They say the most painful betrayal comes from the one you most trusted.
Hitler knew exactly how that felt when he discovered that his most favorite and trusted general Erwin Rommel was part of the conspirators who wanted him dead. While Erwin Rommel was often depicted as one of the “good Nazis” because of the assassination attempt, his story and Third Reich journey were far from being as simple as the guy who realized the barbarity of Nazism and ended up turning his back against his once-beloved Fuhrer.
Hitler Was a Fan
Johannes Erwin Rugen Rommel was born to a humble family in Southern Germany on November 15, 1891. His journey began when he joined the local Infantry Regiment when he was 18, and it turned out he was good at that. Rommel was already an established war hero when Adolf Hitler rose into power— he was an Iron Cross recipient during World War I. Thus, he was known as one of Germany’s most outstanding military leaders. One time, he was leading with a mere 150 men against several thousands of Italian forces, yet they managed to capture 9,000 of them while only losing 6 of his men.
Hitler was a comprehensive reader, and one of the books on his bookshelf was a copy of Rommel’s Infantry Attacks. It was a military textbook first published in 1937 and was highly regarded. So it was unsurprising that Hitler included him in his team when he gained power. At first, his task was to train the Hitler Youth, but when the invasion of Poland started, he was assigned to look after the Fuhrer’s headquarters.
Soon enough, Rommel was in charge of the military strategies, bodyguards, and the defenses of the Nazis during the D-Day Invasion of the Allied forces. Rommel was also there during the planning of the France invasion. He was with the Nazis on the French coast. Rommel was committed to helping Nazi Germany become a world leader, if anything else.
Not only did he gain Hitler’s respect, but the British called him a gentlemanly soldier and dubbed him the “Desert Fox” for treating his enemies as humanely as possible. Prime Minister Winston Churchill praised Rommel once, saying, “We have a very daring and skillful opponent against us and, may I say across the havoc of war, a great general.”
This, of course, was not to discredit the fact that he was still a Nazi who was well aware of all the atrocities committed against the Jews. According to historian Wolfgang Proske,
Rommel was a deeply convinced Nazi and, contrary to popular opinion, he was also an anti-Semite… It is not only the Germans who have fallen into the trap of believing that Rommel was chivalrous. The British have been convinced by these stories as well.
Hitler Has to Go
Rommel followed every order of Hitler until the time when they were fighting in Africa. He was told to execute every commando and Jew that they had captured. But, for the first time, he refused to do what the Fuhrer had told him.
However, his involvement with the plot to kill Hitler began when they discussed how to stop the Allies’ all-out assault on the shores of Normandy. His suggestion was to build an “Atlantic Wall” to take the Allies the moment they stepped their feet on the beach. However, this suggestion was rejected by Hitler. So instead, he took his other generals’ advice of letting the Allies land before launching a counter-attack.
After the meeting, Alexander von Falkenhausen approached Rommel and spilled the plot to kill Hitler. Von Falkenhausen was a Nazi who spent his early years in the war protecting China from the Japanese forces. According to him, the only hope for Germany was to overthrow Hitler and offer peace with the Allied troops, as the tides were turning against the Nazis, and there was no way that they could win.
The Desert Fox still tried to defend the Germans during the Allied invasion, and he saw how the enemies quickly swept their forces. So he wrote a letter to Hitler and asked that they surrender, which was not granted.
Rommel didn’t want to assassinate Hitler, and the original plan was to arrest him and make peace with the Allies after successfully retaking France. However, things changed when on July 17, 1944, Rommel’s car was gunned down by a Royal Airforce plane, leaving him with three fractures in his skull and shards of glass embedded in his face.
With The Desert Fox badly injured and the Gestapo after his co-conspirators, they would have to act quickly. So Claus von Stauffenberg decided to do the plan, even without Rommel. On July 20, 1944, he was scheduled to meet with the Fuhrer, and he thought it was the perfect opportunity to attempt the assassination.
With a briefcase on hand, Stauffenberg arrived at the underground room in the Fuhrer’s East Prussian headquarters called the “Wolf’s Lair.” In it was a bomb that he would slide under the table close to Hitler’s feet. He would then excuse himself out and then set the explosives off. Things almost went according to plan until someone accidentally kicked the briefcase, so when Stauffenberg set off the bomb, it tore the room into pieces and killed four Nazi leaders, but Hilter was virtually unharmed.
Two months later and a few tortured men, Rommel’s name appeared as one of the co-conspirators. On October 14, Rommel was getting ready to eat lunch with his family when Hitler’s men arrived at his home. He was given an option to face the People’s Court and face his trials or take a cyanide capsule and die quietly. If he chose to die, he would be given a hero’s funeral, and his family’s safety would be guaranteed.
He spoke to his family, wore his military uniform for the last time, shook the hands of Hitler’s men, and climbed into the backseat of the automobile where he took the cyanide capsule.