Manfred Rommel: Field-Marshal's son who served as the popular and successful mayor of Stuttgart for 22 years

 

Manfred Rommel was a successful German politician, serving as mayor of Stuttgart from 1974-96. But he inevitably lived in the shadow of his father Field-Marshal Erwin Rommel, the "Desert Fox". He later became friends with the sons of his father's two principal wartime adversaries, General George Patton and Field Marshal Bernard Montgomery.

Manfred Rommel was born in Stuttgart, the only son of Erwin Rommel and Lucie Maria Rommel, neé Mollin, in 1928. His early childhood was spent in Dresden, Goslar and Potsdam and then from 1938 to 1943 in Vienna, where the then Colonel Rommel served as commandant of the War Academy in the Neustadt district. The family then moved to Herrlingen bei Ulm.

At the age of 15, in January 1944, Manfred joined the growing number of youngsters serving as auxiliaries in anti-aircraft batteries. Given the favourable publicity extended to his father by Goebbels, it was a severe shock when he learned that the Field-Marshal had been forced to commit suicide to save his family; Erwin Rommel had been accused of being involved in the failed 20 July 1944 plot to assassinate Hitler. He was accorded a state funeral, and the cause of his death was announced as a heart attack.

In April 1945 Manfred Rommel became a prisoner of the advancing Free French First Army. Released in September 1945, he joined the Wieland-Gymnasium in Biberach an der Riß. On matriculation in 1947 he enrolled in the law faculty of the University of Tübingen. Graduating in 1956, he joined the civil service of the federal state of Baden-Württemberg, where he rose rapidly, partly due to being "discovered" by Hans Filbinger, Minister of the Interior – both were members of Konrad Adenauer's Christian Democratic Union.

Rommel worked for Filbinger, who from 1966 to 1978 was Premier of Baden-Württemberg and a leading member of the CDU. Rommel rose with his mentor. Filbinger was a former member of the Nazi party, however, and his days were numbered. In 1978 he was forced to resign after his wartime activities as a military judge were exposed. By that time Rommel was the successful mayor of Stuttgart.

His predecessor, Dr Arnulf Klett, had died unexpectedly in 1974 and Rommel was chosen as the CDU's candidate to succeed him. Klett, who was not affiliated to any party, was a hard act to follow; not having been a Nazi, he was installed by the French in 1945, and was repeatedly re-elected and credited with the rapid rebuilding of the city after the massive destruction caused by Allied bombing. Rommel, who had been urged to stand by Filbinger, faced an imposing opponent in the Social Democrat Peter Conradi, an architect and member of the Bundestag, but Rommel beat him on the second ballot in December 1974.

He was re-elected with larger majorities in 1982 and 1990; his success was the first for a CDU candidate in a town with more than 500,000 inhabitants. Rommel's success was part of a trend towards the right – Chancellor Willy Brandt had been forced to resign in May because of a spy scandal and his Social Democrats had lost ground in regional elections.

Although a member of the CDU from his youth, Rommel attempted to run Stuttgart by consensus. He was known as a fair-minded individual of liberal sentiments, of which he soon faced a severe test. His first term coincided with the Baader-Meinhof terrorist campaign aimed at West Germany's "fascist" system by the young, self-proclaimed revolutionaries of the Red Army Faction.

Once captured, several of the group were held in the top security Stammheim prison in Stuttgart. On the night of 18 October 1977, three of them, Andreas Baader, Gudrun Ensslin and Jan-Carl Raspe, killed themselves, while a fourth, Irmgard Möller, survived her injuries (she was released in 1994). The terrorist attacks before and after the suicides caused growing anger, fear and dismay, and Rommel became embroiled in the controversy over what to do with the suicides' remains.

To the anger of many he insisted they be given a decent burial, saying, "I am of the opinion that all wrath, justified as it may be, must end with death and that there are no first and second- class graveyards and that all graveyards are the same."

Partly thanks to Mercedes-Benz, which had its headquarters in Stuttgart, immigrants were attracted to the city. With an immigrant population of 24 per cent the city competes with Frankfurt for Germany's highest percentage. This represented a sizable challenge for Rommel, who courted controversy by insisting on equal rights for the incomers, hoping to make his city a model for others to follow.

Experienced in financial management, he reduced the city's debt and put money into roads and public transport. Looking beyond Germany, he sought to develop Franco-German friendship; he was later made a Chavalier of the Ordre National de la Légion d'Honneur by France for his efforts. He also worked for reconciliation between Germans and Jews, while among his many other decorations was an honorary CBE.

When he retired in 1996 it was calculated that he had given 5,000 speeches in 22 years. By that time he was worried by the beginnings of Parkinson's disease so he got to work on a memoir. Trotz allem heiter [Stay cheerful in spite of everything] was published in 1998. He wrote other successful books, including 1944, The Year of Decision: Erwin Rommel in France (2012) in which he advances the view that his father was seeking to bring about a capitulation of the Wehrmacht, which he commanded, in the West.

He was married to Liselotte Daiber, whom he had met on a train journey. They had one daughter, Catherine. Norbert Lammert, the president of the German Bundestag, paid tribute to him, saying: "Our country has lost a passionate democrat and an immensely popular figure, who made an outstanding contribution to his city of birth and to the political culture of this country."

David Childs

Manfred Rommel, politician: born Stuttgart 24 December 1928; Honorary CBE 1990; married Liselotte Daiber (one daughter); died Stuttgart 7 November 2013.

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