Erwin Rommel comes as close to being a household name in America as a Nazi general can get. In 2008, for example, military historian Charles Messenger published a biography, Rommel: Leadership Lessons from the Desert Fox, that praised Rommel’s skill on the battlefield, arguing that his command style provided valuable lessons for the Gulf Wars of 1991 and 2003, as well as the U.S. war in Afghanistan. The foreword, written by former NATO commander Wesley Clark, remarks that “no foreign general has ever quite inspired as much passion, curiosity and respect among Americans as German Field Marshal Erwin Rommel.” A biography from 2015 is even more effusive. Daniel Allen Butler begins Field Marshal: The Life and Death of Erwin Rommel by confessing his admiration for the general and his courage to “speak Truth to Power.”
Butler, Messenger, and Clark aren’t neo-Nazis or standard bearers of the Alt-Right, either. Clark was a contender for the Democratic presidential nomination in 2004. Messenger is a mainstream military historian. The Washington Times once called Butler a “steamship nut,” in reference to his penchant for maritime history, but that’s hardly a sign of virulent racism.
A poll I conducted to research this article indicates that these authors’ esteem for Rommel reflects a broader recognition in American public consciousness. Of 119 people surveyed, ninety-six (80.7%) recognized his name, and by a much greater margin than any other German General of World War II. Awareness, of course, is not the same as admiration, but the takeaway here is that a lot of people at least know who Rommel was. He is even more famous than Claus von Stauffenberg, who tried to assassinate Hitler—a figure that people who oppose the tenets of National Socialism would more likely commend. In the same poll, only forty-four people (37.3%) recognized his name, though ninety participants (76.3%) recognized Operation Valkyrie, the plan to overthrow the Nazi regime, in which Stauffenberg played a decisive role. Widespread knowledge of Valkyrie, though, can likely find some credit with the 2008 movie of the same title, starring Tom Cruise.
Why is Erwin Rommel so well known, to Americans of all people? Is it because he won battles? He did, but so did other Nazi generals. Is it because he wasn’t a war criminal? Not exactly. While he may not have been as bad as some of his contemporaries, his hands were still not clean. Is Rommel famous because he defied Hitler? This is true as well, but plenty of generals argued with Hitler over military strategy. However, none of them—and Rommel was no exception— questioned the essence of Nazi ideology. Instead, Rommel’s lasting fame stems from a perfect storm of his own self-promotion, Nazi propaganda, and historical whitewashing. A crucial ingredient of this posthumous acclaim was the plot to kill Hitler, which climaxed on July 20th, 1944. Though Rommel himself was not a conspirator, the stewards of the German army’s postwar reputation tied him to it just enough to paint him as a victim, not only of a tyrannical regime but also his own conscience.
The (Not So) Strange Career of Erwin Rommel
A large part of Rommel’s fame derives from his victories on the battlefield. His panache as commander of the 7th Panzer Division during the invasion of France made him a hero in Germany. But it was his exploits in North Africa that made him an international figure, earning him the nickname ‘the Desert Fox.’ Under his command, the Africa Corps earned a reputation for bold action and odds-defying daring. The British had trounced the Italians in Libya, but Rommel pushed them back into Egypt.
His success in North Africa, though, was nowhere near total. His repeated, costly attempts to take the British fortress of Tobruk outraged his junior officers and appalled his superiors, who accused him of wasting his soldiers’ lives. Despite all of his impressive maneuvers, he was never quite able to score a decisive victory. Rommel’s momentum floundered in Egypt, and by the spring of 1943, British and American forces had pushed him into Tunisia, ultimately ending the Axis’s hold on the continent.
While Rommel’s battles garnered international acclaim, he was not Nazi Germany’s most talented general. Historians tend to argue that, while he possessed genuine nerve and a flare for tactics, he was not a top notch strategic thinker. B.H. Liddell Hart, who interrogated the Third Reich’s surviving military leaders after the war, called Erich von Manstein “the ablest of all German generals.” Before 1940, French soldiers had a reputation as tough, determined fighters. Manstein’s plan for the invasion of France inverted that perception, imprinting French soldiers with the (not altogether fair) stereotype of being prone to surrender. Heinz Guderian was the architect of not only the German panzer arm, but also some of the most lop-sided victories against the Soviet Union.
