Sunday, June 8, 2014

Rommel - A Reappraisal by Ian Beckett

The post-WWII period saw a plethora of reputations become set in stone in both axis and allied states.  Since then, and through today, we are witnessing renewed interest and the questioning of those reputations.  Be it Patton, Montgomery, DeGaulle, Zhukov, Manstein or Rommel, each has had numerous biographies written about them, questioning their abilities, actions and contributions to the war effort.  In this case, Rommel is a figure that is somewhat of an exception.  Rommel is the only general to garner the kind of notoriety that he enjoyed in both Germany and Great Britain, being known as the Desert Fox.  This label served numerous purposes for the British, who were able to continually point to the demigod of the desert and his abilities as the reason for continued reverses and defeats, rather than their own inabilities and weaknesses.  In truth, much of the image both Germans and the British became familiar with were a result of propaganda efforts on both sides that started during the war and continued apace in the after-war period.

This edited volume presents half a dozen chapters examining various events throughout Rommel's career, putting them into context and attempting a more objective look at a controversial figure.  The more interesting chapters, in my opinion, encompass Rommel's role in the defeat of France in the summer of 1940 and his experiences in North Africa, which cemented his 'credentials' and reputation.  I can't say this is an original volume as the research presented has been covered in other sources/monographs.  But bringing together numerous secondary and primary sources to go through Rommel's entire career is helpful in attempting to understand how his reputation was not only built through deeds but also crafted by the Third Reich's propaganda machine.

There is no doubt that Rommel was a glory hound; no other German general was as well known or had their picture taken as often as Rommel.  He was a favorite of Hitler's, which resulted in his eventual assignment to North Africa.  But before that campaign was underway, Rommel was able to prove his abilities during the German invasion of France.  Unfortunately, the chapter covering Rommel's role is somewhat weakened as there is no comparison to the abilities and achievements of the other German divisions and commanders, thus leaving the narrative of the 7th Panzer Division's performance in something of a vacuum.  There is a brief mention of the 5th Panzer Division and the numerous ways in which what some consider Rommel's innovative ideas and tactics are shown to have really been a regular part of German doctrine and warfare.  Thus while Rommel's 'ghost division' (labeled as such not only because the allies had no idea where he would show up next but also because the Germans could only guess as well) achieved much success against the French, those feats have to be put into context with, for instance, his failure to properly document his encounter with the British at Arras, where his exaggeration about the forces he faced caused further German formations to veer off course and attempt to come to his aid.  Furthermore, Rommel regularly ignored orders from his superiors, his use of tank formations in the vanguard allowed for ambushes and attacks on his force's flanks, which resulted in preventable losses.  Additionally, a direct result of being a glory hound meant that he regularly flaunted the achievements of his division while denying credit to his peers, once even denying support to one division fighting against the 1st French armored division.

Although the chapter on Rommel's role in the defeat of France attempts to be somewhat objective, the two chapters on his actions in North Africa seem less balanced.  There is a lot of admiration for his victories but his failures, while mentioned, appear to be glossed over rather than emphasized to give a more objective look at his abilities.  The bottom line with North Africa seems to be an insufficient force of German and Italian troops that Rommel was able to concentrate in enough strength to garner a few notable victories in the midst of regular defeats and setbacks until his logistical tail simply could not keep up with his needs.  Considering that by the end of the campaign German and Italian units were regularly relying on captured allied supplies, perhaps Rommel should have been asking Churchill for supplies rather than Hitler. Somehow the idea that a few more divisions would have made a difference seems a dream, at best, considering the difficulties the Germans and Italians had supplying the limited forces they already had in North Africa.

In the postwar period authors like Liddell Hart helped Rommel's overall reputation with their publications.  This served another purpose in that it helped to rehabilitate West Germany in the eyes of the west.  Rommel became the face of a Germany that was hidden and perverted by the Nazis.  Authors like Desmond Young concentrated on Rommel's involvement in the July bomb plot against Hitler and attempted to show that Rommel, while a German general, was not truly a part of the system Hitler created (Rommels potential role in the July plot is addressed in a separate chapter within this edited volume).  Overall, for those interested in a condensed introductory 'reappraisal' that's based on a variety of readily accessible literature, this is a good starting point for looking at the Rommel 'legend' and attempting to contextualize his abilities and strengths with his weaknesses and the myths that were built around him during the war and after.

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