70 years ago on October 14, 1944 the Nazis forced Field Marshall Erwin Rommel to commit suicide.
In popular culture in the U.S. Rommel has a positive image.
Among the reasons are:
- His competence as a military commander.
- Unlike other German commanders especially on the Eastern Front, his adherence to the international standards of the treatment of POWs in North Africa from 1941 to 1943.
- His association with the plotters of the July, 1944 attempted assassination of Hitler and coup and his statements of dissent about Nazi conduct of the war.
When his career is placed in its full context, his image is much less positive.
1933 to 1944
From the Nazis rise to power in 1933 until 1944 Rommel did nothing to oppose Nazism or to stop the Holocaust.
During those 11 years Rommel enjoyed the benefits of Nazi rule.
He failed to act in 1938 or 1939 when the Nazis were more vulnerable and would have been much easier to overthrow than in July, 1944.
For five years from 1939 until 1944, Rommel implemented the Nazi ideology of aggressive wars. Among the conquered populations were the majority of the victims of the Holocaust.
In 1939 among the earliest victims of the Holocaust were Polish Jewish officers and enlisted personnel executed when captured by Germans.
During the Polish campaign Rommel was commander of Hitler’s bodyguards (the Führer escort headquarters) as Hitler toured the Polish front.
From that position Rommel had to have been aware of the murder of Polish Jewish POWs.
During the 1940 Battle of France, troops under Rommel’s command motivated by the Nazi’s racial ideology executed captured French Senegalese troops.
From 1941 to 1943 in North Africa Rommel reportedly refused to implement Nazi orders to execute Jewish and other categories of POWs. Many Jewish soldiers were serving in the British and Polish forces in North Africa.
That is further confirmation of the depth of Rommel’s knowledge of Nazi criminality.
While Rommel may have prohibited the execution of Jewish POWs at the front, no evidence exists that he did anything to stop the Nazis behind the front from rounding up of Sephardic Jews in Nazi occupied parts of North Africa for deportation to slave labor and death camps.
In 1943 when Rommel was given command of Normandy, he used slave labor to construct fortifications.
Stopping the Holocaust or protecting ethnic Germans?
By July, 1944, Rommel recognized that Germany was militarily defeated. Germany no longer had the military capacity to defend its borders.
To continue the war meant that the Soviets would overrun Germany.
Was Rommel’s 1944 dissent motivated by his concern for the potential sufferings of ethnic Germans at the hands of Soviet troops or to stop genocide?
July, 1944 status of the Holocaust
By July, 1944, most of Nazi Holocaust murders had already occurred.
The July 1944 assassination and coup attempts were much too late to save most victims.
Rommel’s role in the attempted coup and assassination
Rommel may not have supported assassination or a coup.
He may have hinted that after others killed Hitler and overthrew the Nazis he would be available to serve in the post-Nazi government and armed forces.
He may have looked the other way while members of his staff planned the coup and assassination. He refrained from alerting the Nazis of the plots to what if anything he knew.
As his troops were being defeated in Normandy he said to his superiors including Hitler that the time had come to negotiate an end to the war.
On July, 17, 1944 Rommel suffered a serious brain injury when British aircraft attacked his car near the Normandy front.
That injury seemed to have decreased his inhibitions on speech.
His comments became less guarded, more frequent, explicit, and strident.
On July 22, 1944, a coup and assassination Hitler were attempted. Both failed.
On October 14, 1944. the Nazis force Rommel to choose between torture, a show trial followed by an execution, and violent retaliation against his family or suicide.
To shield his family from retaliation, Rommel chose to execute himself by committing suicide.
My amateur historian’s assessment of Rommel’s legacy
- 11 years of personally benefiting from the Nazi’s policies.
- 5 years of waging the Nazi’s wars of aggression during which the majority of the Holocaust victims were captured.
- Being present in Poland when Polish Jewish POWs were executed.
- Being in command of troops who executed French Senegalese POWs.
- Use of slave labor to construct Normandy fortifications.
- After D-Day in 1944, stating that the Allies and Soviets had militarily defeated Germany and that Germany should end the war.
- Doing nothing to increase the chances of the success of the July, 1944 assassination and coup attempts.
- Dissent motivated more to protect ethnic Germans from the Soviets than to stop genocide.
3110th Signal Service Battalion and Rommel
From February to July, 1944, the 3110th Signal Service Battalion, my late father Felix A. Cizewski’s unit, and Rommel faced each other across the English Channel (La Manche in French).
Rommel was preparing to continue the Nazi occupation of France and the 3110th was building communications infrastructure to facilitate the supplies to the forces preparing to liberate France.
Links with sources and for more information:
(French) le maréchal erwin rommel se suicide le 14 octobre 1944: Site where I learned of the 1940 massacre of French Senegalese POWs by troops under Rommel’s command.
(French) Le Tata sénégalais
In depth historical background and context: An occasional feature of my family history blog.
Revised: October 18, 2012