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Revisiting ‘night of the long knives’

| by Upul Joseph Fernando

(January 15, 2014, Colombo, Sri Lanka Guardian) It was the dawn of another day. German newspaper Editor, Fritsch Gerlish, was at home taking his breakfast. His newly wedded wife was watering the pots of flowering plants when suddenly the telephone rang.

Gerlish interrupting his breakfast for a moment and ran to the phone.
“The press manager, here,” a voice at the other end of the phone said.

“Yes... go ahead... I am Gerlish here.”

“Now what have you sent here for printing? The information about Hitler’s SA storm troopers. What was carried in page one of yesterday’s paper also on Hitler is terrifying in itself. You are playing with fire...!” the owner of the printing press rambled on.

“Now look here. I have entered into an agreement with you for the printing of this paper. I pay you for that, besides accepting the responsibility for each and every word in the paper. So there is no issue beyond that,” Gerlish replied.

“Okay, I will print this. But I warn you. Be careful!” The printer said only that. Gerlish’ wife came running to him. She was in tears.

“I heard everything. Why do you want to clash with the Fuhrer?” She asked her husband. He looked at her.
“The worst thing we can do is to do nothing,” Gerlish told her.
The next day’s issue of Gerlish’s Sunday Illustrated newspaper published in German carried on page one the secret information received about Hitler’s SA storm troopers and the few words Gerlish spoke to his wife. Those very few words he had quoted from a publication on the American Revolution.

Gerlish’s newspaper no sooner than it hit the streets following day began to sell like hot cakes. Meanwhile, Hitler who had got wind of Gerlish’s expose was furious! On that day he was getting ready to go to the Reichstag (Parliament) to get the purported historic Bill that was to transfer power to Hitler to save the downtrodden masses from their suffering passed.

Hitler’s fury

A furious Hitler in the light of the revelation by Gerlish’s paper had already directed the Commander of the SA storm troopers, Ernest Rohm, to meet with him. Rohm came pronto with a copy of Gerlish’s paper in his hand. Hitler lambasted Rohm alleging that some officer closer to him (Rohm) had leaked these secrets to the newspaper.

Rohm begged Hitler to grant him authority undertaking to find out the source of the leak somehow or other. That night Hitler gave Rohm’s assassins the licence to terminate anyone who is trying to oppose him and brand them as traitors. Such scum should be terminated and finished off during that night itself, Hitler thundered.

The SA storm troopers got their act together. The printing press that printed Gerlish’s newspaper was torched. Then Rohm visited the newspaper office looking for Gerlish.

Gerlish was at his desk. Rohm walked towards the desk and sat on it. He laid his hands around Gerlish’s neck tightly and in a wild fury demanded who gave him the information on the SA storm troopers.

“I don’t know,” Gerlish replied.

He was immediately manacled and taken away. He was subsequently tortured and killed.

That night many were killed after being arrested on charges of treachery for supporting the accursed Jews. Many a historian described that night as the ‘Night of the Long Knives.’ Newspaper offices and rival party offices were set on fire. Some people described it as the ‘Cleansing Night.’ All those who were against Hitler were cleansed that night. Once that night was over, Hitler wanted to disband the sturm-abteilung (SA) or Storm Detachment or Assault Division, or Brownshirts. The SA storm troopers comprised of members of the German Army and Police.

Interestingly, Rohm the Commander of the SA storm troopers, a close friend of Hitler could now become an enemy of the Fuhrer and would lead a coup against him once Rohm’s goon squad was disbanded. Anyway, that was what Hitler’s security advisers fed him. However, Hitler ordered that Rohm be exterminated.
This old story about Hitler came to mind as it was only last week that five years passed since the torching of Sirasa Media Complex on January 2009, exactly two days later on 8 January ‘Sunday Leader’ Editor Lasantha Wickrematunga was assassinated.

Slinging mud at anti-Govt. media

Incidentally, it was on 2 January 2009 that the Sri Lanka Army took control of Kilinochchi. From 2 January onwards the State media began to quote the nationalistic leaders of the government and slung mud at anti-government media institutions and media personnel, branding them as traitors who were supporting the Tamil Tigers. Also, the State media began to request the people to come forward against those traitors. Only a few days passed. Hitler’s night of the long knives visited Sri Lanka too.

On the wee hours of 6 January, the Sirasa Media Complex was set on fire. From that day onwards Sunday Leader Editor Lasantha Wickrematunga began assiduously to hunt for information about the goon groups who came to torch Sirasa. He was planning to publish those details in the ‘Sunday Leader’ of 11 January.

However, the goons who torched Sirasa began to pursue Lasantha Wickrematunga on 8 January. Lasantha, who got wind of them, sidestepped and visited the house of his wife he married lately. He told his wife that he was being pursued by unidentified motorcyclists. She being ever mindful of the countless threats faced by him asked him to stay at home. However, he did not listen to her. He already had finished writing the editorial for the paper.

Ironically, he had quoted in that the poem Hitler’s opponents had written while the tyrant’s SA storm troopers were pursuing them.

That poem is as follows:
First they came for the Jews
and I did not speak out because I was not a Jew.
Then they came for the Communists
and I did not speak out because I was not a Communist.
Then they came for the trade unionists
and I did not speak out because I was not a trade unionist.
Then they came for me
and there was no one left to speak out for me.

That day Lasantha was killed brutally. The assassins of Lasantha and the goons that torched the Sirasa TV station are still at large. After vesting the total authority of the State with Hitler by destroying all the opponents of the Fuhrer on the Night of the Long Knives, his Minister of Information Joseph Goebbels had this thought-provoking comment to make before the media: “Media men now possess an amazing level of discipline and restraint. Now we no longer need to give them instructions.”

Suppose, if some wag were to say a similar thing about the Sri Lankan media by way of an epilogue after the assassination of Lasantha Wickrematunga and the torching of the Sirasa TV media institution?

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