This year on October 14th to be precise will be the 68th anniversary of the death by suicide of perhaps Germany’s most famous wartime soldier, Erwin Rommel.
Rommel was born in 1891 and was I suppose always destined to become a serving soldier. In fact, as a young ambitious cadet, he would later see service and serve with distinction in the First World War, receiving for his courage the coveted Iron Cross, first class from the soon to be disposed, Kaiser Wilhelm.
The coveted “Pour le merit” would soon be his and would forever be worn with pride on his uniform chest.
Yet it was his military tactics that perhaps initiated the legend that would later swirl around the man and his myth. His military manual The infantry attacks became a best seller and it didn’t do any harm to his bank account, and “Hitler certainly read it,” wrote David Irving. I’m sure he knew of it and approved the theory in the little book that the armed forces be prepared for a future war that Hitler was thinking and preparing for even before his victory at the polls in 1933.
By 1934-1939 Erwin Rommel seems to have succumbed to the Hitler spell, both by promotion and praise from Hitler. I’m not sure if he was ever a fully paid party member but he seems to have attended study weekends, prepared by the Nazis, so he must have had some inkling of what their future agenda was concerning the Jews and their fate, and the idea of settling the German race in conquered lands of the East. But perhaps he just thought of himself as a patriot who had after all sworn a loyalty oath to Hitler. Politics it seems didn’t concern him or his conscience.
By 1939 Hitler had promoted him from Colonel Rommel to Major General, having previously offered him a signed photo of himself as well as an inscribed copy of Mein Kampf. Later he would gushingly write to his wife exclaiming, “Isn’t it wonderful we have this man.” Once when an assassination attempt on Hitler’s life was thwarted he again wrote to his wife hysterically proclaiming, “It is inconceivable if the attempt had succeeded.” Ah, when men create their own gods does it not always collapse into tribulation and tears when you turn your face away from the true God.
If he courted the friendship of Himmler and Goebbels he foolishly made a lifelong enemy of Martin Bormann, who would later help destroy the career of Rommel in the dying days of the Reich. But now he had become “The Fuehrer’s General” and how he must have basked in that added glory. Of the evil dimension that was Nazism, Rommel seems to have quickly ignored it. How simple is it not to delude oneself. But how difficult it is to admit it to oneself when those blinkers have fallen away from deluded eyes.
I am now convinced in what has emerged since the Wars end, through released official papers, was how Erwin Rommel was aware of the atrocities being committed by the SS special extermination squads that accompanied and followed his own troops. But through his ambition and arrogance, he ignored these facts and figures. If Rommel had not succumbed by poisoning on Oct. 14th 1944 he would have surely been hanged at Nuremberg with his fellow army officers Jodl and Keitel a year later on Oct. 16th 1945.
The fall of France so quickly to Rommel’s panzers added more glory to his name and with a welcome promotion to follow. In Warsaw in 1939 Rommel was there with Hitler and must have witnessed or heard in the mess something of the brutal measures what Hitler was preparing for the suffering people of Poland.
Some recent released SAS journals reveal that there were contingency plans for a swift commando team to fly to N. Africa and kidnap Rommel, known as “Operation Flipper.” It was to bring him back to England to be eventually used for perhaps propaganda purposes. It’s interesting that by then Rudolph Hess was also being held in custody by Churchill’s coalition Government and the thought of both men confined to the Tower of London together or elsewhere seems very amusing. Yet on a more serious note the SAS report later stated that “only 22 of the 65 soldiers who took part returned alive,” a tragic failure. However, it may well be the War Office planners in London saw a chink or were informed by German Intelligence that the slavish devotion of Rommel towards Hitler’s leadership was perhaps slowly beginning to fade.
Today the popular Rommel myth of the so-called “good German” seems to have been promoted in Africa (circa 1942) with the chief cheerleader being surprisingly General Bernard Montgomery. Even Churchill in his post-war memoirs could bizarrely praise Rommel seven times in one paragraph. So was he blind to Rommel’s deferential obedience to Hitler or did he know something we didn’t know, so much even today is still locked up. Mention should be made of a united press news agency story filed from their London bureau, dated January 1942, that reads: “One must admit that General Rommel has again proven his art of leadership in battle.” Even the American press had once referred to him as “the rascal among generals.” It sounds very affectionate, doesn’t it! In fact, this fan worship from the selected media must have had a psychological effect on the brave soldiers then fighting and falling in the deserts of Libya. Some might even call this a disservice to their honour and heroism, even sickening to hear and read in 2012. Even Montgomery it seems would allow nothing negative to be uttered or whispered about Rommel, even going so far to name his puppy “Rommel” as well.
Some years ago an old soldier who had served as a desert rat in 1942 told me that in his platoon several of the men had made up a rather rude ditty about Rommel, he was the enemy after all. Then later Monty, when hearing about it, had the offending men marched to his caravan HQ and suitably chastised them for their disgraceful behaviour. All very strange behaviour in the midst of a war it seems and even more confusing for the British troops fighting in the desert for a total victory over Rommel’s troops. Or maybe Montgomery and the Churchill establishment in London had always viewed Erwin Rommel as a future leader in waiting (perhaps even grooming him) for a position in a post-war Germany, when they could restructure a defeated nation if and when Hitler was finally removed forcibly or peacefully because it really didn’t matter in the end.
