October 14, 2007

October 14 | Erwin Rommel

November 15, 1891 - October 14, 1944: Age 42

He was known as "The Desert Fox", and is considered the most skillful military commander of desert warfare during WWII. He is responsible for thousands of deaths on both sides of the conflict, but they were inflicted under his philosophy of Krieg ohne Hass - War without Hate. He was considered chivalrous and honourable by the Allied commanders.

However two events took place in July 1944 that sealed his fate. First, On July 17, he was strafed by a British plane and was hospitalized with major head injuries. During his convalescence he was heard to criticize the Nazi leadership as incompetent. Second, on July 20, a Nazi officer brought a bomb concealed in a briefcase into a high-level meeting that included Hitler. When the bomb went off, it killed four people and demolished the room, but as it happened someone had inadvertantly moved the briefcase further away from Hitler, and he was protected by the heavy oak table they were using.

Over the next few months a furious hunt for the conspirators swept up far more people than can possibly have been involved: 5,000 were arrested and 200 executed. It is thought that the Gestapo used the conspiracy to settle old scores. Among them was Rommel. Although there was no direct evidence of Rommel's involvement, his remarks in hospital were remembered, someone who had been arrested pointed a finger at him, and there was evidence the conspirators themselves had considered him a candidate to replace Hitler as leader after the assassination.

Rommel was extremely popular in Germany. Thus on October 14, 1944 two of Hitler's staff officers came to his home and offered him a choice: honourable suicide, or trial before the "People's Court" and public execution. In the former instance his wife and family would receive full pensions and he would receive a state funeral, dying a hero. After a few moments' thought he chose suicide. He was given time to explain his decision to his wife and son (who was 15). The son, Manfred, later wrote about those moments:

He was standing in the middle of the room, his face pale. 'Come outside with me,' he said in a tight voice. We went into my room. '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.'

'Do you believe it?' I interrupted. 'Yes,' he replied. 'I believe it. It is very much in their interest to see that the affair does not come out into the open. By the way, I have been charged to put you under a promise of the strictest silence. If a single word of this comes out, they will no longer feel themselves bound by the agreement.'

I tried again. 'Can't we defend ourselves...' He cut me off short. 'There's no point,' he said. 'It's better for one to die than for all of us to be killed in a shooting affray. Anyway, we've practically no ammunition.' We briefly took leave of each other. 'Call Aldinger, please,' he said.

Aldinger had meanwhile been engaged in conversation by the General's escort to keep him away from my father. At my call, he came running upstairs. He, too, was struck cold when he heard what was happening. My father now spoke more quickly. He again said how useless it was to attempt to defend ourselves. 'It's all been prepared to the last detail. I'm to be given a state funeral. I have asked that it should take place in Ulm. In a quarter of an hour, you, Aldinger, will receive a telephone call from the Wagnerschule reserve hospital in Ulm to say that I've had a brain seizure on the way to a conference.' He looked at his watch. 'I must go, they've only given me ten minutes.' He quickly took leave of us again. Then we went downstairs together.

We helped my father into his leather coat. Suddenly he pulled out his wallet. 'There's still 150 marks in there,' he said. 'Shall I take the money with me?'

'That doesn't matter now, Herr Field Marshal,' said Aldinger.

My father put his wallet carefully back in his pocket. As he went into the hall, his little dachshund which he had been given as a puppy a few months before in France, jumped up at him with a whine of joy. 'Shut the dog in the study, Manfred,' he said, and waited in the hall with Aldinger while I removed the excited dog and pushed it through the study door. Then we walked out of the house together. The two generals were standing at the garden gate. We walked slowly down the path, the crunch of the gravel sounding unusually loud.

As we approached the generals they raised their right hands in salute. 'Herr Field Marshal,' Burgdorf said shortly and stood aside for my father to pass through the gate...

The car stood ready. The S.S. driver swung the door open and stood to attention. My father pushed his Marshal's baton under his left arm, and with his face calm, gave Aldinger and me his hand once more before getting in the car.

The two generals climbed quickly into their seats and the doors were slammed. My father did not turn again as the car drove quickly off up the hill and disappeared round a bend in the road. When it had gone Aldinger and I turned and walked silently back into the house...

Twenty minutes later the telephone rang. Aldinger lifted the receiver and my father's death was duly reported.

It was not then entirely clear, what had happened to him after he left us. Later we learned that the car had halted a few hundred yards up the hill from our house in an open space at the edge of the wood. Gestapo men, who had appeared in force from Berlin that morning, were watching the area with instructions to shoot my father down and storm the house if he offered resistance. Maisel and the driver got out of the car, leaving my father and Burgdorf inside. When the driver was permitted to return ten minutes or so later, he saw my father sunk forward with his cap off and the marshal's baton fallen from his hand.

That evening all of Germany heard that Field Marshall Rommel died of a heart attack. He was given a hero's funeral, with Hitler one of the chief mourners.

Sources: Eyewitness to History, Wikipedia

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