There’s no doubt that Field Marshal Erwin Rommel is remembered as being one of the greatest commanders of the Second World War, even admired by his enemies during the war (notably the British and the Americans) for his skill and tactic in the battlefield, but there was also a personal side to him that I decided to investigate after seeing an article about a recent controversy involving the German military.
In short, the German Defense Minister wants the names of German military personnel from the Nazi era removed from modern military barracks, with the exception of Rommel because he had a certain degree of involvement in a plot to kill Hitler and paid for it with his life, although it is disputed what his role in it actually was. Like Rommel, I should also note that Hans-Joachim Marseille who also has a barrack named after him was never a member of the Nazi Party nor did he ever participate in war crimes, crimes against humanity or genocide during WWII.
In their book The Star of Africa: The Story of Hans Marseille, Colin D. Heaton and Anne-Marie Lewis (ISBN 978-0760343937) actually go as far as stating that Marseille actually had a distain for Nazism in general, and being openly anti-Nazi. The book states the following:
When Marseille first met Hitler in 1942 he did not form a positive impression. After returning to Africa, Eduard Neumman recalled, “After his first visit with Hitler, Marseille returned and said that he thought ‘the Führer was a rather odd sort’.” On the visit, Marseille also said some unflattering things about Hitler and the Nazi Party. Several senior officers, which included Adolf Galland and Nicolaus von Below, overheard his remarks during one of the award ceremonies. Von Below asked Marseille if he would join the Nazi Party and within earshot of others, Marseille responded, “that if he saw a party worth joining, he would consider it, but there would have to plenty of attractive women in it.” The remarks visibly upset Hitler who was left “puzzled” by his behaviour.
Click here to learn more about Hans-Joachim Marseille. The book also goes on to say that Marseille had Jewish friends at school and that when Marseille returned to his unit after overhearing a discussion about what was happening to Jews he asked his friends Franzisket, Clade and Schröer, whether they had heard what was happening to Jews and if perhaps something was underway that they did not know about. Franszisket recalled that he had heard Jews were being relocated to territory gained in the East but no more. Marseille recounted how he had attempted to ask questions about Jews who had vanished from his neighbourhood, including the family doctor that had delivered him at birth. Regardless of his hero status, when he attempted to bring the subject into any conversation with people who approached him, his enquiries were either met with awkward silences, or people changed the subject or even turned away. Franzisket noticed a change in Marseille’s attitude toward his nation’s cause. He never spoke of this with his comrades again.
Marseille’s friendship with his adopted helper is also used to show his anti-Nazi character. In 1942 Marseille befriended a South African Army prisoner of war, Corporal Mathew Letulu, nicknamed Mathias. Marseille took him as a personal helper rather than allow him to be sent to a prisoner of war camp in Europe. Over time, Marseille and Mathias became inseparable. Marseille was concerned how Mathias would be treated by other units of the Wehrmacht and once remarked “Where I go, Mathias goes.” Marseille secured promises from his senior commander, Neumann, that if anything should happen to him [Marseille] Mathias was to be kept with the unit. Mathias duly remained with JG 27 until the end of the war and attended post-war reunions until his death in 1984.
Now the big controversy is over whether or not Erwin Rommel was really one of the good guys as he is most often portrayed to be in the light of what is referred to as the “Rommel Myth” which has been a huge source of debate within the last decade or so. For basically the last 50 years Rommel has been portrayed by most as not only being a good soldier, but also a man of good character considering he was serving a terrible regime. Many authors describe Rommel as having a reputation of being a chivalrous, humane, and professional officer, and that he earned the respect of both his own troops and his enemies, mainly the British and the Americans.
