Erwin Rommel: Anti-Hitler Hero or Opportunistic Nazi Zero?

Major Alfred Becker, General Edgar Feuchtinger and Field Marshall Erwin Rommel. Riva-Bella, France. 18 May 1944. Bundesarchiv.

Erwin Rommel: Anti-Hitler Hero or Opportunistic Nazi Zero?

Was he bravely standing up to Hitler, or just reading the tea leaves?

Even before the end of World War II, German General Erwin Rommel’s fame was such that he was already being elevated into the Valhalla of such legendary warriors as Hannibal against the Roman Empire, Napoleon during his defensive campaigns of 1813-1814, and Robert E. Lee throughout the American Civil War.

Despite the fact that all four “Great Captains” were—in the final analysis—losers, they have loomed far larger in the public mind than those who defeated them. Thus it was that, with Erwin Rommel as well, myth became legend and legend became fact.

Charismatic, dashing, and colorful, Erwin Rommel burst onto the scene in the public consciousness in the spring of 1941 when his first unexpected offensive in the Western Desert of North Africa sent the formerly victorious British Eighth Army reeling in defeat after a year and a half of triumphs over the hapless Royal Italian Army.

According to noted British military expert and author Basil H. Liddell Hart—one of the recognized fathers of mechanized warfare—from 1941 on, Rommel’s name was the most prominent of all German field marshals and generals, reflecting his meteoric and unprecedented ascent from colonel to field marshal. Doubly an outsider, he was not a high-ranking member of the general staff, and all his major victories excepting France in 1940 were outside continental Europe.

His martial renown was deliberately fostered—shamelessly by both himself and as Hitler’s hand-picked choice of only two soldiers whom he made into popular heroes—“one in the sun and one in the snow.”

Rommel was the “sun hero” for his exploits in North Africa and Edouard Dietl, who rose through the ranks from private before the Great War to four-star general in Finland in 1942, was the “snow hero.” Thus Hitler ordered Nazi Propaganda Minister Dr. Josef Goebbels to make Rommel the most enduring Nazi-sponsored hero of World War II.

Following Rommel’s forced suicide in 1944, it fell to the victorious Allies to keep alive the spark of the Rommel legend, that of the “good German” who, in the end, had defied the Führer. Thus he found a new life as the patron saint of the West German Bundeswehr (Armed Forces) in 1955 when that force joined the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO), which his own deputy once headed.

One man whose career Rommel consciously emulated was T.E. Lawrence (aka Lawrence of Arabia), and it would have been interesting to have seen them pitted against each other had the latter lived long enough. Both desert warriors created their own legends and burnished their images in their wartime writings, much as Julius Caesar and Napoleon had earlier.

According to his first major biographer, British Brig. Gen. Desmond Young, “The outstanding feature of Rommel’s successes is that they were achieved with an inferiority of force, and without any command of the air. No other general on either side gained victory under such conditions.”

“Where Rommel Is, the Front Is!”

Erwin Johannes Eugen Rommel was born on November 15, 1891, at Heidenheim, a small town in Württemberg near the city of Ulm. His namesake father was a schoolteacher and mathematician, as was his father before him. His father died in 1913 and his mother in 1940, when her already famous son was a major general commanding a panzer division.

Rommel entered the Imperial German Army as an enlisted officer candidate at age 18 in 1910, when his father had opposed his going to work for the Zeppelin works at Friedrichshafen, and thus it was that he served in the ranks before going on to the War Academy.

Promoted to corporal that October, he was raised to the rank of sergeant the following December. In March 1911, Rommel was stationed at the War Academy at Danzig in East Prussia.

Rommel found himself in action against the French soon after Kaiser Wilhelm II brought Imperial Germany into what became known as World War I. The battlefield turned him into the soldier supreme. Typical of the daring, dash, and personal bravery under fire that began then and continued throughout the remainder of his martial career was his being wounded in the thigh near Varennes on September 24, 1914, when he charged three French soldiers with an empty rifle. By the end of the war in 1918, a saying had become famous in all the units in which he had served: “Where Rommel is, the front is!”

