The Life and Death of Desert Fox

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On Oct. 14, 1944, Germany’s most respected commander, Field Marshal Erwin Rommel, was forced to commit suicide for his involvement with the failed July 20 assassination attempt and coup against Adolf Hitler.

Unlike most of the German High Command that came from Prussian aristocracy, Erwin Johannes Eugen Rommel was born to a southern Swabian German family whose father was a school headmaster and professor. A bright youth with a technical mind, Rommel considered becoming an engineer, but instead chose the military route at the behest of his father. During World War I, Rommel earned a reputation for his bravery and his ability to defeat and capture forces overwhelmingly larger than his own as he served in France, Romania, and Italy. Wounded three times during the war, Rommel was awarded the Iron Cross twice as well as the Pour le Mérite (Imperial Germany’s equivalent of the Medal of Honor).

While on leave in 1916, Erwin married Lucia Maria Mollin, whom he had met in cadet school before the war. They had one son, Manfred Rommel, who would go on to become mayor of Stuttgart from 1974 to 1996 as a member of Germany’s center-right Christian Democratic Union party. Erwin and Lucia had a happy marriage, and he would write to her frequently, even as a commander in the Second World War.

Rommel continued to serve in the military as an instructor after the Great War. Although his views would later change, like many officers during the inter-war years, he was initially attracted to National Socialism and its promises of Germany’s return to glory. Rommel’s military record during war and peacetime and his positive relationship with key members of the Third Reich allowed for his rise in rank.

While WWI had made him a hero among Germans, WWII turned Rommel into a legend, respected both by his allies and his enemies. An able Panzer division commander, Rommel, frequently at the frontlines, himself, drove his forces into Belgium and France. His success in France led to a promotion as commander of the newly created Afrika Korps in 1941, which was sent to Libya to assist struggling Italian forces. In North Africa, Rommel earned the nickname the “Desert Fox” for his adept commanding, including his driving the British out of Libya and his decisive victory at the Battle of Gazala.

After briefly serving in Italy, Rommel was charged with defense of the Atlantic Wall against the expected Allied invasion of France. Despite his extensive efforts to build up German defenses in France, Rommel was in Germany on June 6, 1944 to celebrate his wife’s birthday as he did not expect the Allies to attack during the poor weather. Rommel’s improvements made the Allied invasion all the more deadly, but without his presence and with Hitler’s refusal to release reinforcements, the Allies established a vital foothold on the European continent. As the German position in France crumbled, Rommel was badly injured as his car crashed attempting to escape British air fire on July 17.

By 1944, Rommel had lost faith in Hitler and Germany’s chances of winning the war. After D-Day, he tried to convince the Führer of surrendering. On July 20, a failed assassination attempt and coup against Hitler (popularized in the 2008 film Valkyrie) took place. The Gestapo arrested anyone suspected of involvement. Interrogations brought up Rommel’s name.

Although Rommel was not directly involved and the extent of his involvement of the conspiracy is unclear, there is evidence that he had peripheral knowledge of the Valkyrie plot and supported Hitler’s removal. Realizing that trying Rommel publicly would be a devastating blow to morale, Hitler gave Rommel two options: to commit suicide and prevent his family and staff from being prosecuted or to face a kangaroo court. Rommel chose the former and died by cyanide pill in his home.

In addition to his legacy as a master tactician, Erwin Rommel had a reputation as a humane military leader. Allied POWs were apparently treated relatively well under his command. He refused orders to execute British commandos and French Jews. However, there is now a revisionist view that attempts to portray Rommel as a war criminal and anti-Semite just like other members of the top German brass.

Whatever the truth, Rommel is the only Third Reich figure to have a museum dedicated to him. To this day, he remains a legend, immortalized in military history books as well as in popular films, including The Longest Day.

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