The final three months of Rommel’s life would be played out with drama and deceit. The drama of his serious wounds after being strafed in his staff car and the deceit of those who had Hitler’s ear maliciously implicating him in the plot to assassinate their leader. Later and naturally his personal army driver would describe him as, “a very correct German Soldier.” I suspect even Monty and Winston would agree with that naive statement.
And in those final months with Rommel’s allegiance and obedience to Hitler and the Nazis slowly diminishing, Erwin Rommel was now in “freefall.” If he knew this we do not know. But now all his natural instincts that had accompanied him so successfully in Africa and Europe seemed to have deserted him, perhaps all he could now be to pray if indeed he ever considered it as an option.
Yet ironically five days before the failed attempt on Hitler’s life in Rustenburg, on July 20 1944, Rommel too had been nearly killed, after a stray spitfire or Mustang (and there seems to be some doubt if the pilot was English or Canadian) who fired at him. Either way, Rommel nearly expired from the serious injuries on the operating table that he received that July day in France.
On the day of the attack on Hitler in the conference room of the wolf lair in the forest, Rommel lay however near to death in a Luftwaffe hospital hundreds of miles away drifting in and out of consciousness. He has been badly wounded in the face and head leaving him unable to rotate his left eye. He also had suffered the loss of hearing in his left ear. His pain must have been unbearable.
Later apparently when Rommel learned by radio of the news on Hitler’s life he was apparently shocked. He will later refuse to condone what the conspirators had done. It seems seriously underestimated his full support for what they had hoped would silence Hitler and bring the war to a conclusion. Today it still has to be asked in all seriousness did he previously know of what his fellow officers and close colleagues were plotting and planning to do. Did he agree or was he afraid? The answer to that is still a mystery that somehow today remains unsolved and perhaps always will.
One such witness who claimed that he had persuaded Rommel to be privy to the coup was Count Von Hofacker, an important witness in the Rommel circle and also brought into the equation was General Hans Spiedal, who would after the War play an import role in rebuilding the German army under NATO.
Spiedal it seems had wanted to replace Hitler with Rommel as a designated Head of State. I’m still not sure of Spiedal’s role in all of this and the fact that after his arrest he held out for weeks from the Gestapo interrogation seems strange to me. The infamous Klaus Barbie would and could boast that he could break a man in just over 24 hours who was in his hands and yet this general held out through it all and later escaped execution. Either way with so many of Rommel’s staff implicated or not Hitler naturally suspected Rommel was in this nest of traitors. Rommel would have to be punished, one way or another.
Finally, Erwin Rommel preferred death on his own terms and not on Hitler’s. It would not be however by pistol as you would expect from a serving soldier but by a poison pill. It was after all a suicide so well orchestrated that it could have come straight out of a textbook.
One witness describes the event: “I saw Rommel sitting in the back of his car, obviously dying. He was unconscious, slumped down and sobbing….his cap had fallen off. I sat him upright and put his cap back on again.”
After biting on the potassium cyanide in a matter of seconds death would arrive and hadn’t Rommel always been expecting its cold hand to reach out to him one day, either on the battlefield on in the quiet fields of France, then for him, it was over.
“…and him that cometh to me I will in no wise cast out” (John 6:37.)
Somehow between 1942/3, Erwin Rommel’s dangerous devotion to Adolph Hitler deteriorates. By now his sworn loyalty reverts back to Germany, perhaps to its people and to the millions of serving young soldiers who were suffering, starving and being slaughtered on the lost Russian front. This I believe could have been the spark that involved him in an attempted coup against the Hitler regime that he had loved and been so loyal to and naturally it would emanate from the military (as most coups do.) Yet his lasting reputation seems to be tarnished forever since his death in spite of his continuing popularity.
Erwin Rommel may well have secured his prized baton in his kit bag but did he carry also a Holy Bible for future sustenance and strength through his own dark night of the soul that was soon approaching him in those early days of October 1944.
(Rommel’s ostentatious headstone)
So, in conclusion, my research has offered me the opportunity to examine six books (and there are more as well) about the man, his life and his alleged role in the plot on Hitler’s life that in the end for him and so many others, sadly failed.
And always I have to enquire did he or did he not offer the conspirators his full support or did he vacillate to purchase time whatever the cost. Did he meekly send out messages of support that were perhaps misconstrued or was he afraid of what would happen to him and his family if it all went terribly wrong?
Erwin Rommel was the brilliant soldier who led his beloved “Africa Corp” to perhaps their finest hour in those dangerous days of 1941/2. Then only later to see its reputation and Erwin Rommel’s lost forever in the historical sands of the desert.
“And as it is appointed unto men once to die but after the judgment.”
Manfred Rommel, the son of Erwin Rommel, died on Nov. 7th 2013, aged 84. He was a long time champion of his father’s memory and role in German wartime history.
Quoted books for research
Rommel the end of a legend, Ralf Georg Reuth
The trail of the Fox, David Irving
Get Rommel, Michael Asher
The Rommel Plot, John Tarrant
Rommel And Patton, Richard Rohmer
Rommel, Ward Rutherford
(Dedicated to CPW and he will know why)
9th October 2012
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