Field Marshal Erwin Rommel— Germany’s vaunted “Desert Fox”—met his end not on the battlefield, but at the hands of henchmen sent by his own commander in chief. After more than 60 years, Rommel’s death remains a testament to the depravity of a regime and a leader who, by the summer of 1944, Rommel had come to despise.
Following an ailing Rommel’s final return from North Africa in March 1943, Adolf Hitler sent the former commander of his military headquarters, and the officer that many considered his favorite general, to inspect the coastal defenses of what Nazi propagandists had dubbed Festung Europa (Fortress Europe). Expecting to find a formidable series of concrete fortifications, the field marshal was shocked to discover that the coast of Western Europe was a fortress in name only. Undaunted, as the hour of the Allied invasion neared, Rommel worked tirelessly to improve the defenses while fighting a losing battle with Hitler and Field Marshal Gerd von Rundstedt over the best use of Germany’s armored reserves (see story, P. 26).
Despite Rommel’s defensive improvements, on June 6, 1944, the Allies successfully stormed ashore on five Normandy beaches, and by the end of the day tens of thousands of American, British and Canadian troops had begun the liberation of Western Europe.
For the next month, Rommel did all within his power to contain the Allied advance. Twice he met with Hitler hoping to make the Führer see the reality of what was happening in France, as German forces were pummeled to dust under the might of the Allies. At a meeting in Berchtesgaden on June 29, the field marshal went so far as to ask the Führer how, given the circumstances, the war could be won. Two days later, Rundstedt asked the same question and was relieved of command. Such was Rommel’s reputation, however, that he remained. He would be overseen by General Günther Hans von Kluge, Rundstedt’s replacement, whom Hitler believed was made of sterner stuff.
Realities on the ground soon convinced even Kluge that the situation was desperate. Seeing little alternative, on July 15 Rommel sent Hitler a three-page memorandum explaining that the front in Normandy could only be held for two or three more weeks. After that, the memorandum implied, defeat was inevitable. He then set out to put a question to his commanders in the field: Would they join him in an effort to remove Hitler from power before Germany was totally annihilated? Many agreed—even SS General Josef “Sepp” Dietrich, the former commander of Hitler’s personal guard.
It was not the first time the subject had come up. In February 1944, Rommel had been approached by the mayor of Stuttgart, a former World War I colleague, who appealed to Rommel to act against the Nazi leadership. “You are our greatest and most popular general and more respected than any other,” the old friend urged. “You are the only one who can [replace Hitler and] prevent civil war in the Third Reich.”
While Rommel was being pressed to take the reins of government, other German officers, many of high rank, were conspiring to assassinate Hitler. Rommel’s chief of staff, General Hans Speidel, was one of the plotters. Speidel and General Carl Heinrich von Stülpnagel, the German military governor of France, both thought the Führer was a madman, no longer able to make rational decisions. Rommel met with the two men in early spring to consider Hitler’s removal, but there is no evidence that they spoke of assassination. Both Rommel and Stülpnagel informed Rundstedt of the discussions, but the elderly field marshal prevaricated. He told the two generals that while they could not count on his taking part in a conspiracy, he would do nothing to interfere. “You are young,” he said. “You know and love the people. You do it!”
The word was out among the conspirators, though, that Rommel agreed, at least in principle, with their views. Such an attitude coming from so famous a soldier must have been encouraging to the plotters. Most of the conspirators were in staff positions and had no armies at their command. Rommel’s participation would add the necessary strength to any attempt to seize power by force, and his renown would provide some legitimacy to their effort. Despite his belief that it could be time for Germany to seek a new leader, there is no solid evidence to suggest that the Desert Fox was ready to actively take part in Hitler’s assassination or that he knew the extent of the plot.
Rommel’s dissatisfaction with Hitler had deep roots, back to the days when, as the commander of the Afrika Korps, he was at the pinnacle of his success. The darling of the Axis and the envy of the Allies, Rommel was incensed when Hitler’s senseless “stand fast” order in November 1942 led to the defeat of his army at El Alamein. After he was called back to Germany before the eventual surrender of Axis forces in North Africa, Rommel’s devotion to Hitler suffered another blow when he allegedly first learned of the ultimate fate of hundreds of thousands of Jews and other “undesirables” as the Final Solution picked up steam. The field marshal’s son Manfred wrote, “From the moment Rommel learned of Hitler’s involvement [in the Holocaust], all of his former loyalty to the Führer vanished and he decided to act against him.”
Rommel suffered a more personal crisis of confidence at the June 29 meeting at Berchtesgaden. Well prepared, after a thorough briefing the field marshal wrapped up his remarks with, “The whole world stands arrayed against Germany, and this disproportion of strength…” Before Rommel could complete his sentence, an angry Hitler curtly interrupted and told him to confine his remarks to military operations. When Rommel answered that history demanded that the Führer deal with the total situation, Hitler treated the former commander of the Afrika Korps like a recalcitrant schoolboy.
Unsuccessful in his futile effort to convince Germany’s leader of the impending disaster, as a dutiful soldier Rommel returned to the front and did what he could to prevent it. Back in Berchtesgaden, Hitler fumed over what he regarded as his former favorite’s disloyalty. “The gulf between Field Marshal Rommel and Hitler had widened [after the conference]; Hitler’s mistrust, indeed his hatred seemed to have grown,” said Manfred Rommel. Hitler’s rage only deepened when he received his field marshal’s memo. The facts and figures presented there made it clear to the most inveterate dreamer that a radical change in strategy was called for. To agree with Rommel, however, would have required the Führer to admit he was mistaken.