Having been awarded the highest decoration that Imperial Germany could offer—Frederick the Great’s Pour le Merite or “Blue Max” medal (named after German air ace Lieutenant Max Immelmann), Rommel was retained in the new Republican Army after the fall of the Hohenzollern dynasty and the loss of the war in 1918.

Rommel’s Ghost Division

He spent the (for him) dreary but personally happy interwar years doing typical garrison duty: drill and training, commanding ever larger units, lecturing at war academies in both Germany and Austria, and honing his skiing abilities as commander of a mountain battalion at Goslar in 1935.

It was there that he had a chance but fateful encounter with the new chancellor of the German Reich, Adolf Hitler. When Lt. Col. Rommel was informed that a line of the Führer’s elite SS Leibstandarte Adolf Hitler troops would stand between his own men and Hitler at a formation, he asserted that, in such a case, his men would not parade. Hitler got the message and took note of this forceful officer.

This first positive impression was reinforced in 1937 with the publication of instructor Rommel’s book, Infantry in the Attack, which was adopted by the Swiss Army as a training manual. Hitler read the book as well and again noted the identity of its author. Three times—in October 1938 and in March and September 1939—the Führer personally selected Rommel to head his military bodyguard unit as he entered the Sudetenland, Czechoslovakia, and Poland in quick succession.

From his unique vantage point aboard Hitler’s special command train, codenamed Amerika (later changed to Brandenburg), Rommel had a bird’s-eye view from which to observe the new field technique of Blitzkrieg (lightning war). At the conclusion of the campaign, when Hitler asked him what he wanted to do next, Rommel boldly asked for command of an armored division in the coming campaign against the Western Allies, although all of his previous 29 years had been spent first in the infantry and then in the Alpenkorps.

He was given the 7th Panzer Division, relieving General Georg von Stumme, who would, in late 1942, replace him briefly during the Second Battle of El Alamein. He took command on February 15, 1940, and went into action at the head of his troops on May 10 when the Germans invaded Belgium, Holland, Luxembourg, and France in a six-week-long campaign that defeated all of them and sent the British Expeditionary Force fleeing back to England from Dunkirk.

Rommel’s own part in all of this earned his division the nickname of “Ghost Division” for its rapid and historic swift advances. T.E. Lawrence had seen desert warfare akin to that of the sea, with his light, mobile forces striking when, where, and how they pleased. In France Rommel employed the same concept with his armored units, telling his men, “We’ll do it like the Navy,” firing their tanks’ guns left and right as they advanced into the rear of the demoralized enemy, all the while constantly moving, gaining ground, and producing a stunning, shattering, psychological effect on the defeated foe.

He replicated these tactics in the Western Desert when he was posted there by Hitler in February 1941 to aid the retreating legions of Italian Fascist Leader Benito Mussolini in what was intended to be merely a supporting role.

Outshining the Italians in North Africa

Rommel proved himself to be the ultimate independent commander once he arrived at Tripoli in Italian Libya, however, and immediately launched an attack that caught the British Army of the Nile completely by surprise. From the start, the new commander of the Afrika Korps—later expanded to Panzer Army Africa and then to Panzer Group Africa—operated under several daunting handicaps.

First, he was nominally under the command of the Comando Supremo (Supreme Command) in Rome, as well as under the Italians on the spot and under his own German superiors at Hitler’s headquarters in far-off East Prussia. Next, despite the presence of the battle-hardened Luftwaffe, he was always outnumbered in the air by the Royal Air Force and, during late 1942-May 1943, by the Americans as well.

The British air and naval presence on the island of Malta bedeviled his supply efforts throughout his desert campaigns, and the high command of the German armed forces never gave his theater priority until after the American invasion of North Africa in November 1942. By then it was too late, as he had already been defeated by the British Eighth Army in the Second Battle of El Alamein.

Desert warfare was by definition mobile fighting, making tanks top priority and infantry of little actual use other than as garrison troops doing occupation duty. When retreating, Rommel always opted to transport his German forces first, leaving the Italians behind to walk.