Yet if few people recognize their names, their lack of renown is well deserved because they were indisputably war criminals. Manstein encouraged his soldiers to participate in mass murder. Throughout his career, Guderian showed no qualms with the atrocities committed by S.S. and German Army units under his command.
The legend of Erwin Rommel attempts to separate him from Nazi Germany’s crimes. In Lessons in Leadership from the Desert Fox, Messenger concedes that Rommel “had his faults, not least a blindness to the evil of the regime he served,” but argues that such deficiencies are “outshone by his unique qualities.” Butler describes Rommel as “naive,” and “a man who could admire Adolf Hitler at the same time that he despised the Nazis.” This interpretation presents Rommel as a sort of Forrest Gump of the Third Reich: a man whose earnest, simple convictions came at the price of being ignorant to the dirtier workings of the world.
It is a view of Rommel that does not withstand much scrutiny. Though little research has been done regarding German soldiers’ treatment of civilians in North Africa, documentation of Italian soldiers under Rommel’s command does exist. After the Africa Corps retook Libya from the British, Italian soldiers looted and pillaged people’s homes for supplies and even riled the Arab population into pogroms against Jewish communities. Spurring local violence against the Jews contradicted broader Italian policies of the time, but such actions hewed closely to Nazi policies in Poland and the U.S.S.R. In any case, Rommel did nothing to intervene. When Rommel directed German forces in Italy, he implemented an order that deported thousands of prisoners of war and civilians to concentration camps in Germany.
There is also the curious encounter between Holocaust historian Raul Hilberg and Rommel’s son, Manfred. Hilberg was giving a talk in Stuttgart in the late 1970s. Afterward, Manfred, who was mayor at the time, came up to Hilberg and said, “My father told me about about the gas chambers in 1944.” Evidence shows, then, that Rommel not only had knowledge of the crimes of the Third Reich, but also, at least, abetted them.
Still, Rommel’s exploits in North Africa made him larger than life, and his legend overshadowed the more problematic aspects of his actual self. Hitler’s Propaganda Minister, Joseph Goebbels, declared in 1942 that he was “in the minds of our population the personification of the successful German soldier.” Claude Auchinleck, who commanded British forces in North Africa, circulated a memo about Rommel to his officers, warning that “it remains highly undesirable that our men ascribe supernatural powers to him.” As the Africa Corps reached the peak of its success, the New York Times called him “the first military genius who has appeared in this war.” Read the Allied press at the time, and it almost sounds like he wasn’t their enemy.
Rommel’s fame was a boon to Nazi propaganda, and he happily cultivated this relationship. He frequently took photographs during his campaigns, and distributed them to German magazines. Goebbels sent film crews to follow him around, and Rommel would often demand a scene be reshot if he didn’t like the lighting. He also banned reporters from writing or taking photos unless he was present.
Rommel also enjoyed a cordial relationship with Hitler, but it soured as the prospect of Germany losing the war became more obvious. Shortly after D-Day, he and his direct superior, Gerd von Rundstedt, met with Hitler and broached the possibility of negotiating a ceasefire with Britain and the U.S.  Their argument fell on deaf ears, and Rommel sent Hitler a second critique of Germany’s strategic situation about a month later, on July 15, 1944.
It was not uncommon, though, for Hitler’s generals to argue with, or even frankly dislike, him. Gerd von Rundstedt openly derided Hitler as “that Bohemian corporal.” His casual defiance and unapologetic disdain for the Führer got him sacked three times between 1941 and 1945. The worst consequence Rundstedt suffered for unreservedly despising the most powerful man in Nazi Germany was the loss of his job, not his freedom, nor his life.
Rundstedt’s checkered career illuminates an important, but surprising, insight into life in the Third Reich: Hitler’s generals could openly disagree with him because they possessed skills and expertise that could not be easily replaced. Their disagreements, however, were primarily military in nature, and their unique position makes the fact that most of them either went along with, or at least did not resist, the worst crimes of the regime even more damning. In other words, when Rommel personally criticized Hitler, he was aware that he could do so with relative safety.
