Propaganda, war, and the truth about Rommel

He's been described the acceptable face of the Nazis. But that image comes under attack in a German film

A new film about Germany's "chivalrous" Second World War commander, Erwin Rommel has provoked furious criticism from members of his family who claim that its authors portray the "Desert Fox" as an unscrupulous Nazi war criminal who was a favourite of Adolf Hitler.

As the head of the German army's elite Afrika Korps, Rommel won fame and popularity for his military successes against the British in North Africa. Initially admired by Hitler, he was widely respected both during and after the war. Even Winston Churchill once called him a "great general".

Defeated by General Bernard Law Montgomery's 7th Armoured Division, the famed "Desert Rats", at the decisive battle of El-Alamein in 1942, Field Marshal Rommel wrote that his campaign against the British was a chivalrous affair and the nearest thing to "war without hate".

He was later alleged to have been involved in the July 1944 plot to assassinate Hitler. But he committed suicide after he was arrested by the Nazis and told that he would be put on trial for his offences and face certain death. In Germany and Britain he is still widely thought of as Nazi Germany's "decent" general.

In an attempt to explore the latter part of Rommel's life, Germany's SWR television channel is currently making a new feature film about him. Its director, Niki Stein, told Der Spiegel magazine that the film tries to portray him as the personification of a generation of wartime Germans who "realise only gradually and too late that the person they have served with such passion is a criminal".

The film, which casts the German actor Ulrich Turkur as Rommel, has yet to be shown on television. However it has already provoked an angry response from Rommel's 82-year-old son, Manfred, his daughter-in-law and his grandchildren.

In letters to SWR, the family complains that all the advance publicity about the film ignores the chivalrous side of the general and portrays Rommel as "an upstart, a favourite of Hitler and as a Nazi war criminal".

"This is simply untrue. These are lies," the family insists in its letter to the channel's director-general, Peter Boudgoust, "Yes, he did value Hitler in the beginning because he was a friend of the army but the mutual admiration ended abruptly with Hitler's "victory or death" order before El-Alamein which resulted in Rommel withdrawing his troops of his own accord and saving many lives," the Rommel family adds.

SWR is reported to have been holding talks with Rommel's granddaughter Catherine, about the film and further discussions are scheduled. However, SWR has since allowed the script of its Rommel film to be examined by a group of prominent historians and military experts. They have praised it for its precision and the "care" taken by the director in his use of dialogue and scene setting.

The SWR's production is the latest attempt by German film makers to provide a realistic assessment of Rommel. A television documentary on the general aired by the ZDF public broadcasting channel four years ago claimed to have exposed the "myth" that Rommel fought a clean war in the North African desert.

Entitled Rommel's War, the documentary claimed that he played a key role in Hitler's attempt to export the Nazi Holocaust to the Middle East. It revealed that the SS had orders to "destroy Jewry in the Arab World" and had set up special "Sonderkommando" extermination units to follow in the wake of the Afrika Korps. "With his victories, Rommel was simply preparing the way for the Nazi extermination machine," insisted the documentary's author, the historian Jörg Müllner.

However, post-war Germany cherished the notion of the chivalrous "Desert Fox". In 1970, the then West German navy had no qualms about naming a destroyer after him.

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