Erwin Rommel: war or propaganda hero?

The accomplishments and legacy of the Desert Fox 

Erwin Rommel (Photo: Cassowary Colorizations)

Few defining individuals of World War II are judged as ambiguously as Field Marshal Johannes Erwin Eugen Rommel (1891-1944). Some historians claim he was an enthusiastic Nazi linked to multiple massacres of POWs and civilians. Others maintain he was a chivalric figure who treated his opponents decently, knew nothing of the Third Reich's atrocities, and who died because he tried to remove Hitler from power. The truth is somewhere between the extremes. One thing is certain: even in life, Rommel's figure had already been magnified to larger-than-life proportions by both Allied and Axis propaganda, which makes judging his legacy tentative at best and hopeless at worst.

One of numerous posed photos of Rommel. His natural vanity made him enjoy the publicity. (Photo: Bundesarchiv)
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Born into a middle-class family (a far cry from the typical Prussian military aristocratic background of many famous German officers), earned the first taste of fame in World War I. After serving in France and Romania, he was sent into the mountain passes of the Italian Alps. There, he quickly displayed a talent at rapid advancement, penetrating enemy lines and using the terrain for flanking maneuvers. On October 25-27, 1917, his unit of 150 men captured 9,000 Italian soldiers and 81 guns in two and a half days, suffering only 6 deaths and 30 wounded in the process. On another occasion, he used another small force to capture a 10,000-strong enemy division. He already started to display a tendency to ignore orders and attack on his own initiative during these early successes.


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Rommel in World War I (Photo: Wikipedia)

Germany was swept by revolts, Communist uprisings and social instability after the war. Rommel remained in the army and earned a name for himself by resolving numerous such upheavals, often without having to resort to bloodshed. He also became a military instructor, and wrote his book Infanterie greift an ("Infantry Attacks") on modern infantry tactics. War movie buffs might note that the 1970 film Patton makes a point of Patton having read Rommel's book. In the film however, Rommel's book is about tank attacks. Rommel did intend to write a tank-centered sequel to his book, but it was never finished.
After his rise to power in 1933, Hitler took notice of Rommel thanks to the latter's reputation as an instructor. The two men quickly developed a mutually appreciative relationship. Hitler considered Rommel a kindred soul, since both of them were World War I veterans and neither came from the traditional Prussian military background. Rommel, in turn, fell under Hitler's personal charisma and, like many Germans, was impressed by how the Führer united Germany and gave it a new sense of purpose. It is unknown just how much Rommel was aware of the darker side of Nazi ideology. He was not a member of the Nazi Party, and he did seem to stick to an apolitical attitude shared by many military officers. It seems possible that Rommel did believe at least some of the anti-Jewish propaganda of the time, but he also considered many parts of Nazi ideology rubbish. He was definitely very naive in some ways, and once suggested that Jew be made Gauleiter (district governor) to prove to world opinion that Germany was not anti-Semitic.

Hitler and Rommel (Photo:

Thanks to his friendship with Hitler, Rommel was tasked with the military training of the Hitlerjugend (“Hitler Youth”), the youth organization of the Nazi Party, in 1937. This position he promptly lost after repeatedly insisting that the organization be removed from under the authority of the Nazi Party and placed directly under the army. Nevertheless, he continued to enjoy Hitler's trust, and he got to command the Führer's escort battalion which escorted the Nazi leader everywhere outside Germany.
Rommel participated in the invasion of France in 1940, leading from the front as was his habit. During one battle, he personally manned a machine gun to stave off a French counterattack, then he waded into a river to help engineers lash together a pontoon bridge. On May 17, he captured 10,000 French soldiers, while only losing 36 of his own. He was surprised to learn that he accomplished this remarkable feat with only his vanguard, as the rest of the forces could not keep up with him. In fact, he was so far ahead of everyone else that German High Command had lost track of him. His speed and his tendency to disappear from High Command earned his unit, the 7th Panzer Division, the nickname Gespensterdivision ("Ghost Division").

