The Rommel Myth: Fact or Fiction?

Oliver – Year 11 Student

Editor’s Note: Oliver Y11 writes expertly on Rommel, general and military theorist. He examines the validity of the ‘Rommel Myth’, addressing his prowess in battle and beyond, and answering the question at the crux of the myth: was Rommel a Nazi? Mei – Chief Editor, Humanities Journal

Erwin Rommel is described in a plethora of ways. To many, despite his role in the Second World War as one of Hitler’s leading officers, he was ‘a good German’, a man whom even Winston Churchill described as a great general. In Germany, the twenty-two ‘Rommel’ streets and two army barracks named after him show the deep admiration still present for the ‘Desert Fox’. His victories, and even his defeats, are still examined in military compounds around the world. Historians and politicians alike praise his supposed morals, and he has been immortalised in not one, but two Hollywood films.

Erwin Rommel. [Creative Commons: Bundesarchiv, Bild 146-1977-018-13A / Otto / CC-BY-SA 3.0]

Evidently, the question is not whether Rommel has had an impact upon society, but whether this said impact is supported by fact or fiction. Known as the ‘The Rommel myth’, it essentially involves three elements: firstly, that the Field Marshall was a military genius. Secondly, that the war fought in North Africa was a ‘clean war’ and finally, that Rommel was not a Nazi. Created by a number of prominent Allied military officers and politicians, spread through film and literature, it ultimately aimed to help reconcile West Germany with Britain and America after World War Two; not an easy task, though nonetheless one it has succeeded in. However, after decades of invincibility, the character of Rommel is under investigation once more, not only in this essay, but globally. Disputes among the German government are surfacing over the Field Marshall’s role as the poster boy of the Bundeswehr (the German army), his association with a genocidal regime, and even his long acknowledged military genius is under scrutiny. This essay will aim to both shed light upon the complex nature of one of the Second World War’s icons, and to decide to what extent he can be considered a humane soldier, a great general, and a devoted Nazi.

Johannes Erwin Eugen Rommel was born in November 1891 to a family of five. By all accounts, he was more fascinated with mechanics than war; nevertheless, he joined the military in 1912 aged 18. His service in WW1, which involved service in Romania and Italy, was very successful and he made a name for himself with his characteristically fast-paced manoeuvres. As recognition of his service, he received the ‘Pour Le Mérite’, the highest decoration available in Germany at the time. Having said this, he was still a relatively obscure figure as the war drew to a close in 1918. Although what historians refer to as the ‘Rommel Myth’ had not yet begun, it would appear that his military genius still reared its head. So far, that part of the legend at least is intact.

Subsequently, 1919 marked the conception of Rommel’s chivalrous reputation. He was ordered to Friedrichshafen, Lake Constance, a region in Germany tortured by unrest and radical sentiment. Having subdued his rebellious troops through ‘sheer force of personality’, he was directed to Lindau. This town had been overrun by revolutionary communists, and it appeared that it would meet a bloody fate, just like the numerous other rebellions flaring up across Bavaria at the time. Incredibly, Rommel managed to negotiate a peaceful surrender of the town without any casualties. For those who would now consider Rommel a Nazi, the fact that he spared a town of communists, regarded as Hitler’s greatest enemies, curiously appears to avoid scrutiny. We can imagine the impact that this turbulent period had on Rommel, with an enfeebled Germany tearing itself apart. This might have caused resentment as it did with Hitler, yet the incidents at Constance appear to suggest otherwise.

It was not until 1934 that Rommel met Hitler for the first time. The ultimate mystery of Rommel is the extent of his fascist beliefs, and whilst there is a paucity of evidence from this period, the fact that Hitler appointed him commander of the ‘Führerbegleitbatallion’, his personal guard, suggests that the two men had cordial relations. However, conflict over the level of training Hitler Youth Members should receive (1937) suggests that he was not a lackey of the Nazi government. It was in 1937 that Rommel published his most famous book, ‘Infanterie greiftan’, or ‘Infantry Attacks’; it became an immediate best seller, and Hitler himself owned a copy. Military historians often refer to this work as ‘Blitzkrieg for the Infantry’, and whilst controversial at the time, it displays many of the innovative tactics that Rommel had theorised. Whilst being a flawed general, Rommel had a certain talent for thinking outside the box – it must be remembered that as Rommel imagined the war of movement that would define the Second World War, the Allied commanders in 1940 were preparing for a re-run of WW1.