Rommel and the Plot to Kill Hitler
On July 17, 1944, a British fighter plane strafed Rommel’s staff car, inflicting wounds that kept him in a coma for about a week. The Propaganda Ministry told the German people that the incident was just an “automobile accident.” Ironically, Rommel lay unconscious during one of most crucial days of the Third Reich’s short history, and the events he missed had an irrevocable impact on his personal fate and posthumous legend. On July 20, 1944, Colonel Claus Schenk von Stauffenberg snuck a bomb into Hitler’s military headquarters in Rastenburg, East Prussia. Unfortunately, the explosion left Hitler relatively unharmed, and his survival effectively quashed the coup d’état his death was supposed to set in motion. Stauffenberg was arrested and placed before a firing squad in Berlin roughly twelve hours later, but not before he engaged in a shootout with soldiers loyal to the regime.
Rommel learned of the conspiracy after he recovered, and it shocked him. In a letter to his wife, he remarked that “the attempted assassination attempt of the Führer has shaken me pretty hard.” A few days later, he told Günther von Kluge (who had replaced Rundstedt as commander of German forces in Western Europe) that it was surprising that anyone would try to kill Hitler. These remarks did not prevent him from being implicated in the conspiracy, however.
After surviving the assassination attempt, an enraged Hitler announced via radio broadcast that those responsible would be “exterminated quite mercilessly.” The ensuing dragnet resulted in the execution of some 200 people, and the arrest and torture of many others. One of the men the Gestapo apprehended was Rommel’s chief of staff, Lieutenant-General Hans Speidel.
Under duress of torture, Speidel told the Gestapo that he had had prior knowledge of the conspiracy, and had passed this knowledge onto Rommel, who declined to forward it to their superiors. After the war, Speidel denied that he had implicated Rommel. The circumstances of the confession, however, make it difficult to determine which of these accounts is true. Being in a coma at the time, Rommel obviously played no direct role in the attempt on Hitler’s life.
In fact, it is likely that he did not have any knowledge of it. In his study of the July Plot, historian Joachim Fest argues that “the conspirators never succeeded in winning Erwin Rommel . . . to their cause.” He may have wanted peace with the U.S. and Great Britain but, in all, “he was not an opponent of the regime.”
Rommel’s stature in the Third Reich made his alliance an appealing prospect for those who were opponents of the regime. Given the risks they faced, however, conspirators tended to avoid openly discussing their intentions, which could lead to misunderstandings. Speidel and another conspirator, Caesar von Hofacker, had been tasked with assessing Rommel’s potential receptiveness to overthrowing the Nazi regime. In a meeting between the three, Rommel stated he was willing to participate in a negotiated peace with the Western Allies. Without mentioning the plot to assassinate Hitler, Hofacker construed Rommel’s statement as support for it. There is no record of Speidel expressing a similar degree of certainty.
Other evidence further tainted Rommel with the conspiracy. Dr. Carl Goerdeler, who was to assume the office of Reich Chancellor after Hitler had been removed, placed Rommel’s name on a list of potential officials of a proposed post-Nazi regime. The list was discovered when Goerdeler was arrested. While such events offered no hard proof of anything, they were enough to put Rommel under surveillance by the Gestapo.
Rommel’s peers made little effort to dispute any implications. After years of naked ambition and posing for Goebbels’ cameras, it appeared that the Desert Fox did not have many friends in Hitler’s Army. To be fair, his ambition was no more brazen than that of other Nazi generals, and he did not operate in an environment where it was easy to make friends. After July 20th, people he’d angered on his way to the top had no qualms with watching his perch become more precarious.
After Speidel threw Rommel under the bus, Heinz Guderian made a special effort to keep the wheels on his back. After Speidel’s arrest, the German Army convened an Honor Court to determine whether or not he should be discharged and sentenced (read: executed) by the Nazi-party-run People’s Court. With little evidence, Guderian persuaded the other presiding generals that, by failing to pass information about the plot up the chain of command, Rommel had a greater hand in the conspiracy than Speidel.
