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A brilliant new perspective on Rommel

Some South African generals, allied with the British forces, sought segregation from the enlisted men, all blacks, after being taken prisoners of war. The surprised German commander told them firmly that they would have to share the same quarters, never mind the colour of their skin. Did they not take an oath to serve their country together, he reminded them, repudiating racism in his own way? 

Dec 15, 2016
By Sudip Talukdar 
 
Field Marshal: The Life and Death of Erwin Rommel by Daniel Allen Butler; Published by Casemate, Philadelphia; Pages 600; INR 1,867. Hardbound.
 
Some South African generals, allied with the British forces, sought segregation from the enlisted men, all blacks, after being taken prisoners of war. The surprised German commander told them firmly that they would have to share the same quarters, never mind the colour of their skin. Did they not take an oath to serve their country together, he reminded them, repudiating racism in his own way? 
 
This incident defines Field Marshal Erwin Rommel as the man who never compromised with his principles, paying the ultimate price of falling foul of the feared Fuhrer himself. No wonder Rommel, who snatched victory from the very jaws of defeat but lost the war for want of supplies, inspired generations of military leaders and historians with a larger than life image. He is also an object of godlike veneration and the subject of numerous research papers, biographies and books. 
 
The accounts penned by David Irving (The Trail of the Fox) and Daniel Allen Butler (Field Marshal: The Life and Death of Erwin Rommel), present his life and times in a much more comprehensive framework, standing out for sheer brilliance, depth, and breathtaking scholarship. However, Butler’s work offers a refreshing new perspective on Rommel, a military colossus in his own right. Few could have predicted his greatness after his birth in a respectable if staid middle class family in Heidenheim, Germany. 
 
But as a commissioned officer, Rommel soon proved his mettle in the many skirmishes and battles of the First World War, even bluffing the superior enemy forces into surrender, without firing a single shot. Based on these experiences and his resourcefulness in outwitting them, he penned Infantry Tactics, a handy military classic which brought him to the Fuhrer’s notice as also his first Panzer command, the ‘Ghost Division.’ It spearheaded the Blitzkrieg and vanquished France in a matter of weeks. 
 
The Field Marshal paints a rich and detailed portrait of a legend which shines brilliantly as the Desert Fox, inspiring awe and quite a fan following even among the Allies. Butler, a maritime and military historian, synthesizes history, geography, culture and politics of the period to place Rommel within the larger framework and the influences that shaped him over a lifetime. The author succeeds in demystifying Rommel and lays bare his soul, thanks to a multi-dimensional approach to the subject matter. The gripping story, told with depth, feeling and conviction, turns it into a high literary endeavour.
 
Butler traces Rommel’s evolution as “a master of armoured warfare, running rings around a succession of Allied generals who . . . could only resort to overwhelming numbers to bring about his defeat.” Butler is referring to British generals Wavell, Auchinleck and Ritchie, who crumbled before Rommel’s punches, even though they led a much bigger and better equipped force. The man who commanded the Afrika Korps also came close to halting the advance of Montgomery’s overwhelmingly larger army, but for the play of circumstances, which cheated him of what would have been his ultimate reward.  
 
But for one with such a superior strategic and tactical drive, who outsmarted the best of generals in combat, Butler describes him as ‘naive;’ who could also be dazzled by Hitler even while detesting the Nazis. However, “he came to realize that Adolf Hitler had morphed into nothing more than an agent of death and destruction, and in that moment he chose to speak Truth to Power. In the end Erwin Rommel was forced to die by his own hand, not because, as some would claim, he had dabbled in a tyrannicidal conspiracy, but because he had committed a far greater crime—he dared to tell Adolf Hitler the truth,” says Butler.
 
Butler does confess that writing a biography of Rommel was quite challenging. Admittedly help came from two basic sources, Infantry Attacks and War without Hate, both authored by Rommel himself as well the Rommel Papers, despite “the embarrassment of riches in available sources about his life and times.”
 
(Sudip Talukdar is a senior journalist, author and strategic affairs columnist. Comments and suggestions on this article can be sent on: editor@spsindia.in)

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