I was up late on Friday night and I got caught up watching a German movie called Rommel about the German Field Marshal during World War II. The movie was focused on the last eight months of his life—from when he took command of the German Defenses along the Atlantic Coast until he died on October 14, 1944.
Erwin Rommel was a soldier and a good one. He was not a politician and was not entirely committed to Nazi ideology. In fact, he did not carry out orders to kill Jews or commandos and gained a reputation for avoiding bloodshed. His clashes with Hitler Youth leader Baldur von Schirach caused him to be removed from a position of authority in 1938.
He was skilled at the art of maneuver and the 7th Panzer Division which he commanded during the invasion of France in 1940 was called “the Ghost Division.” It became a showpiece of the German government and Rommel became Hitler’s favorite general.
Rommel went on to command the “Afrika Korps” in North Africa where he gained fame fighting against the British Field Marshal Montgomery and, later, against General Patton. He earned the nickname “the Desert Fox.” At Kasserine Pass, Rommel gave Patton a beating that Patton never forgot. But in 1942, Rommel suffered a punishing defeat at El Alamein and Montgomery and Patton drove Rommel out of Africa by March of 1943.
When Rommel was reassigned to France, it was there that he began to see evidence of Nazi atrocities against the Jews and French civilians. Then came the D-Day invasion of Normandy and Rommel believed the war to be lost. When approached by General Hans Speidel, his chief-of-staff, about the conspiracy against Hitler, Rommel would not take part in the assassination attempt but would choose to force Hitler to negotiate with the Allies. Rommel threatened to open the Western Front, if Hitler did not negotiate. The ultimatum never reached Hitler because it was intercepted by Field Marshal von Kluge, Commander of the Western Front. That was after Rommel was severely wounded by a fighter plane strafing of his car. There is some evidence that Rommel eventually agreed to the assassination attempt.
On July 20, 1944, the assassination attempt against Hitler failed and the conspirators were rounded up. One of the conspirators, Carl-Heinrich von Stülpnagel, failed in his suicide attempt and, in his delirium, called out Rommel’s name. That was all Hitler needed.
While still convalescing at his home with his wife and 15-year-old son Manfred, two general from Hitler’s headquarters came to Rommel and offered him the choice of face a court trial (which he would surely lose and his family would lose everything) or commit suicide and the official notice would be that he died of his wounds. His family would receive the pension befitting a Field marshal and they would keep all their property. Rommel, of course, chose to save his wife and only child.
On October 14, 1944, Rommel took the cyanide and was given a state funeral.
I remember seeing the old film of the funeral and seeing Manfred sitting beside Lucia, Rommel’s widow, whom Rommel called “Lu.” The movie did a brilliant job of showing the last minutes of Rommel with Manfred and the bravery of both of them. In my teenage years, I often wondered what became of Manfred and I read everything I could by him and about him.
Manfred wrote at length about his father and most of it can be found on the Internet.
Manfred would later form friendships with the children of his father's most prominent opponents, David Montgomery (the second viscount), son of the field marshal, and Major General George Patton, son of the leading American wartime tank commander of the same name.
In 1947, he entered school to study law and political science at Tübingen University. In 1956, he joined the civil service in the state government of Baden-Württemberg, of which Stuttgart is the capital. In 1974, Manfred became the Mayor of Stuttgart when he won the run-off election. In subsequent elections, he won re-elections with about 70% of the vote.
During the 70s and 80s, the German terrorist group, the Baader-Meinhof Gang, staged a series of political uprisings and murders. The gang leaders were arrested and jailed and went to trial. Five of the leaders committed suicide. In a stunning show of moral courage, Manfred insisted that the dead terrorists be given a proper funeral, saying, “Our differences are made right in death.”
He supported the rights of immigrants, he reduced the debt of Stuttgart, and managed the radical makeover of the city’s infrastructure. He also worked to improve relations with France.
Manfred’s retirement in 1996 was prompted at least in part by the first symptoms of Parkinson's disease, of which he said: "When I got up, an enormous effort of will was necessary. Then I started to tremble, and began to write in ever-smaller letters, ever less readable." This did not stop him continuing a considerable literary output, including his memoirs in 1998 and several books on politics, economics and German affairs. His memoirs are a study in grace and forgiveness.
Among the many honors he received from other countries, he was awarded the French Légion d'Honneur by French President François Mitterrand, the highest grade of the German Federal Order of Merit from Chancellor Helmut Kohl, and named Commander of the British Empire by Queen Elizabeth II.
Manfred had been begged to run for Chancellor of Germany and was called by the New York Times, “the rising political figure with the best chance of becoming national leader.” He was more interested in leading and caring for those he knew, much like his father.
Sentinel Rural News is the leading source of news for Central Wisconsin. We utilize local writers as our content creators while including contributors of expertise from across the country.