When the invasion of Poland began on September the 1st, Rommel, as commander of Hitler’s security, followed him everywhere. Since the Fuhrer insisted on travelling close to the front in his armoured train, the general was frequently able to observe Panzer divisions in action. When the Poland campaign drew to a close in early October, Rommel began to lobby for command of one of them, having witnessed the power of its formations – it is worth noting that at this point only ten existed. It is a testament to the deep admiration Hitler had for Rommel that his request was accepted, despite the protests of several officers of superior rank within the German Army. Thus, by May 1940, Rommel was in command of the Seventh Panzer division, and his exploits were to captivate the German people.

At dawn on May 10th, ‘Fall Gelb’ began. As German units marched into the Low Countries, the Seventh Panzer Division entered the Ardennes, a heavily-wooded area of hills, which the French High Command considered impassable for tanks. Rommel initially followed orders, but six days into the invasion of France, ignored all the pleas of the OKW (German High Command) and pushed on over the next six weeks towards the English Channel, encircling the British Expeditionary Force. By the following morning, the entire French Second Army Corps had been completely shattered, and Rommel had lost a mere thirty-six men. During this period, his unit had disappeared from the view of the OKW, a recurring theme that earned it the name ‘Ghost Division’.

Following the Battle of France, although Rommel was awarded the Knight’s Cross in recognition of his service, his actions and those of the other Panzer commanders had stunned most German generals, and with good reason. While military strategists tend to look back at what is named ‘Blitzkrieg’ with admiration, Rommel had taken huge risks with little consideration of the logistical problems attached to his advance. The majority of the German Army still relied on horses for supplies, and could not hope to keep up with the rapid Panzers. Having said this, The Major General probably recognized the confusion that riddled French soldiers following the attack through the Ardennes, and it was certainly right to exploit it. Furthermore, Rommel was reportedly everywhere at once – he directed river crossings, observed surrenders and moved with his vanguard. By doing so, he showed his peers that he could lead from the front and proved his prowess as an operational General. As France capitulated soon after Rommel reached the Channel coast, his reputation as a military genius was assured.

Yet there is more to be said about the other aspects of the ‘Rommel myth’. There are various reports of atrocities committed by Rommel’s troops that could tarnish his reputation for chivalry. Some historians claim that the Seventh Panzer division executed Colonial French troops. Others sugguest that human shields were created using other POWs, although none of these incidents can be traced directly back to Rommel. Furthermore, certain historians argue that the large numbers of fanatic Nazi officers present in his formation made these atrocities inevitable. However, one controversy can certainly be traced to Rommel. The German personally ordered the execution of a French officer who refused to cooperate, having been taken prisoner thrice. Some historians argue that this was a viable legal option, others that it was a war crime; the fact that the officer wasn’t armed makes the action unchivalrous at best, even if not technically a war crime. Regardless, it must be remembered that Rommel would have been under the most tremendous pressure at this time, and that this appears to have been an isolated incident.

Rommel’s success in France, combined with the disastrous Italian assault into Egypt (June 1940), influenced Hitler to assign him head of the ‘Afrika Korps’, a mere two divisions that were supposed to stiffen the Italian army in Libya. Upon arrival, Rommel, although subordinate to the Italian officers, defied all orders and began a limited offensive against British positions in the desert. Taking Commonwealth forces by complete surprise, what started as a minor offensive turned into a semi-rout, as the Allies were pushed back into Egypt, with the exception of those holed up in Tobruk. It would appear that this confirms Rommel’s military genius, with this operation being one of his many decisive victories in North Africa. He seems to be a general capable of ruthless exploitation of opportunity, and many argue that his eventual defeat there was not his fault. However, the North African campaign revealed what was probably the Field Marshall’s greatest strategic flaw: Rommel seemed to have no consideration for logistics.