Hitler, of all people, did not assume that Rommel was a conspirator. Alfred Jodl, chief of staff for the German armed forces, wrote in his diary that Hitler hoped to question Rommel and “release him without further fuss.” Rommel’s open opposition to the course of the war, and the implied breach of loyalty, however, did not benefit him in the paranoid aftermath of the July Plot. In his own diary, Joseph Goebbel’s observed that Rommel was part of a group of men who, in Hitler’s eyes, failed to “put up the necessary resistance to [the] insinuations” of their guilt.
On October 7th, 1944, Hitler summoned Rommel to Berlin. Citing health reasons, Rommel declined. Gestapo agents watching his home in Herrlingen reported that he seemed healthy enough to travel. A week later, two generals knocked on Rommel’s door and presented him with a choice. He could either face a People’s Court, which would brand him as a traitor and execute him and his family, or he could eat a capsule of cyanide. Rommel took the cyanide. The Propaganda Ministry announced that he had died from wounds he sustained in his “automobile accident” of July 17th, and Hitler arranged a full state funeral.
Rommel Is Legend
Erwin Rommel’s premature death preserved his legend. Hans Speidel—who survived the war and ultimately became supreme commander of NATO ground forces in Central Europe—not only put the legend to good use, but shaped its postwar incarnation. As part of a group of former Nazi officers bent on rehabilitating the reputation of the German Army, Speidel saw in Rommel’s posthumous fame an opportunity to craft a role model.
Denying that he implicated Rommel was a first step, and it showed his perceptive gauge of German public sentiment directly after the war. Germans at the time made a distinction between defying Hitler and overthrowing the government. Sensible patriots could do the former; only traitors did the latter. If he could not deny his own complicity, Speidel could at least deny that he’d helped set Rommel’s death in motion. Plus, his affiliation in the July Plot gave him a unique credential in dealing with American and British officials.
Rommel, of course, was not around to discuss his record, and the combination of his pre-fabricated wartime image and his tenuous connection to the conspiracy against Hitler made him an ideal candidate for a hero who could bridge the past, present, and future. The Rommel of legend did not betray his country, but stood up to a tyrant. He’d represented the good of Germany that had been perverted by the Nazis, a good that would be restored. A former German general, Leo Freiherr Geyr von Scweppenburg, helped Speidel research his memoir, and Speidel told him that he “intended to make Rommel a national hero of the German people.”
After the war, former German officers published a raft of memoirs that were as exculpatory as they were brazenly self-aggrandizing. Speidel’s is unique among these works in that he frames it to elevate the stature of his former commanding officer. Published in 1950, Invasion 1944: Rommel and the Normandy Campaign, casts Rommel as a proverbial Paul on the road to Damascus. Speidel describes how Rommel’s early, intense admiration for Hitler and apolitical worldview gave way to disillusionment as the war progressed. Rommel’s disagreements with Hitler became an exceptional act of heroism: “He was not only courageous with his pen but also when face to face with Hitler.” Speidel conjures an image of a man steeling himself for something more, but “Rommel’s comprehension and decision came too late… When he was about to act, destiny intervened.”
The action Rommel was resolving to take is never made clear, but the July Plot allegedly gave Hitler and rival generals an excuse to destroy him. According to Speidel, the decision to offer Rommel a choice between trial and suicide came from Hitler’s “entourage” of yes-men—officers jealous of Rommel’s talent and sensitive to their Führer’s insecurities; men who believed that “there must be no other national hero in this theocracy built around Hitler.” Speidel concludes Invasion 1944 by calling Rommel a miles fati [soldier of fate], and stating that he “remains the personification of the good and the decent in the German soldier.”
That same year, Desmond Young, a former British officer, published the first biography of Rommel. In Rommel: The Desert Fox, Young drew most of his accounts of Rommel’s struggles of conscience from his widow, Lucie, his son, Manfred, and Hans Speidel. With Young, Speidel took his account even further, stating that Rommel knew of a conspiracy to remove Hilter, but he did not know of plans for assassination. In this account, another conspirator, Dr. Karl Strölin, convinces Rommel to try and persuade Hitler to negotiate a separate piece in the West. Speidel also told Young that his own superior intellect enabled him to survive two violent interrogations with the Gestapo, without implicating Rommel or divulging information about the July Plot. Ultimately, though, Young argues that Speidel could not save his commanding officer, because Hitler “wanted to kill Rommel not so much for being a traitor as for being right when [he was] wrong.”