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Rommel with his officers during the invasion of France (Photo: Bundesarchiv)

Rommel was sent to North Africa with the Afrika Korps in 1941 to aid the Italian war effort. Italy had much more trouble dealing with British forces than they anticipated beforehand, and Rommel's job was to fix the situation. His activities were not without tension. He habitually played the three high commands (that of the German military, the German army and the Italian military) against each other to get what he wanted or to avoid following orders he disliked. While no doubt a brilliant tactical commander, Rommel's shortcomings with strategy and logistics also started to show as he went off on impulsive offensives that wasted precious fuel and other resources.

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Rommel and a soldier drinking water in Libya in 1941 (Photo:

Nevertheless, Rommel's service in Africa cemented his reputation as a military superstar – both in Germany and among the Allies. The Nazi propaganda machine presented him as an undefeatable hero, an image that drew attention away from Germany's military difficulties in other theaters of the war. Meanwhile, the British also presented him as a chivalrous, talented enemy to make their defeats at Rommel's hands more palatable. Not all Allied commentary was fawning, of course, and The Daily Express once described him with words: "No 'von' nonsense about [Rommel], nor the code of conduct—such as it was—that most Prussian officers have honoured in war. He is a gangster general, trained in a harder school than Chicago." Once America entered the war, even U.S. soldiers in Africa grew to admire Rommel, and were happy to shake down German POWs for photos of the Desert Fox.

While Rommel did have good relations with his men, photos such as this one with him helping his soldiers free his car also made for good propaganda (Photo: Bundesarchiv)

Even during Rommel's initial successes in Africa, one fault line was gradually cracking under him: a disagreement, or perhaps misunderstanding, of just what the African campaign was supposed to be all about. Rommel believed that after defeating the British, German forces could conquer the Near East, secure its oil, and eventually meet up with other German forces in the Soviet Union. For Hitler, however, the African events were more of a side show, a distraction that siphoned men and resources off from his real goal: defeating Russia.

Rommel (left) in his command halftrack talking to Gen. Fritz Bayerlein (right) during the battle of Bir Hakeim (Photo: Bundesarchiv)

Whether it was caused by Rommel's strategic blunders, a lack of support from Hitler and Italy, or a British defense that was just too strong, the Desert Fox's success story came to an end at the Second Battle of El Alamein in late 1942. His defeat there put him on the defensive, and it was only a matter of time before the entire North African coast was secured by the Allies. German propaganda continued to wreathe Rommel in an aura of invincibility. Even in May 1943, with Africa lost, Nazi propaganda claimed that the whole campaign was a ruse to tie down Allied forces in Africa while Europe was turned into an impenetrable fortress – where, naturally, final victory would come at Rommel's hands.
Once back in Europe, Rommel helped disarm the Italian army after the country surrendered to the Allies and quickly joined them. His next big posting, however, was in Normandy, where the Atlantic Wall, the supposedly invincible defenses of the continent, were being built. Rommel was discreetly told that the coastal defenses were only there for propaganda purposes and had no real military value, since any Allied landings were supposed to be stopped further inland. Furthermore, some sources claim he had no official authority to give actual order about the construction of defenses.

Rommel (right) inspecting the 21st Panzer Division in Normandy, May 1944 (Photo: Bundesarchiv)     


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Rommel was dismayed by this, as he believed that if a landing attempt couldn't be stopped right on the shore, other defenses were doomed to fail. He set about improving the defensive works, leaning on his interest in engineering. He outright invented several defensive measures, and often improved on already existing designs. One of his more spectacular inventions was “Rommel's asparagus” (named after him by others). It was cluster of irregularly place vertical poles scattered around an open clearing or field. A web of wires was fastened between the poles, and the latter also had landmines placed on their sides. The system was designed to protect an area against Allied gliders. Should gliders try to land in such a field, they would hit the wires, the poles and landmines during landing, likely killing most or all personnel. Rommel went around his inability to give orders by simply explaining his plans in detail to commanders of various ranks, down to platoon level, and letting them act as they saw fit – which happened to coincide with exactly what Rommel had in mind. Nevertheless, his efforts came too little, too late, and the Allied landings succeeded on the June 6, 1944 – a day when he happened to be at home celebrating his wife's birthday.