Events then overtook Rommel and Hitler. On July 17, the field marshal’s staff car was caught in the open by marauding Allied fighter-bombers and he was critically wounded. Quickly returned to Germany for treatment, he was convalescing when Colonel Claus von Stauffenberg’s attempt to assassinate Hitler at his Wolf’s Lair headquarters in East Prussia failed.
Having survived the July 20 attempt on his life, Hitler embarked on a ruthless purge of anyone even remotely connected with the plotters. Two days later, while Rommel lay gravely injured in the hospital, Kluge and Speidel visited him and told him of the botched assassination. Although he had never advocated Hitler’s death, instead preferring his arrest, and had only minimal association with the plotters, Rommel was well aware of the likely consequences of the bungled attempt. He reminded his visitors that there would be “unequaled repercussions.”
Hoping to give the ensuing witch hunt a veneer of respectability, the Nazis appointed Field Marshal Rundstedt to head a special court of inquiry into the plot to kill Hitler. With ruthless efficiency, some 1,200 officers—including 250 members of Hitler’s staff—were rounded up and remanded to the People’s Court, a judiciary body whose presiding judge, Roland Freisler, only ever handed down one verdict: guilty.
Once convicted, there was only one sentence—death, usually carried out by hanging. The families of the convicted were generally required to pay for the cost of the execution before they themselves were sent to concentration camps.
As the net widened, Rommel came under closer scrutiny. His popularity with the German people, however, created a difficult situation for the Nazis. They could not haul the famous field marshal into the People’s Court and humiliate him as they had done to so many others. The hard-pressed citizens of the Reich would never stand for it. Given the gravity of his wounds, at first the Nazis hoped that Rommel would simply die of his injuries. By early August, however, the old soldier had recovered sufficiently to be discharged from the hospital and return to his home in Herrlingen to convalesce.
On August 7, Rommel was summoned to Berlin by Field Marshal Wilhelm Keitel, the head of the German High Command. Rommel phoned Keitel to say he was still too unwell to make the trip, but his call was put through to General Wilhelm Burgdorf, who said that, under the circumstances, he and General Ernst Maisel would travel to Rommel’s home to discuss his future assignment. Both men were Wehrmacht officers, but Rommel told several close associates that he suspected Hitler was trying to have him killed.
Around noon on October 14, Burgdorf and Maisel arrived in Herrlingen and presented Rommel with a letter from Keitel that read: “You will see from the enclosed testimonies of General Speidel, General Stülpnagel and Lieutenant Colonel [Caesar von] Hofacker that you have been incriminated in the attempt on the Führer’s life. If you are innocent, it is up to you to come to Berlin and answer eventually to the People’s Court. If you know that you cannot put up a defense, then you as a German officer know what is the best thing for you to do.”
It was clear to Rommel what was expected. He could either commit suicide or undergo the public humiliation of a trial, conviction and execution. If the field marshal chose suicide, his death would be announced as the result of wounds inflicted on the battlefield, he would be given a state funeral and, perhaps most important, his family would not be harmed.
Burgdorf and Maisel went outside and waited by the garden gate for Rommel to make his decision. Inside, the field marshal told his son, his aide Captain Hermann Aldinger and his wife what was about to happen. Rommel bade his family goodbye and said, “I shall be dead in 15 minutes.”
Manfred and Aldinger then walked Rommel to the car and the waiting generals. As they approached, the two Nazi henchmen raised their right hands in salute, and Burgdorf stood aside for Rommel to pass through the gate. According to Manfred: “A knot of villagers stood outside the drive….The car stood ready. The SS 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 into 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 around the bend in the road.”
Within a half hour after the car pulled away, the hospital in nearby Ulm phoned to report the field marshal’s death from a “brain storm.” An autopsy was not performed. “It was not then entirely clear what had happened after he left us,” Manfred wrote. “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.” A few minutes later, Burgdorf also got out of the car and stood beside it, leaving Rommel alone inside. “The Nazi general paced up and down alongside the sedan. In another five minutes he waved to Maisel and the driver.”
We will never know what Germany’s greatest general thought about during those final lonely minutes in the back of the sedan. Did he ponder the irony of being put to death at the wishes of his former champion? Or did he simply obey his final order, biting down on the cyanide capsule that would kill him? When the “executioners” arrived, the SS driver later testified, they found Rommel doubled up and sobbing. “He was practically unconscious and in his death throes.” Today, a roadside marker commemorates the place where the car stopped.
Four days after his “suicide,” Rommel’s body lay in state in Ulm. He was given full military honors. Unwilling to attend, Hitler instead sent the compliant Rundstedt with a large wreath. In a final bitter twist, Rundstedt concluded his eulogy with: “A pitiless destiny snatched him from us. His heart belonged to the Führer.” Rommel’s body was cremated and the remains buried in the Herrlingen cemetery, under a simple gravestone in the shape of an Iron Cross. Seven months later, on May 2, 1945, as the total defeat of the Third Reich neared, an American journalist broke the bizarre story of Rommel’s death in the Beachhead News. The headline in the same issue read, “Nazis Proclaim Hitler’s Death.”
Originally published in the June 2006 issue of World War II. To subscribe, click here.