The truth behind Speidel’s interpretations of events is difficult to determine. Key details of these accounts are based on either conflicting testimonies or statements about people who had died by the time these stories were published. If Hofacker’s misunderstanding of Rommel’s intentions was, in fact, true, then Speidel’s narrative of the heroic Rommel is probably an exaggeration. Veracity aside, Speidel’s account helped make Rommel a postwar hero, at least within the nascent West German military. A navy destroyer was christened with his name in 1968, and a German Army barrack bears his name to this day.
Speidel’s cultivation of the Rommel legend coincided with a broader whitewashing of the history of the German Army’s conduct during World War II. The memoirs of Guderian and Manstein, which made no mention of the Army’s complicity in the Nazis’ crimes, played a major role. But former general Franz Halder significantly influenced American military leaders’ views of the German Army after the war. In 1946, he joined the Operational History (German) Section within the U.S. Army. Dubbed the “Halder Group,” he and a cadre of former Nazi officers took up the unique position of advising Americans how to best fight the Soviet Union. Their studies also allowed them to redefine the mission of the German Army during the war. Instead of loyalty to Hitler and the tenets of National Socialism, they portrayed the German Army as an apolitical institution whose soldiers were motivated purely by patriotism, and were largely unaware of the atrocities committed by the S.S.
Members of the Halder Group met with Hans Speidel in October 1950 to draft the Himmerod Memorandum, a set of demands that would need to be met before former Nazi officers would cooperate in the formation of a new, West German Army. They called for the release of all German officers convicted of war crimes, material support for former soldiers, war widows, and orphans, and an official declaration by the West German government that German soldiers fought honorably during World War II. Members of the Himmerod group also group prepared a statement to be signed by Dwight David Eisenhower, which separated the Army from Nazi atrocities and declared “I do not believe the German soldier . . . has lost his honor.”
Eisenhower not only signed the statement, but he personally apologized to Hans Speidel for comments he’d made about German soldiers when he was fighting them. What changed Eisenhower’s mind? He had recently read a book about Erwin Rommel.
The impact of these efforts to whitewash the history of the German Army’s conduct in World War II should not be underestimated. In the short term, a lot of men who committed atrocities managed to avoid prosecution. This historical whitewashing also shaped the historiography of the Holocaust for a generation. Scholars didn’t begin to seriously examine the German army’s role in Nazi atrocities until the 1990s.
The Erwin Rommel legend is a remnant of this historical whitewashing, and examples of his recognition are still easy to find. Outside of military history circles, Rommel’s fame can also be seen in popular culture. In 2014, comedian Patton Oswalt joked about how men become really interested in World War II as they get older: “Just out of nowhere, like, ‘Yeah, I was watching this thing about Rommel on the history channel. He was kinda . . . Oh my God, I’m fifty nine!’” Of all the generals he could have named, Oswalt, whose father named him after George S. Patton, chose Rommel. A quick glance at Patton Oswalt’s Twitter feed proves that he has nothing close to sympathy for the Nazis, but his choice here shows that, after more than seventy years since his death, Erwin Rommel is still larger than life.
What, though, does it mean in a broader sense that Erwin Rommel is still “larger than life”? At root, it means that the name is better known than the man himself. If the poll I conducted is any indicator, though, Speidel and Halder might be disappointed by how little traction their myths hold on American public consciousness today. When asked to choose from a series of general statements, a solid majority of survey participants (57%) agreed most with the statement, “Racism and genocide were the root motivations for Germany’s wars from 1939 – 1945. It is therefore impossible to separate Nazi policies of mass murder from Germany’s military conquests.”
But the legend of Erwin Rommel, and its postwar cultivation, still says a lot about the consequences of how we choose heroes. In the immediate aftermath of the war, Rommel’s myth was successfully employed to redeem the German Army, but his fame ultimately outstripped its original motives. Today, a lot of Americans appear to recognize Rommel, but aren’t necessarily certain as to why. This is a dubious distinction for a historical figure.
