Was the Desert Fox an honest soldier or just another Nazi?

The reputation of Erwin Rommel, a German general admired by Churchill, is now looking tarnished

Germany's memorial to Field Marshal Erwin Rommel is perched on a hillside overlooking the middle-class town of Heidenheim an der Brenz where he was born 120 years ago. The words inscribed on the white limestone monument describe the legendary Second World War general as "chivalrous", "brave" and as a "victim of tyranny".

Last week, however, nearly half a century after it was proudly unveiled, a group of angry protesters carried out a night raid on the memorial and smothered it with a banner proclaiming: "No more monuments for Nazi generals". Only days earlier, the memorial had been defaced with graffiti and holed with chisels.

The protests have shocked many Germans. Even Winston Churchill described Rommel as "great general" and until very recently it was taken for granted that the legendary Desert Fox had secured a permanent place in the nation's troubled history as one of the Nazis' few "decent" military commanders.

But a growing number of objectors, led by historians and teachers from the region in which Rommel was born and raised, have begun to provoke a radical reappraisal of the wartime general. His critics say they want to expose the lies and propaganda which have helped to create what they say is the "myth" of the chivalrous Nazi.

The campaign to rid Heidenheim, and for that matter Germany, of its "Rommel legend" is being spearheaded by Wolfgang Proske, a historian and author of a book about 16 Nazi war criminals from southern Germany, including Rommel. Mr Proske, who also teaches history at a grammar school in Heidenheim, describes Rommel as a "run-of-the-mill war criminal".

In an interview with The Independent on Sunday Mr Proske said: "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."

As Commander-in-Chief of Hitler's Afrika Korps, Rommel won fame and popularity for his initial victories against the British during the Nazi military campaign in North Africa, launched in 1941. Hitler promoted him to the rank of field marshal as a reward for his successes, and Nazi propaganda ensured that he soon achieved celebrity status at home.

Defeated by General Bernard Montgomery's Desert Rats at the battle of El Alamein, Rommel nevertheless claimed that his battles against the British were chivalrous affairs and the "nearest thing to war without hate".

However, Mr Proske claims to have found hitherto ignored historical evidence which casts serious doubt on the general's unblemished reputation and the widely accepted clam that he opposed the rabid anti-Semitism of the Nazis. "At the time when Rommel marched into Tripoli, more than a quarter of the city's population were Jews," he said. "There is evidence which shows that Rommel forbad his troops to buy anything from Jewish traders. Later on, he used the Jews as slave labourers. Some of them were even used as so-called 'mine dogs' who were ordered to walk over minefields ahead of his advancing troops."

Mr Proske says his anti-Rommel campaign is backed by fellow history teachers, historians, and even the children of former Afrika Korps soldiers. However, he claims that his attempts to debunk the orthodox view of the general are so controversial that none of the region's politicians will risk talking about the subject in public.

In an attempt to defuse the row, Heidenheim's mayor recently ordered an additional plaque to be mounted on the town's Rommel monument. A new inscription attempts to gloss over the controversy by insisting that half a century on from the time when the monument was first unveiled a "new generation has grown up and found a home in a united and peaceful Europe".

Yet eminent historians have since dismissed the fresh plaque as a transparent attempt to avoid addressing the new questions about Rommel.

Mr Proske is not the only German historian committed to reappraising the general. A new warts-and-all feature film about Rommel is scheduled to be shown on German television next year. Apart from examining his wartime role in the desert, the film by Germany's SWR broadcasting channel is also expected to cast doubt on claims that he was also deeply involved in the failed 1944 plot to assassinate Hitler.

Rommel's alleged role in the plot prompted the Nazis to arrest him and offer him the choice of trial and certain execution or suicide. He chose the latter. Historians have since concluded that Rommel was not one of the plotters against Hitler, although those who were involved wanted him to join them.

Nick Stein, the film's director, argues that the production attempts to portray Rommel as a military leader who belonged to a generation of wartime Germans who "realised only too late that the person they have served with such a passion is a criminal".

Although it has yet to be screened, the film has already elicited an angry response from the Rommel family. Its members include Rommel's son, Manfred, the 82-year-old former conservative mayor of Stuttgart. The family has complained that the advance publicity for the film wrongly portrays Rommel as an "upstart, a favourite of Hitler", and as a Nazi war criminal. "This is simply untrue. These are lies," the family complained in a letter to SWR's director general.

The broadcaster has since submitted the film's script to a prominent group of historians and military experts for examination. They recently praised the film for its "precision".

The controversy is certain to continue. It also seems destined to present Germany's municipal and military authorities with an awkward problem. There are 22 Rommel streets in Germany and the armed forces have two military barracks named after him.