Erwin Rommel: Courageous Hero or Cynical Opportunist?


Kevin Kennedy is PhD student at the University of Potsdam, where he is writing a history of Prussian-Pietist orphanages in the eighteenth century. He received his M.A. from the University of New Hampshire in 1995, where he wrote his thesis on Nietzsche's political thought.

Erwin Rommel with Adolf Hitler during World War II. Credit: German Federal Archives.

On March 16, 1941, a column of soldiers from the 5th Pioneer Company of the 2nd Machine Gun Battalion -- one of the very first German army units to arrive in Africa, found itself on the Via Balbia, the highway which stretched over the entire coast of Libya. The column was then attacked by British fighter planes. One of the planes opened fire, killing a thirty-one-year old pioneer named Erich Robisch. He was shot in the throat, and bled to death on the road. Robisch was a carpenter by trade. He came from a village in eastern Brandenburg, now Polish territory. He left behind him a wife and two small daughters, one of whom was my future mother. The war would later force them to flee from their home, never to return. Robisch was not only the first casualty of his unit, but also one of the first of tens of thousands of German soldiers to die in Africa.

Last month, I found myself thinking of the grandfather I never knew; for November saw much discussion in Germany of the man who was his supreme commanding officer in Africa: the legendary “Desert Fox,” Erwin Rommel. Rommel’s 119th birthday was on November 15. Last month was also the 71st anniversary of the Battle of El Alamein. Rommel’s fame spread after he captured the fortress of Tobruk (which made him a field marshal) and then chased the British Eighth Army all the way to Egypt. Defeated at El Alamein, Rommel nevertheless organized a masterful retreat to Tunisia. Adolf Hitler held Rommel in such high regard that he later entrusted him with supervising the German defense system on the coast of Normandy. After being wounded in an Allied air attack in the summer of 1944, Rommel returned home to Germany to recuperate. Soon thereafter the Nazis discovered that Rommel had been in contact with some of the participants in the failed attempt on Adolf Hitler’s life on July 20, 1944. On Hitler’s order, Rommel committed suicide several weeks later. On November 1 of this year the German public television program ARD (a typically concise acronym for a long German name: "Arbeitsgemeinschaft der öffentlich-rechtlichen Rundfunkanstalten der Bundesrepublik Deutschland," which translates to "Consortium of public-law broadcasting institutions of the Federal Republic of Germany" broadcast a docudrama based on Rommel’s life. The film was watched by over 6 million people. A day later the German newsmagazine Der Spiegel published a cover-page article entitled "Des Teufels Feldmarschall" (“The Devil’s Field-Marshal"). The man portrayed in the film and the article was a brilliant military commander who inspired devotion among his troops and admiration among his foes. But they also showed Rommel to be a dangerously naive man when it came to politics, as well as an opportunist who never let scruples get in the way of his career. While it’s true that Rommel never betrayed the officers who tried to kill Adolf Hitler, it also remains the case that he refused to assist them. He did urge Hitler to make peace with the Allies after the Normandy landings, a daring act in itself, but he only did so to prevent an Allied invasion of Germany. The mass-killings of Jews and other “sub-humans,” on the other hand, failed to spur him to any kind of action.(In 1943, Rommel and his family also moved into a home taken away from a Jewish private school.) Although Rommel spent most of the war in the West, far removed from the killings fields and the extermination camps of the East, an officer of his rank could not have been ignorant of them. Had Hitler done a better job of prosecuting the war, there is no reason to believe that Rommel ever would have opposed him at all. Nevertheless, Hitler still believed Rommel was involved in the assassination attempt, and gave him a choice: suicide or a humiliating trial to be followed by execution and unpleasant consequences for the family. Rommel took the cyanide. He sacrificed his life to protect his wife and son. But he never lifted a finger to prevent a criminal regime from committing the greatest crime in human history.

Unsurprisingly, the Rommel family is not happy with this narrative. Rommel’s son Manfred, now 82, (the retired long-time mayor of Stuttgart), is furious with the film’s contention that his father was one of Hitler’s “darlings.” Manfred Rommel, along with many other Germans, continues to see his father as a good man who was taken advantage of by the charismatic Hitler. This version of Rommel’s biography became widespread in Germany soon after the war. By identifying themselves with Rommel, “ordinary” Germans could also relativize their own culpability with Nazism. Many Germans still believe that Rommel was the one general of the war they can still admire. The Bundeswehr still has a barracks named after him, and the army newspaper caused a small scandal last year with an article praising Rommel on the occasion of his birthday. But Rommel has also enjoyed considerable respect outside of Germany as well. Many British and American history buffs still see him as an honorable foe, a chivalric officer who just happened to be fighting on the wrong side.

But Rommel’s fans, both domestic and foreign, have fallen victim to a Nazi publicity stunt. It was Hitler’s propaganda minister, Joseph Goebbels, who first trumpeted the victories of the "Desert Fox," blowing them out of proportion to their actual military significance.The truth is that the North African theatre of the Second World War did not play a crucial role in defeating Nazi Germany. The Nazis only sent troops to Africa after their Italian allies had suffered a humiliating defeat there at the hands of the British. (The German troops and weapons sent to Africa would later be sorely missed on the Eastern Front.) Rommel’s propaganda value came later, at the end of 1941, when the Red Army brought the Wehrmacht invasion of the Soviet Union to an irreversible halt. Goebbels then realized that, by exaggerating Rommel’s modest achievements in Africa, he could distract German public attention from the looming disaster in the East. After the British stopped Rommel’s advance at El Alamein in November 1942, they too propagated the myth of Rommel as a near-invincible military genius. The brighter Rommel’s star shone, the greater the triumph over him. And when the Americans first entered the European theater of the Second World War, they too faced the German “Afrika Korps.” Their victories also allowed them to bask in the glow of having of “outfoxed” Rommel.

There is no question that the Anglo-American achievements in North Africa were important. The British and American soldiers who fought and died there did not do so in vain. Every German soldier killed or captured in Africa was one less enemy combatant to face after landing in France. A new book by the British writer Jonathan Dimbelby, “Destiny in the Desert,” (also a BBC documentary) even calls the North African campaign “pivotal” to the final outcome of the war. But this goes too far. No doubt: the fighting in the scorching heat, freezing cold, and blinding sandstorms of Africa was hell to all those who endured it. Ultimately, though, it remained peripheral to the war effort as whole. As the American president Franklin D. Roosevelt and the Soviet dictator Joseph Stalin both knew, it made much more sense for the Western Allies to concentrate their efforts on opening a second front in France. Winston Churchill, however, remained obsessed with the idea of a victory on the Mediterranean, which he considered to be the “soft underbelly of the fascist beast.” He then persuaded the Americans to enter the war there. (First, however, Churchill desperately hoped to score a major prestige victory without American assistance, which the British did at El Alamein.) Moreover, the British were understandably concerned that Rommel could have taken Egypt and seized control of the Suez Canal. But even if he had been able to do so, Rommel still would have lacked the men and materials to hold the territory he had taken. The Royal Air Force had long since gained domination of the skies and was sinking German supply ships at an alarming rate. Moreover, once the U.S. Army landed in Morocco, Rommel’s celebrated Afrika Korps was doomed. But the myth of Rommel had only just begun.

My grandfather never lived to see any of that. He died choking on his own blood on that sandy road -- for absolutely nothing.

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