Erwin Rommel entered France in 1940 in command of a panzer division, moving around the Maginot Line with the bulk of Nazi German attackers and slamming into the French defenses from behind. He would go on to lead troops in North Africa as Hitler’s favored general.
But the bloom was off the rose in 1944 when Hitler made Rommel kill himself.
The Desert Fox made his legend in France, and then fought in the African desert in 1941. His troops there loved him, and he fought tooth and nail to hold the oil fields and ports in that part of the world. With limited numbers and supplies, he bloodied the nose of British forces and their French and American allies over and over again.
The British tried to kidnap him. They tried to kill him. But mostly, they tried to beat him. And, eventually, with the crushing weight of American armor at their back, they did.
Rommel evacuated north with his surviving forces, and he was put in command of the Atlantic Wall, the bulwark of Fortress Europe. He was brilliant in the role, predicting that the Allies would try to land somewhere other than a deepwater port, and suspecting portions of Normandy beaches in particular. He pushed his men to build defenses, and he pushed the government to send him more supplies.
But all the while, from North Africa to the Atlantic Coast, he was lamenting the clear resource advantage that America had given the Allies. He worried that the war was lost and that further fighting would just cost German blood and weaken its place at the bargaining table.
In 1943, while preparing those defenses in Normandy, he began to see signs that the anti-war movement was right, that Germany was conducting heinous acts besides just prosecuting the war. He could stomach battles, but he was unsettled when he ran into evidence of the rumored death camps, especially when was given an apartment that had, until that very morning, been the property of a Jewish family.
And so he whispered more and more about how Hitler wasn’t to be trusted, about how the war was bad for Germany, and about how the Third Reich couldn’t possibly survive what was coming. When the Allies hit the beaches in June 1944, Rommel’s pessimism became too much to bear.
And so, when an attempt to assassinate Hitler in July 1944 failed, it didn’t matter that there was no strong evidence linking him to the plot. The perpetrators had all been senior military officers, so it was easy to pin a little blame on Rommel, especially since both his chief of staff and his commanding officer were implicated and executed.
Rommel was popular, though. So, he couldn’t just be dragged out back and shot like many of the Valkyrie plotters. Instead, Third Reich officers were sent to Rommel’s home on October 14, 1944. He was there, healing from wounds sustained in a July 17 attack by a British aircraft.
As his son remembered it, his father knew that two other German generals were coming to visit him.
‘At twelve o’clock to-day two Generals are coming to discuss my future employment,’ my father started the conversation. ‘So today will decide what is planned for me; whether a People’s Court or a new command in the East.’
Despite Rommel’s worries about Germany’s aggression, he believed that a Soviet conquest of Europe would be devastating for all the rest of Europe, worse than any outcome under Germany. And so he told his son that he would take a command in the Eastern Front, if it was offered.
But that was not what the officers were coming to offer him. And they were not going to put him in front of the People’s Courts either. Instead, after Rommel met with the men for a short time, he went upstairs, and Manfred Rommel, his 15-year-old son, followed him upstairs.
‘I have just had to tell your mother,’ he began slowly, ‘that I shall be dead in a quarter of an hour.’ He was calm as he continued: ‘To die by the hand of one’s own people is hard. But the house is surrounded and Hitler is charging me with high treason. ‘ “In view of my services in Africa,” ‘ he quoted sarcastically, ‘I am to have the chance of dying by poison. The two generals have brought it with them. It’s fatal in three seconds. If I accept, none of the usual steps will be taken against my family, that is against you. They will also leave my staff alone.’
And so that was the deal that Rommel accepted. His family would be made safe. His staff would be made safe. But he would have to drink a fast-acting poison. Manfred briefly pitched the idea of fighting free, but his father was certain they lacked the numbers or ammunition to be successful.
So Rommel left. He carried his field marshal’s baton to the car, shook the hands of his son and his aide, and got in the car of the two generals. They drove a few hundred yards into an open space in the woods and Rommel drank.
He was given a state funeral just four days later. Hitler would follow him into death the following May. But where Rommel committed suicide to save his family, Hitler did it to escape judgment for that and thousand of other actions.