In pursuit of the Desert Fox
"Mythos Rommel" ("The Rommel Myth") by Maurice Philip Remy, List Verlag, 389 pages
"Mythos Rommel" ("The Rommel Myth") by Maurice Philip Remy, List Verlag, 389 pages
I have good reasons to be optimistic, although the world around me is plunged in despair. One of those reasons is linked to Erwin Rommel, the subject of this book, which I read with bated breath.
In the spring of 1942, when the Yishuv, the pre-state Jewish community in Palestine, stood on the brink of destruction, all you had to do was glance at the map to understand that in a few days, the Germans would be here. The armies of Adolf Hitler were moving toward us on three fronts. It was clear as day they would unite in Palestine.
In the north, the fearsome German war machine was advancing toward the Middle East. It had already reached the Caucasus. From there, the road was short: Turkey, Syria, Palestine. A year earlier, German soldiers had been airlifted to the island of Crete. Another jump and the troops would be in Palestine.
The gravest threat of all was even closer. Rommel, the German general who was already a legend in his lifetime, pushed eastward from Libya and invaded Egypt. His men reached El Alamein, a few dozen kilometers west of Alexandria. There was no question that he was heading for the Suez Canal - and then Palestine.
The British read the map. They sent their families in Palestine to Iraq, and even high officials had their bags packed. The British army was all set to retreat in panic, and was even prepared to arm the Jews, so they could fight the Germans behind the lines after the conquest.
The leaders of the Yishuv were convinced all was lost. Haganah headquarters hastily put together a desperate plan for a "second Masada" on the top of Mount Carmel. Jewish youngsters geared up to defend themselves to the last drop of blood. No one believed the Jews could stand up to the famed German Afrika Corps, but at least they could set a high price and defend their national honor in the eyes of future generations.
The rest is history: A great miracle happened here. The Germans were defeated at Stalingrad and stopped at the gateway to the Caucasus. Paratroopers were not flown in from Crete. Rommel's forces came to a halt at El Alamein and pulled back along the African coast as far as Tunis, where they suffered a crushing rout.
After the war, as German documents came to light, it turned out that the miracle wasn't a miracle: The danger never existed. The German troops reaching the Caucasus were exhausted and incapable of taking another step. From there, they retreated all the way to Berlin. The German general staff perceived the landing in Crete as a dismal failure, and never launched another airborne invasion (the only other operation of this kind, carried out by the British in Holland, was also a fiasco).
And, most importantly, Rommel reached El Alamein on his last drops of fuel. His few surviving tanks were stuck in their tracks. The British had completely severed his naval supply lines, and the quantities that arrived by air were negligible. The armor, guns and planes that remained were not even sufficient for defense.
It was then that I reached a life-long conclusion: Even if the situation looks utterly hopeless, it may not be. We only see the surface, but reality is more complicated than meets the eye - and at zero hour, the most important factors have a way of eluding us. This conclusion was put to the test a few years later. When the War of Independence broke out, things looked very bleak. We found ourselves grossly outnumbered and imagined a second Holocaust was on the way.
Today we know Israel enjoyed superiority at all stages of the war. The Palestinians were unarmed and unorganized, and had no leadership. Egypt never meant to advance past Ashdod, and the Arab governments were mainly fighting one another.
Palestine could wait
Published in Germany a few weeks ago, "Mythos Rommel" contains an abundance of newly discovered material from Nazi archives, as well as new eyewitness accounts. It also sheds light on the period in which Germany's "Desert Fox," as Rommel was known, became an inseparable part of our lives.
It turns out Rommel really was planning a giant pincer movement. He intended to advance to the Suez Canal, invade Iraq through Palestine and join up with the divisions in southern Russia. At the time, it definitely seemed possible, if he received the required reinforcements. Luckily for us, he didn't. True, Hitler also dreamed of such a maneuver, but he did not attach much importance to North Africa. He was preoccupied with the Russian front. Palestine could wait - and that is how we were saved.
This new book is an attempt to portray Rommel as he really was. Until now, opinions have been divided: His admirers - not just in Germany - regard him as a genuine hero, a brilliant general, an ethical man and a noble soldier who did not dirty himself with the crimes of the Nazis. Others denounce him as Hitler's pet, a loyal Nazi collaborator, an officer who served his criminal government almost to the bitter end.
Both portrayals are correct. The author tries to look honestly at both sides of the coin. Hitler liked Rommel and promoted him at a dizzying pace, while Rommel admired the Fuhrer and slavishly did his bidding, although he was not a Nazi. But the moment Rommel was convinced Hitler was destroying Germany, he turned around and joined the conspiracy against him, for which he paid with his life. Not anxious to put the popular field marshal on trial, Hitler offered him a choice: commit suicide and have a state burial, or be murdered and endanger the lives of your wife and son. Rommel took poison. The cause of death on the coroner's certificate: heart attack.
