During Rommel’s inter-war years, Rommel was able to impress a rising German politician named Adolf Hitler. Rommel distinguished himself during the invasion of France in 1940 and for two years, his Africa corps fought the entire British Army to a standstill. Finally, his people were overwhelmed by vastly superior numbers. In early 1944, Hitler chose him to command the Atlantic Wall, to prepare for the Allied invasion. In early 1944, a British commando unit made a raid on the French coast and one of the units and officers were taken prisoner. To the young lieutenant’s amazement, he was taken to Rommel’s headquarters for an interview with the field marshal himself. They had a nice chat and Rommel commented that it was a shame that the British and the Germans were not fighting on the same side against the Russians. No doubt Rommel was sincere in what he said. He spoke excellent English and, like many Germans, was an avid Anglophile. The young officer commented that he did not think that would be possible because of the extent of the differences between England and Germany. When Rommel asked him what he meant, the young officer replied, “for example, your country’s treatment of the Jews.” At that point, Rommel snapped, “You are talking politics. We are soldiers.”
At the end of the interview, Rommel gave an order that the young officer was not to be harmed. It was not until the end of the war that the young British officer fully realized how lucky he’d been. Rommel knew that Hitler had issued express orders that any captured commando was to be summarily executed. In sparing the young officer’s life, Rommel was disobeying a direct order from the Fuhrer. When that young lieutenant reported his conversation with Rommel to his superiors after the war, they found it hard to believe until British Occupational Forces looked into the archive and found transcripts of the conversation, finding the officer was correct. In hearing that anecdote, I have profoundly mixed feelings that Rommel had the moral courage and gallantry to spare a captured enemy, even at the risk of his own life, but I’m deeply saddened that Rommel undoubtedly had considerable knowledge of the ghastly nature of the Nazi regime’s treatment of Jews. It is impossible not to admire Erwin Rommel. It’s also a mistake to admire him too much.