Hitler demanded that treacherous Rommel’s life end in ignominious suicide

Posted in Historical articles, History, World War 2 on Friday, 15 June 2012

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This edited article about Rommel originally appeared in Look and Learn issue number 729 published on 3 January 1976.

Rommel, picture, image, illustration

Field-Marshal Rommel

General Erwin Rommel’s state funeral was a fitting tribute to a great soldier who had been respected by his enemies almost as much as his own people. To the sound of muffled drum beats. Nazi chieftains and high-ranking officers slowly followed the coffin as it was borne inside the church where an oration was delivered by Field Marshal von Rundstedt. Although Hitler was not there in person, he had sent an enormous wreath.

It was only after the war that the truth came out. Rommel’s funeral had been nothing more than a hideous charade which Rommel’s wife and his sixteen-year-old son had been forced to attend. They knew that the draped coffin which was later interred with such pomp and ceremony, contained the body of a man who had been forced to commit suicide.

To understand the strange story behind the death of Rommel, we have to trace his history from the May of 1940, when he became famous as the commander of the 7th Panzer Division which played a decisive part in the German army’s sweep across France. Two years later, after his Afrika Korps had pushed the Allied troops back across the desert nearly to Alexandria, Hitler made him a Field Marshal.

His dash and cunning during the desert war, where he had constantly outmanoeuvred the Eighth Army had earned him the title of the Desert Fox. Although, like most other German high-ranking professional soldiers, he chose to ignore the fact that people were dying in their thousands in the concentration camps, his attitude towards the Allied soldiers he captured was always a humane one. Much later, when Hitler issued an order that twelve hostages should be shot for every German killed by the partisans, he was one of the few German Generals who ignored the order.

Surprisingly, after the African campaign had been lost to the Allies, Rommel did not fall out of favour with Hitler and the German public, and he remained a greatly respected figure right up to the Allied invasion of Normandy, when Hitler assigned him the ground command of the anti-invasion forces. It is important to bear in mind that Hitler did this mainly to bolster up the now sagging confidence of the German people.

But by then, Rommel had come to the bitter conclusion that Hitler would prefer to see Germany completely destroyed, rather than surrender if defeat became inevitable. Somehow, Rommel realised, his beloved country had to be saved from this madman. As it happened, a number of other generals had come to the same conclusion, including General von Stulpnagel, the military governor of France. In April, 1944, the two men met.

Two months later, Rommel’s staff car was strafed, and Rommel was so seriously wounded that the doctors doubted that he would live. But by the autumn he had made an almost miraculous recovery.

In the meantime, the July bomb plot against Hitler, code-named Operation Valkyrie, which had been mounted to assassinate Hitler within his headquarters, had failed dismally. The conspirators had been hunted down one by one, including Stulpnagel. Before he was killed, he divulged under torture the names of several of the conspirators. Among them was the name of Erwin Rommel.

Hitler was determined to keep from the German people the fact that their most popular general had plotted his overthrow. On the other hand, he was equally determined that Rommel must die. The Fuhrer decided there was only one way in which this could be achieved without causing any suspicion. The next day, General Burgdorf, accompanied by General Maisel, arrived at Rommel’s house, and after an exchange of platitudes in front of Rommel’s wife, the three men withdrew to Rommel’s study, where General Burgdorf came quickly to the point. Rommel’s part in the conspiracy was known, the general said. Hitler had given Rommel a choice between death by poison, or the disgrace of a public trial. If he did choose to stand trial in an open court, reprisals would be taken against his wife and son.

General Burgdorf then went on to outline how the affair would be carried out. Rommel would be taken on a car drive to Ulm, and somewhere along the road a poison would be given to him. His body would then be delivered to a hospital, and the next day a message would go out to the national German press, saying that Rommel had died suddenly of the after-effects of the injuries he had suffered when his car had been strafed. Rommel knew that if his family was to be saved from a concentration camp, he had no other choice than to agree to Hitler’s diabolical plan.

Rommel was allowed to see his wife, long enough to tell her exactly what was happening. The only consolation he could offer her was that he had been told that she would receive all the honours and pensions due to the family of a German Field Marshal. He allowed his son to help him into his greatcoat, then, setting his cap on his head at its usual jaunty angle, he walked out to the waiting car and an ignominious death.

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