The Axis effort in North Africa was marred by supply problems throughout, many caused by the RAF’s interference from their strategic island base on Malta. However, many more were caused by Rommel himself; for his reckless advances, whilst apparently successful, always met an eventual end when German and Italian forces ran out of fuel and ammunition. Whilst many suggest that his advances were worthwhile regardless, I would argue that the decisive Allied victory at El Alamein, which began a colossal retreat by his army (which to his credit was conducted very efficiently) and ultimate defeat in Africa, was caused more by the exhaustion of his own troops rather than the skill of Allied forces. Either way, most, if not all, of Rommel’s defeats were caused by logistical faults that could have, and perhaps should have, been prevented.

The aspect of the myth that can be confirmed from the war in Africa is Rommel’s reputation for chivalry. Although treatment of African POWs at the hands of Italian guards is reported by some to have been appalling, Rommel would have been in no position to stop it, for his authority over Italian forces extended only to the battlefield. Furthermore, he regularly enquired about the condition of POWs in all camps, although did this with limited success. He seems to have been widely respected by British troops as a humane general, and there are numerous tales from both Allied and Axis troops describing how Rommel ensured that injured Allied soldiers received medical supplies. Perhaps this anecdotal evidence cannot be confirmed. However, veterans of the Allied ‘Desert Rats’ have agreed with Rommel that ‘the war in Africa was the nearest thing to a war without hate’.

Thus, as we enter 1944, with Rommel now posted in Normandy, it would appear that two of the three aspects of the ‘Rommel Myth’ are intact: our subject seems a talented, albeit flawed, military leader, as well as humane a general as circumstance would allow. Yet it is not that simple. For there is still the most important part of the myth to examine: the question of whether Rommel was a Nazi.

Most historians are certain that Rommel admired Hitler and his policies at first. It was only understandable for the German people, having witnessed economic depression, civil strife and the soul-destroying experience of WW1, to desire a new national identity and reclaim ‘Greater Germany’ – although Rommel’s diary entries suggest that he was originally unaware of the full extent of Hitler’s aims. However, there are some claims that Jewish citizens in Tripoli were mistreated throughout the war, though once again, there is no hard evidence to support them. More sinister and clear were Hitler’s intentions in Egypt after a German victory there. The infamous ‘Einsatzgruppen’ that plagued the Eastern Front throughout the war were ready to be sent to Egypt at a moment’s notice in order to ‘cleanse’ the cities of the Nile and Palestine of Jews and ‘other undesirables’. Although these plans were abandoned following the battles of El Alamein, Rommel must have been aware of them as the commanding officer of the proposed ‘Einsatzgruppen Egypt’ was sent to report to him in Africa, though this in itself provides no indication of his personal perspective on the matter.

All of this evidence appears pale in significance when compared to the 1944 July Bomb Plot, the now legendary incident in which conspirators from across the Wehrmacht attempted to assassinate Hitler on the 20th July for the good of Germany. The ‘Rommel Myth’ created in the 1950s emphasised Rommel’s part in the plot, a claim validated by Rommel’s forced suicide after being implicated by those enduring the mass torture that followed the failed assassination attempt. The idea that Rommel was a conspirator has since been rejected by many, and most historians today believe that although he was sympathetic towards the conspiracy, he was never directly involved. However, evidence unearthed in 2018 suggests a deeper involvement, with a collection of photos, eyewitness accounts and British records all pointing towards a conclusion I personally agree with: that Rommel was a conspirator in the attempt to kill Hitler. This suggests that he cannot be considered a Nazi in terms of the horrors associated with the word – a statement backed up by the fact Rommel never joined the Party itself.

Although we may never truly know the extent to which Rommel can be considered a ‘Nazi’, despite fierce debate over half a century, I believe that most of the legend associated with the ‘Myth’ is valid. Despite his various flaws, Rommel was certainly a talented strategist with a ‘killer instinct’ when it came to war, and his humane treatment of POWs won him the admiration of those who fought against him.

Oliver

Bibliography

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Historia vol.56 n.2 Durban Nov. 2011, Karen Horn

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