The Desert Fox: 8 Things You Never Knew About Erwin Rommel
The Desert Fox: 8 Things You Never Knew About Erwin Rommel

The Desert Fox: 8 Things You Never Knew About Erwin Rommel

Mike Wood - October 19, 2017

The Desert Fox: 8 Things You Never Knew About Erwin Rommel
Rommel in a German newspaper. Alamy

7 – He was a PR superstar in Germany, but perhaps was not respected by the Nazi leadership

Rommel’s reputation within Germany might well have made him untouchable for the Nazi hierarchy, even when he did things that were in direct contradiction of the ideological and military strategy of the regime. They had invested so much time and so much weight in making him the poster boy of their propaganda regime that, when Rommel turned out to be less than what they had hoped for, they could not easily dispose of him.

On paper, he was the perfect fit for their media machine: he was an early adopter of Nazism, already a hero from the First World War and an excellent general, with victories aplenty. Moreover, they could cite the Allies reverence for him in their favor, and Rommel himself was comfortable in the spotlight and relished the attention.

Hitler was always wary of building up any one single figure too far – lest he be challenged himself – but Goebbels, the chief propagandist, knew an opportunity when he saw it and Rommel could not be passed up. As Rommel’s media image grew and grew, he became the darling of the public back home, but in the corridors of power in Berlin, there were plenty of higher-ups who were less convinced of his powers.

Even from the early days of the war in 1941, when Rommel was in France, some of those who fought alongside him were doubting just how effective he actually was a general. By the time that the war in North Africa had turned against him in 1943, the German furthest expansions were contracting: the Battle of Stalingrad had been lost in February and Rommel departed Tunisia in May.

It might have made sense if the Nazis had thought Rommel their best general, to send him to the Eastern Front where the war was being lost. Perhaps, too, the brutal nature of the war on the Ostfront was seen as beyond Rommel’s nature: this was not the time or place for “war without hate”, in the eyes of the Nazi leadership.

Instead, he was dispatched to Italy. As Italy fell, Rommel was demoted from the head of the campaign to second in command to Albert Kesselring, alongside whom he had served throughout the North Africa campaigns. Later in France, Rommel was the man in charge of building the Atlantic Wall that would protect Nazi-occupied France from Allied invasion: though he had warned heavily that his experiences in North Africa had taught him that land and sea defenses would be nothing if air supremacy allowed the Allies to destroy the Nazi army from above, Rommel was ignored.

After the defeat in Africa, the retreat through Greece and Italy and the failure to stop the D-Day invasions, his reputation as a superstar general back home was in tatters.

The Desert Fox: 8 Things You Never Knew About Erwin Rommel
The Desert Fox, 1951. Move Poster Shop

8 – Rommel’s reputation got a huge boost because of a 1951 film

If Rommel’s reputation as a great leader was undermined by the catastrophic defeats on the African, Italian and Western Fronts in the last two years of the war, why was it that the so-called “Rommel Myth” was so pervasive after the war? The theories are numerous, but one major contributing factor must be the success of the 1951 film, The Desert Fox.

Rommel was a well-known figure in Allied countries and in 1950, the first biography of the “good German” was released in the UK. Written by Desmond Young, a British brigadier who had himself been captured by Rommel during the war, “Rommel: The Desert Fox” was incredibly popular in Britain and cemented the position of the vanquished general as the acceptable enemy.

His later involvement in the 1944 plot against Hitler did a lot to wash Rommel of the stain of Nazism – conveniently forgetting the decade or so that he had spent close to the top of the regime – and his position as the general who was beaten “fair and square” endeared him to a British audience. After all, it’s much easier to build heroes of your own generals when they have beaten a general that you also respect.

The 1951 film The Desert Fox further spread the myth and was widely popular in the UK. The narrative of Rommel, the good German, being defeated by the heroic British in the clean war in North Africa was a far more palatable one in the burgeoning Cold War than one that emphasized the horrible destruction that had come through the Soviet victory in the East.

There could be little appetite for a war with Russia when people were constantly being reminded of the horrific images that had emerged from the Eastern Front. Thus, the clean general of the fair fight in North Africa was an enticing idea.

The Germans, too, were all too pleased to go along with Rommel as their figurehead. Their army had been severely curtailed after their defeat, but there was a clamor to de-Nazify the Wehrmacht and remove the stigma from the German armed forces. The Bundeswehr, the new German army, was more palatable to a post-war world when it could be seen as the legacy of good soldiers lead by bad politicians rather than an integral and vital part of the Nazi war machine.

Thus, the idea of The Desert Fox was created and, to a large extent, still persists. He remains the only Nazi to be lionized within Germany: public squares and streets bear his name, as does the largest barracks of the Bundeswehr. Whether such a status is deserved, however, is still a question about which historians continue to argue.

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