Draft of "Rommel's asparagus" made by Rommel (Photo: Bundesarchiv)

Rommel knew after D-Day that the war was over. In fact, some historians suggest he was so affected by Hitler's personal charm that this was the first time he truly faced how bad Germany's position was. Though he had been loyal to the Führer up till this point, he realized there could be no peace as long as Hitler lived. He became involved with a group of high-ranking officers conspiring to remove Hitler from power and negotiate a peace with the Allies. We don't really know how closely involved he became; most historians today agree that he was a rather peripheral participant, who was aware of the plan and didn't report it, but did little else. He certainly balked at the idea of an outright assassination and would have preferred to have Hitler arrested and put on trial. He probably also agreed to become Germany's acting leader to negotiate a peace.

Photo of Rommel (center, sitting) with several of the conspirators (Photo: unknown photographer)

On July 17, 1944, Rommel was traveling in his car when he was strafed by a British or Canadian fighter. His vehicle crashed and he suffered a life-threatening head injury. He was still in hospital when the conspiracy went ahead with the famous Valkyrie plot.
The attempt to assassinate Hitler on July 20 failed, and the conspirators were captured and executed. The resulting investigation eventually linked Rommel to the conspiracy. On October 14, he was at home with his family getting ready for lunch, when two generals showed up in a car. They took him aside and gave him a choice. He could go to Berlin and explain his involvement to Hitler in person. He could stand trial at a kangaroo court where the death sentence was practically guaranteed. Or, lastly, he could take his own life.

A session of the People's Court, where the Valkyrie conspirators were tried (Photo: Bundesarchiv)

It was clear which option the regime preferred. All through the war, the propaganda machine had built Rommel up into a mythological figure. News of his betrayal would have been a terrible morale blow and a massive loss of face for Hitler and the Nazis. In order to shepherd him toward the "correct" choice, the generals gave assurances. Should Rommel kill himself, his death would be declared an accident, and he would receive a military funeral. His family's name would not be dragged through the mud, and they would even receive pension payments.

Rommel's military funeral (Photo: Bundesarchiv)

There was no real choice. Rommel got in the car, and the three men and the driver drove out of the village. He was left alone with a single witness and took a cyanide pill. For once, the Nazi regime was true to its word: he was given a military funeral and his involvement with the conspiracy was kept a secret. He was buried in the cemetery of Herrlingen, the town he was living in at the time. Today, there's also a memorial dedicated to Rommel's memory in his birthplace of Heidenheim, a memorial stone at the site of his forced suicide, and a museum in Egypt.

Memorial at the site of Rommel's suicide (Photo: Olga Ernst)
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Though Rommel died, his long shadow, cast by the spotlight of both Allied and Nazi propaganda, lived on. He became a prime example of the "good German" after the war, supporting the idea that many Germans had nothing to do with the Nazi atrocities and were only fighting for the country. As the Iron Curtain descended over Europe and the Cold War spread across the world, Rommel and other "good German" generals became the symbolic core of the West German military, a key element in preserving the balance of power in Europe.
Rommel's myth also made him a popular figure in film, and he has appeared in several movies. The best-known of these is The Longest Day, in which he was portrayed by German actor Werner Hinz. More recently, Rommel's figure appeared as an old war hero in The Man in the High Castle, an alternate history TV series based on Philip K. Dick's 1962 novel, in which Germany won the war and where he became the first Reichsmarschall of Nazi America.

Werner Hinz (left) as Rommel in The Longest Day (Photo:

While Rommel's figure and legacy remains shrouded in myth, it is a comforting thought that remembrance and forgiveness eventually win over historical grudges. Rommel's only son, Manfred Rommel, became a good friend of George Patton IV, General Patton's son – Manfred was the mayor of the city of Stuttgart, and George, a Major General in the U.S. Army, was stationed at a nearby base. Manfred also befriended Field Marshal Montgomery's son, David Montgomery. Thus, the great African rivalry of the fathers gave way to the friendship of the sons.

Manfred Rommel (left) with David Montgomery (Photo: Stephen Lock)


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