic life. Let the nation know that its existence— which depends on its internal order and security— cannot be threatened with impunity by anyone! And let it be known for all time to come that if anyone raises his hand to strike the State, then certain death is his lot.
--Adolf Hitler, July 13, 1934

Following the Night of the Long Knives, the SS, led by Heinrich Himmler, grew to be the most feared force in Nazi Germany. Himmler’s power would continue to grow and he would go on to lead infamous movements like sending millions of Jews to their deaths in concentration camps. The Night of the Long Knives confirmed Hitler as the “supreme leader of the German People” as the vast majority of his enemies at home were now gone. Furthermore, the murder of such prominent citizens demonstrated to the German public that no one was immune to Nazi judgment or their willingness to kill anyone they perceived as a threat.

Order 66

Palpatine's Deception.

In Revenge of the Sith, Palpatine’s full plan for obtaining power was finally revealed. Through many years of patiently waiting and implementing his plot, he finally oversaw an end to the Naboo Crisis, the Separatist movement, the Jedi Order, and forged the remains of the Republic into the Galactic Empire.

In the film it becomes evident that Palpatine has been the driving force behind all of the plots that plagued the Republic and led to its demise. Acting as Sith Lord, Darth Sidious, he convinced the Trade Federation to blockade the planet of Naboo. This move created a crisis that enabled his “public” self as Palpatine to gain the Chancellorship in the Galactic Senate. With the end of the Naboo crisis, Palpatine needed another problem to solve, thus granting him more power. Again, as Darth Sidious, he encouraged rebellious planets to break away and join a Separatist movement that threatened the stability of the Republic. As Chancellor, Palpatine was given emergency dictatorial powers and used the Separatist crisis to build and place a large clone army under his control.

Palpatine as Darth Sidious.

Palpatine used the Jedi, the defenders and servants of the Republic, to help him hunt down and destroy the Separatists and their droid armies. Once Palpatine saw that the Separatists had been successfully eliminated, he turned on the Republic, using his clone army to destroy the Jedi and any opposition to his control. The execution of Order 66, saw Palpatine eliminate the only group left to stop him, the Jedi.

To justify his destruction of the Jedi Order, Palpatine created a story that the Jedi were seeking to destroy the Republic, an obvious act of treason. He manipulated Anakin Skywalker and much of the Senate into believing this plot. His action and ability to decisively destroy the Jedi demonstrated his non-discriminant power and convinced most planets to support him in forming the Galactic Empire.

With the help of his loyal minion, Darth Vader, Emperor Palpatine gained full control of the Empire and quickly destroyed anyone who stood in his way.

The Jedi hoped to unleash their destructive power against the Republic by assassinating the head of government and usurping control of the clone army. But the aims of the would-be tyrants were valiantly opposed by those without elitist, dangerous powers. Our loyal clone troopers contained the insurrection within the Jedi Temple and quelled uprisings on a thousand worlds.

The remaining Jedi will be hunted down and defeated. Any collaborators will suffer the same fate. These have been trying times, but we have passed the test.

The attempt on my life has left me scarred and deformed, but I assure you my resolve has never been stronger. The war is over. The Separatists have been defeated, and the Jedi rebellion has been foiled. We stand on the threshold of a new beginning.

In order to ensure the security and continuing stability, the Republic will be reorganized into the first Galactic Empire, for a safe and secure society, which I assure you will last for 10,000 years. An Empire that will continue to be ruled by this august body and a sovereign ruler chosen for life. An Empire ruled by the majority, ruled by a new constitution.

--Emperor Palpatine in his address to the Galactic Senate

Linking the Deceptions

Just as Hitler used the power and influence of the SA to help him gain power, Palpatine deceivingly used the Jedi to help him eliminate his opponents. Both men eventually came to see their friends as enemies and chose to have them destroyed.

Hitler understood that Röhm could have the three million strong SA turn on him and remove him from the Chancellorship. This looming threat led Hitler to remove Röhm and the other SA leaders. Likewise, Palpatine knew that the Jedi would never let him have the unlimited power he desired, so he used his clone army to destroy the Jedi, but not before the Jedi destroyed the strong Separatist armies that could also oppose Palpatine. For both Hitler and Palpatine, nothing remained to challenge their supreme leadership and both worlds fell into a time of destruction, death and chaos.

More on:

Emperor Palpatine, Darth Vader, Obi-Wan Kenobi, Galactic Republic, Galactic Senate, Galactic Empire

Student Handouts


First posted on: July 15, 2015 by Wes Dodgens