Erwin Rommel, the Desert Myth

January 10, 2019 | By Jim Stovall | Filed in: journalism.

One of the luckiest men of the 20th century in terms of having a continuing and positive public image is Erwin Rommel.

Rommel was “Adolph Hilter’s favorite general.” He was the Desert Fox, a moniker applied to him by British journalists. He was a chivalrous soldier who fought a “clean” war and refused Hitler’s orders to execute prisoners of war. He was part of a conspiracy to assassinate Hitler, although how much of a part he played in it has been debated since the end of the war.

The Nazi propaganda machined loved Rommel and built him into a hero because of his successes in North Africa. Rommel returned that love, repeatedly posing for the cameras as he directed tank divisions or studied strategic maps. The Germans needed a soldier-hero and Rommel fit the bill.

The Allies, too, loved Rommel for much the same reason. Rommel was touted by the British as a brilliant commander, which made the British victories against him so much more thrilling.

When Rommel died in 1944 — a forced suicide because he was implicated in the assassination conspiracy — the Nazis gave him a hero’s funeral and burial.

After the war, Rommel’s family reinforced this heroic image by authorizing an adoring biography, The Desert Fox by British author Desmond Young. That biography became the basis for the mega-hit movie, The Desert Fox, starring James Mason, that appeared in 1951 to great reviews and is still considered a classic rendition of his life.

Thus, the myth of Rommel, the good German, was cemented.

As time has passed, however, a more balanced view of Erwin Rommel has come into view. As historian Niall Barr has written:

Rommel possessed many military talents, but his flaws as a commander doomed him to failure. His lack of staff training meant that, for all his tactical success, he never properly understood the broader context of ‘his’ war in North Africa – or the fact that the campaign was essentially defensive for the Axis. Most importantly, his failure to understand the complex logistics of the North African theatre meant that his daring advances were never sustainable. Source: BBC – History – World Wars: Rommel in the Desert

Not only is his military prowess in question, but his role in the conspiracy to kill Hitler has been questioned. Rommel’s attitude toward Hitler, who had elevated him far more quickly that he would have been promoted through regular channels, was decidedly mixed.

Rommel’s image is no longer as heroic as it was in the first generation after the war, but it is still largely positive thanks not only to his achievement but also to the deliberate plans of those who want him as a hero.


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