Rommel is most famous for the Battle of El Alamein, but he had many military successes prior to his loss in North Africa and has often been lauded for his conduct during the war. In Normandy, Rommel withheld Hitler’s Commando Order to execute captured commandos from Army Group B, with his units reporting that they were treating commandos as regular POWs. Many other authors argue that generosity to opponents was a natural trait of the man, like Claus Telp who states that Rommel by nature was chivalrous and not prone to order needless violence, or Robert Forczyk who considers Rommel a true great captain with chivalry. Maurice Remy states that due to the man’s personality and some special circumstances, he was only really confronted with the reality of atrocities in 1944 (although he had heard rumours about massacres while fighting in Africa).
Rommel had described the conduct of the desert war as “War without Hate” in his papers. Historian Martin Kitchen states that the reputation of the Afrika Korps was preserved due to circumstances: the sparsely populated desert areas did not lend themselves to ethnic cleansing; the German forces never reached Egypt and Palestine that had large Jewish populations; and in the urban areas of Tunisia and Tripolitania, the Italian government constrained the German efforts to discriminate against or eliminate Jews who were Italian citizens. Despite this, the North African Jews themselves believed that it was Rommel who prevented the “Final Solution” from being carried out against them when German might dominated North Africa from Egypt to Morocco. According to Curtis and Remy, 120,000 Jews lived in Algeria, 200,000 in Morocco, about 80,000 in Tunisia (when the Germans invaded Tunisia in 1942, this number remained the same), 26,000 in Libya. According to Marshall, he sharply protested the Jewish policies, other immoral activities and was an opponent of the Gestapo. He also refused to comply with Hitler’s order to execute Jewish POWs. (His own Afrika Korps was known among soldiers of Jewish descent as a refuge, safe from racial laws and discrimination). At his 17 June 1944 meeting with Hitler at Margival, he protested against the atrocity committed by the 2nd SS Panzer division Das Reich, which had massacred the citizens of the French town of Oradour-sur-Glane.
Despite being admired for his good conduct with others, Rommel was said to be quite naive when it came to politics. In the beginning he did support a Nazi seizure of power despite that he never joined the Nazi Party or appeared to support their racial policies. He preferred to remain a man of his troops, only being a soldier without much inclination towards a political route though he generally not looked at as being completely apolitical despite his complicated and often bitter relationships with high-ranking Nazis.
Some authors cite, among other cases, Rommel’s naive reactions to what happened in Poland while being there: he paid a visit to his wife’s uncle, famous Polish priest and patriotic leader Edmund Roszczynialski, who was murdered days after, which was never found out by Rommel who, at his wife’s urgings, kept writing letter after letter to Himmler’s adjutants asking them to keep track and take care of their relative. Knopp and Mosier agree that he was naive politically, citing his request for a Jewish Gauleiter in 1943. Despite this, Peter Lieb finds it hard to believe that a man of Rommel’s position could have known nothing about atrocities, although Lieb accepts that locally he was separated from places these atrocities happened, while Der Spiegel comments that Rommel was simply in denial about what happened around him. Alaric Searle points out that it was the early diplomatic successes and bloodless expansion that blinded Rommel to the true nature of his beloved Fuhrer, whom he kept naively supporting. Scheck believes that it might be forever unclear whether Rommel recognized the unprecedent depraved character of the regime. When Rommel learned about the atrocities SS Division Leibstandarte committed in Italy in September 1943, he allegedly forbade his son to join the Waffen-SS.
During recent years, historians’ opinions on Rommel have become more diversified, with some aspects of his image being the target of revisionism more frequently than the others. According to the prominent German historian Hans-Ulrich Wehler, the modern consensus agrees with post-war sources that Rommel treated the Allied captives decently, and he personally thinks that the movie Rommel does not overstate his conscience. Also according to Wehler, scholars in England and the US still show a lot of admiration towards Rommel the military commander. Some authors, notably Wolfgang Proske, see Rommel as a criminal whose memorials should be removed, although these represent the unorthodox minority (which is admitted by Proske). Perry and Massari note that the majority of historians continue to describe Rommel as a brilliant, chivalrous commander.
