Thursday, May 31, 2007

Amazing as it may seem, a senior Wehrmacht commander wasn't such a nice guy after all

This story, has been reported in various guises. The gist of it is:
Erwin Rommel's reputation as one of Nazi Germany's few chivalrous generals has been blackened by a new documentary film which depicts the legendary "Desert Fox" as an unscrupulous commander who spearheaded Hitler's attempts to take the Holocaust to the Middle East.

He helped set up an SS unit dedicated to the extermination of Jews in Palestine and, the article ends:

The documentary makers argue that the role Rommel played in supporting the Nazis' plans to export the Holocaust to the Middle East was largely forgotten after the war because of the field marshal's later alleged involvement in the July 1944 plot to assassinate Hitler...

Post-war Germany capitalised on the notion of Rommel as a chivalrous Nazi commander. However records show that he ordered his non-white prisoners to be fed less than whites and that he ordered unarmed black prisoners to be needlessly shot during the making of a Nazi propaganda film in 1940. In 1970, the Germany navy named a destroyer after him.

I can see why the image of the chivalrous warrior was so appealing. The problem is that it depends, in part, on his own assessment (Rommel once claimed that his military campaign against the British was a chivalrous affair and the nearest thing to "war without hate" - well if you say so, general), ignoring the rather significant context in which Rommel 'did his duty' and the enduring stereotype of the 'good German' . This latter was something which Allied propaganda encouraged, partly in the hope of driving a wedge between the Nazi leaders and their soldiers and partly because large numbers of people were well aware that not all Germans were evil.

The idea of Rommel as a 'good German' remains popular in Britain; a curious example of who people come to believe their own propaganda if it offers a more comforting view of history.

I may have even helped perpetuate it myself in a small way. The following is one of the better Dornan stories from World War II: my grandfather met Rommel during the desert campaign. He was an army doctor and, at the height of the campaign, the medics on both sides were forced to set up their field hospitals wherever possible. Due to the fluid nature of the campaign there was always a risk that the front would shift decisively and they'd find themselves on the wrong side of the campaign.

The story goes that one day a convoy drove up to the hospital, and to the astonishment of the medics and patients out stepped Rommel. He spoke to the German patients, thanked the British officers for their care (shook hands? saluted?) and departed. They waited to be taken prisoner, but no other Germans appeared. It was possible that Rommel himself had crossed into British lines; it would however have been deeply unsporting for a bunch of medics to take him prisoner under the circumstances.

A couple of observations here: it shows Rommel in a fairly good light ('thank you, for looking after my soldiers, Captain Dornan') although one imagines a bona fide war criminal like Keitel would possibly have done something similar under the circumstances.

The other is that while I like the story, I've no way of assessing its truth. For one thing my grandfather - another William - died ten years before I was born. The other is that the Dornans do have something of a habit of embellishing our anecdotes (Irish family, see). "It's not a bad story, but it can be improved with the retelling" is something of a mantra.

With this latter in mind, I was delighted when someone I knew in Cork quoted back a similar version of this story to me; down to the detail that it involved an Irish unit, or at least Irish soldiers serving in the British army. I doubt the person who told me this story would have remembered it were it not for the fact that it involved the chivalrous desert warrior Rommel.

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3 Comments:

Anonymous Nick said...

I wouldn't be surprised if Spike Milligan (who famously fought in the North Africa campaign) had a similar story:

Danke, Herr Bluebottle, for looking after mein alfalfa bean-sprouts!

3:11 pm  
Blogger Quink said...

I've actually summoned up the strength to read this post. A fine yarn.

2:13 pm  
Blogger Somers said...

I can confirm that story as my Grandad was in the field hospital and shook hands with Rommell. However, my Grandads account stated that the field hospital was captured by the Germans, but was liberated in a counter-attack the following day.

9:10 pm  

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