One of the important revelations in this book has to do with this final act of insurgence. Rommel knew about the plot against Hitler, in which dozens of Germany's top generals took part. He was not thrilled with the idea of killing Hitler, but he did not oppose the plan or turn in the conspirators. This cost him his life when the assassination attempt fell through on July 20, 1944.
The book reveals that Rommel was about to carry out an unprecedented historical act: He had made up his mind to demand Hitler's resignation so that Germany could make peace separately with Britain and the United States. If the Fuhrer refused, as expected, Rommel would give orders for a cease-fire in France and open the front to the Anglo-American army, enabling it to storm Germany and reach Berlin before the Russians.
When everything was ready - Rommel had already informed his men and several officers of the Wehrmacht in France - one of those incidents that change the course of history occurred. The pilots of two British fighters identified Rommel's car traveling on the road, fired at it and left him with head injuries that kept him hospitalized for several weeks. No other military commander enjoyed the kind of prestige that would enable him to issue such a startling order. The outcome: The war went on for another year, and millions more died.
Another astonishing disclosure: Two years earlier, when Rommel realized that the battle of El Alamein was a lost cause, he proposed to Hitler that the German army retreat and thereby save itself. Hitler typically refused, demanding that the soldiers fight to the finish. Rommel deliberated for 24 hours and then did something unheard of: He disobeyed Hitler's decree and ordered the troops to withdraw. This time, Hitler forgave him.
By way of comparison, around the same time, Friedrich Paulus, commander of the Sixth Army, proposed a retreat from Stalingrad, which Hitler rejected out of hand. Paulus obeyed, and a quarter-of-a-million German soldiers were taken prisoner by the Soviets. Very few of them returned home.
From that moment on, Rommel began to have mixed feelings about Hitler. He continued to admire his personality, but had doubts about his wisdom and sometimes even his sanity. Hitler, too, had second thoughts about his beloved general, whom he now saw as a defeatist and a prophet of doom, although this did not stop him from exploiting Rommel and his great fame for his own purposes.
Underneath it all, Rommel was a soldier, and only a soldier. As we see in this book, he was not an intellectual or a philosopher. Politics did not interest him, and he began to grasp the nature of the Nazi regime only in the last months of his life. Even military theory was of no interest to him. He turned down an opportunity to study at the prestigious general staff college because he wanted to stay with his men, who adored him.
Militarily, there is a certain resemblance between Rommel and Ariel Sharon: Rommel knew how to read the battlefield almost intuitively, to conduct swift maneuvers, to charge ahead even at the risk of losing contact with the other formations and endangering his regiments and rear, on the premise that advancing quickly would cause the enemy to flee. This was Rommel's mode of operation in France in 1940, and it was also Sharon's, as Israeli troops advanced toward the Suez Canal in 1973. Both generals drove their chiefs of staff crazy.
Like Sharon, Rommel knew how to win the respect of ordinary soldiers, but he also aroused the enmity of superiors and colleagues, who saw him as irresponsible, uncomradely and undisciplined. Like Sharon, Rommel was an excellent tactician, but had no understanding of strategy. Like Sharon, he loved publicity and refused to budge without journalists and photographers. Military historians are still arguing about his role.
Rommel's connection to Nazi war crimes is also a subject of debate. This book reveals that he told his assistant to take out his cigarette lighter and burn the order received from Hitler to execute the "Free France" commandos taken prisoner in Africa - an order that clearly constituted a war crime. He apparently did the same during his short stint as military commander in northern Italy, after the fall of Mussolini. Hitler issued an order for the execution of Italian officers who resisted the German occupation, and Rommel ignored it.
In the early days of the Nazi regime, when Rommel was still a low-ranking officer, he protected the Jews in his district from the abuse of Nazi storm-troopers. In Libya, his men did not harm the Jewish community and all its members survived. Since he did not fight in Poland and Russia, he had no connection to the crimes there. In fact, he seems to have heard about the Holocaust only in 1944, from the mayor of Stuttgart, a long-time Nazi who investigated what had happened to the Jews of his city. Shocked to discover that they had been murdered, he joined those who were plotting against Hitler- and gave Rommel the final push.
The memoirs Rommel managed to dictate to his wife before he was forced to commit suicide were entitled "War Without Hatred." Rommel's nemesis, the British general, Bernard Montgomery, kept a photograph of him on his desk.
The myth of Desert Fox continues to flourish around the world. But, as the author of this fascinating book reminds us, if Rommel had conquered Palestine, Adolf Eichmann would have been right behind.
Uri Avnery is a journalist.