The Amazing (After) Life of Erwin Rommel

Erwin Rommel is an international hero today. His military exploits in both World Wars are studied by professionals and amateurs. He gave Hitler some spectacular military victories, but is also a hero of the anti-Hitler resistance.   How it happened is an amazing story.

Rommel was born in 1891, in the state of Wurttemberg.  He was not a Prussian or a Juncker, the landed gentry, who traditionally made up the German officer corps. Rommel earned every promotion and medal through battlefield bravery and hard work.

He was awarded the Pour le Merite (Blue Max) in 1917, when he was 26 years old.  During the interwar period, he commanded a mountain division where he famously outlasted soldiers half his age while leading them on cross-country ski exercises. 

In 1937, he published Infantry Attacks about his exploits in World War I.  The book is akin to a U.S. Army “after action report”.  It describes the troop dispositions before and after an attack, the plan of attack and how the tactical performance can be improved.  The book made him famous and he was promoted to command Hitler’s military headquarters during the Czechoslovakian occupation.  

Rommel didn’t last long in that posting. He was rude to people that he thought were inferior to him mentally or as military leaders and he was often insubordinate to his superiors.  He offended most of military and political sycophants hanging around Hitler’s headquarters. The outcry soon caused Rommel to be reassigned. 

During the 1940 invasion of France, Rommel commanded the 7th Panzer Division, nicknamed the “Ghost Division” because it advanced so rapidly that even his superiors couldn’t find him.  Rommel was rewarded with another promotion.

His detractors ensured that Rommel would not serve in the Russian invasion where everyone expected to win glory, medals and promotions.  Instead he was sent to a backwater campaign in North Africa.  The irony of the plot is that Rommel became even more famous as the Desert Fox. 

North Africa changed Rommel’s view of the war. In North Africa, the Germans and the British lacked supplies and repurposed all captured equipment. When the Americans arrived in late 1942, Rommel noticed that the Americans didn’t care about their material losses which he interpreted as having unlimited supplies. That meant Germany couldn’t win.  

By the time he was reassigned to France in November 1943, Rommel was writing an endless stream of negative assessments of the German defenses and chances of victory.  Each report convinced more people that Rommel was a defeatist. 

On July 17, 1944, Rommel was injured when his car was strafed by an enemy plane. On July 20, 1944, a group of military conspirators tried to assassinate Hitler.  There is no evidence that Rommel was a conspirator, but most of his senior staff was.  His enemies were easily able to convince Hitler that Rommel’s pessimistic military reports were proof that he was a conspirator.  On October 14, 1944, Rommel took poison in exchange for no charges being brought against some of his closest aides and his family.  

That leads to the final irony of the amazing life of Rommel.  In post-war West Germany, the political leaders were searching for heroes that could link the new democracy with a non-Nazi German past.  Rommel was a perfect fit. He was personally brave, militarily brilliant, linked to the anti-Hitler resistance and untainted by the war crimes on the Eastern Front. 

There are many biographies of Rommel, including Knight’s Cross, by David Fraser (1993).  Rommel’s own words are available in Infantry Attacks and The Rommel Papers, edited by Sir Basil Liddle Hart (1953).  

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