Historian Claus Telp remarks that, “For all his craftiness, Rommel was chivalrous by nature and not prone to order or condone acts of needless violence. He treated prisoners of war with consideration. On one occasion, he was forced to order the shooting of a French lieutenant-colonel for refusing to obey his captors.” Historian Raffael Scheck says, “Although there is no evidence incriminating Rommel himself, his unit did fight in areas where German massacres of black French prisoners of war were extremely common in June 1940.” Rommel, no matter how hard the situation was, made a deliberate effort at always spending some time with soldiers and patients, his own and POWs alike, which contributed greatly to his reputation of not only being a great commander but also “a decent chap” among the troops.
The political scientist and historian Randall Hansen suggests that Rommel chose his whole command style for the purpose of spreading meritocracy and egalitarianism, as well as Nazi ideals he shared with Hitler due to their common non-aristocratic background. His egalitarianism extended to people of other races: in replying to white South African officers’ demands that the black POWs should be housed in separated compounds, he refused, commenting that the black soldiers wore the same uniforms and had fought alongside the whites, and thus were their equals. On the other hand, Watson comments that, regarding the Afrika Korps, any Nazi indoctrination was minimised, allowing Rommel the freedom to reinvent his army in his own style.
An obvious example of how politically naive Rommel was how in 1943, he surprised Hitler by proposing that a Jew should be made into a Gauleiter to prove to the world that Germany was innocent of accusations that Rommel had heard from the enemy’s propaganda regarding the mistreatment of Jews. To which Hitler responded:
Dear Rommel, you understand nothing about my thinking at all.
Messenger argues that Rommel’s attitude towards Hitler changed only after the Allied invasion of Normandy, when Rommel came to realise that the war could not be won, while Maurice Remy suggests that Rommel never truly broke away from the relationship with Hitler, but praises him for “always had the courage to oppose him whenever his conscience required so.” The historian Peter Lieb states that it was not clear whether the threat of defeat was the only reason he wanted to switch sides. The relationship seemed to go downhill much after a conversation in July 1943, in which Hitler told Rommel that if they did not win the war, the Germans could rot. Rommel even began to think that it was lucky that his Afrika Korps was now safe as POWs and could escape Hitler’s Wagnerian ending. Die Welt comments that Hitler chose Rommel as his favourite because he was apolitical, and that the combination of his military expertise and circumstances allowed Rommel to remain clean.
There is also, especially in Germany, an increasing tendency to portray Rommel as someone who cannot be explained in concrete details yet. However, these modern authors, while respecting the man and his mythical aura, are not afraid to show his questionable traits, or point out the horrible (including the possible) consequences of his “politically extremely naive” actions that perhaps would not be fitting of a role model, and allow living witnesses who might portray Rommel in a negative light to speak in documentaries about him, to the extent some, like General Storbeck, consider excessive and unbalanced (Storbeck states that there are many other witnesses who will provide the opposite views, and also questions the use of an extremely ill Manfred Rommel to achieve a portrayal filmmakers want).
Historian Cornelia Hecht remarks “It is really hard to know who the man behind the myth was,” noting that in numerous letters he wrote to his wife during their almost 30-year marriage, he commented little on political issues as well as his personal life as a husband and a father. Butler states that Rommel’s idealistic character led to grave misjudgements because he refused to let anything compromise it, and also that although he had a sense of strategy that developed greatly during the war, he lacked a philosophy of war.
In conclusion, Maurice Remy concludes that, unwillingly and probably without ever realising, Rommel was part of a murderous regime, although he never actually grasped the core of National Socialism. Peter Lieb sees Rommel as a person who could not be put into a single drawer, although problematic by modern moral standards, and suggests people to personally decide for themselves whether Rommel should remain a role model or not. Modern historians who agree with the image of the apolitical, chivalrous genius also have different opinions regarding details. Smith and Bierman opine that Rommel might be considered an honourable man in his limited way but in a deeply dishonourable cause, and that he played the game of war with no more hatred for his opponent than a rugby team captain might feel for his opposite number.