The Trail of the Fox
More than the lives of most figures of the first half of the twentieth century, the career of Field Marshal Erwin Rommel has been shrouded in legend and obscured by gaps in evidence. More than any scholar of “The Desert Fox,” David Irving has successfully dealt with the complex elements of the legend and supplied as much missing evidence as possible. In this excitingly written book, we view the many faces of Rommel in facts and illustrations. We encounter at first hand the romantic, vain, courageous, and chivalrous commander. And we come to understand the strengths and weaknesses of the crafty tactician, the committed Nazi, the prisoner of circumstances at the end. Irving used Rommel’s extensive diaries, letters, and family papers to supply us with new evidence and understanding. He interviewed numerous associates and relatives of the Field Marshal to help fill gaps in the evidence and to check existing sources. Summaries and pertinent direct quotations from these interviews appear in italics at critical junctures in the narrative. The result is an effective personal touch that allows the reader to follow the author’s search for truth and vividly rediscover the past as it appeared to the major observers and participants of Rommel’s life.
Unlike other biographies of Rommel, Irving begins with the sickly cadet who by craftiness and great daring became a great officer in record time. Like many talented commanders who joined the Nazis, Rommel was a highly decorated hero of World War I. His reputation was taking shape by the end of the war when he stormed a 4,700-foot mountain and captured 8,000 Italian troops at the battle of Longarone in 1917. As was the case with so many other young men of middle-class backgrounds, Erwin Rommel was attracted to the dynamism and sense of mission offered by the Nazis. Though Irving is inclined to think that from the beginning Rommel was a nonpolitical officer, his judgment is somewhat offset by Rommel’s view that the soldier must believe in and fight for Nazi policies and philosophies—what Rommel called “The New Idea” of national socialism. His growing disillusionment with Hitler in the spring of 1944 caused Rommel to refer to “political” concerns about the implications of an impending German defeat. Perhaps it might be better to say that Rommel was politically committed and naïve rather than nonpolitical as such.
By the mid-1930’s there was much mutual admiration between Rommel and Hitler. Both aspired to be heroes and to be worshiped as such. Both brilliantly used propaganda techniques to this end. Both were relatively young men who reached the summit and power of their fame in their forties. But hero worship of Hitler was not enough for Rommel. The young officer wished to become a force in his own right.
There were four keys to the success of Rommel the man, the officer, and the legend. First, by 1940 Rommel showed dynamic activity and great talent as a leader of men. He revealed himself as a great tactician of tank warfare and had written a leading textbook on the principles of infantry tactics. Second, Rommel’s vanity and hunger for medals led him to collaborate with Propaganda Minister Goebbels and the press to glorify his military conquests on the Western Front in 1940. Third, Rommel was a romantic daredevil of almost superhuman courage. He became the counterpart of Baron von Richthofen, the air ace of World War I. Time and again Rommel stood tall at the head of his troops while his subordinates and adjutants at his side were shot down by enemy fire or ripped apart by enemy shells. Fourth, of all the members of the high officer corps Rommel was probably the most personally independent and tactically flexible general (in the military sense). This independence of mind became a key both to his early successes and to his ultimate undoing.
There were many important ironies of Rommel’s sensational career, and Irving describes and analyzes them very well. For example, in the struggle for North Africa in 1941, the cunning and resourceful Rommel effectively used the sorely tried Italians in the front line of battle, while his German Panzers encircled a numerically superior British enemy. But he was a poor strategist, for he overextended himself in Africa and showed no interest in the more vital Russian front until it was too late.
Part of the Rommel legend stemmed from the appreciation of the German general by such Allied...
(The entire section is 1811 words.)