If Erwin Rommel is to be remembered, it should also be remembered that each of his victories helped secure Hitler’s agenda of genocide, mass murder, and exploitation. It should be remembered that the weight of evidence shows that Rommel did nothing to oppose the crimes of the Nazi regime. Ultimately, if Erwin Rommel is to be remembered, then it is just as important to remember that being a hero should not be based so much on daring exploits or unique skill as what side someone was ultimately on.
 Charles Messenger, Rommel: Leadership Lessons from the Desert Fox (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2009), p. 2.
 Wesley Clark, “Foreword,” in Messenger, p. vii.
 Daniel Allen Butler, Field Marshal: The Life and Death of Erwin Rommel (Havertown, PA: Casemate Publishers, 2015), Kindle Edition.
 “When Cunard Ruled the Waves: Dramatic History of the World’s Greatest Ocean Liners,” review in Washington Times, Feb. 29, 2004.
 Ralf Georg Reuth, Rommel: The End of a Legend, trans. Debra S. Marmor and Herbert D. Danner (London: Haus Publishing Limited, 2008), pp. 111-112, p. 86.
 For the most recent assessment of Rommel as a military commander, see Ben H. Shepherd, Hitler’s Soldiers: The German Army in the Third Reich (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2016), p. 219.
 B.H. Liddell Hart, The Other Side of the Hill: Germany’s Generals, Their Rise and Fall, with Their Own Account of Military Events, 1939-1945 (London: Cassell & Co., Ltd., 1948), p. 94.
 Shepherd, p. 181.
 Shepherd, p. 83.
 Messenger, p. 187.
 Butler, Kindle Edition.
 Patrick Bernhard, “Behind the Battle Lines: Italian Atrocities and the Persecution of Arabs, Berbers, and Jews in North Africa During World War II”, Holocaust & Genocide Studies 26, no. 3 (Winter 2012), pp. 429-430.
 Ralph Giordano, Die Traditionslüge: Vom Kriegerkult in der Bundeswehr (Köln: Verlag Kiepenheuer & Witsch, 2000), p. 315.
 Raul Hilberg, “The Holocaust Today”, Shofar 8, no. 2 (Winter 1990), p. 14
 Reuth, p. 148.
 Reuth, p. 143.
 “Rommel and the Beast,” The New York Times, June 26, 1942, p. 20.
 Reuth, pp. 123-124.
 Desmond Young, Rommel: The Desert Fox (New York: Harper Brothers, 1950), pp. 182-183.
 John Toland, Adolf Hitler, The Definitive Biography (New York: Anchor Books, 1976), Kindle Edition.
 Hans Speidel, Invasion 1944: Rommel and the Normandy Campaign (Westport, Conn: Greenwood Press, 1950), p. 154.
 Reuth, p. 76.
 Adolf Hitler, “That You May Hear My Voice”, Ed. T.X. Ferenczi, Vital Speeches of the Day, Vol. X, (1944), pp. 631-632, Kindle Edition.
 Peter Hoffman, The History of the German Resistance, 1933-1945 (Montreal & Kingston: McGill-Queen’s University Press, 1996), p. 529.
 Joachim Fest, Plotting Hitler’s Death: The Story of the German Resistance, trans. Bruce Little (New York: Metropolitan Books, 1996), p. 246.
 Hans Mommsen, Germans Against Hitler: The Stauffenberg Plot and Resistance under the Third Reich, trans. Angus McGeoch (London: I.D. Taurus, 2009), p. 34.
 Reuth, p. 179.
 Reuth, p. 185.
 Reuth, pp. 193-194.
 Reuth, p. 184.
 Reuth, p. 183.
 Reuth, p. 198.
 Reuth, pp. 203-204.
 Reuth, p. 211.
 Reuth, p. 213.
 Speidel, p. 159.
 Speidel, p. 166.
 Young, p. 221
 Giordano, p. 316.
 Ronald Smelser & Edward J. Davies, The Myth of the Eastern Front: The Nazi-Soviet War in American Popular Culture (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2008), pp. 56-58.
 Smelser & Davies, pp. 75-75.
 Wolfram Wette, The Wehrmacht: History, Myth, Reality, trans. Deborah Lucas Schneider (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2006), p. 195.