AFRICA HERO AND GERMAN ORIGIN
As much as after the lapse of close to eight decades since the last growls of the guns on the battlefields of the Second World War, the name of Erwin Rommel is still attributed and framed (more often than not) with a mix of adoring admiration and measured critics on the both sides of the now-vanished barricades. The name of the German field-marshal is being unalterably associated with the African theater of WW2 and Libya, Egypt and Tunisia in particular. As a matter of historical fact and a surprise twist for history passionaters, Rommel did actually spend a little more than two calendar years (between the actual debarkation of his troops in Tripoli on February 12, 1941, and March 9, 1943, and his last steps within the deserted soil) in Africa, reduced with long-short voyages back to Europe.
Erwin Rommel spent the larger half of his life, particularly prior to the outbreak of the Great War (First World War), no further than in his homeland in Germany. The first 27 years of his life can be attributed as being a citizen next to the Emperor Kaiser Wilhelm II and the German Empire, then inherited by fourteen years as a resident of the democratic Weimar Republic and finally eleven years as a career soldier under the national-socialist regime of Adolf Hitler and the era of the Third Reich. 52 years and eleven months prior to his honourless death in a little town of Herrlingen, a suburb of the city of Ulm, the future german field-marshal Erwin Eugen Johannes Rommel had become a new-born resident of the 9000 population of a tiny city of Heidenheim. The place of birth and the last stand of Erwin Rommel would be distanced with less than 40 kilometers a half-century later.
In the course of the first years of his military career, Erwin Rommel would visit the city of Danzig, a part of the German Empire at that time and then anchored in the region of Württemberg, to the south of Ulm. The upcoming national hero spent his WW1 years on the battlefields of France, Italy and Romania and the period up to the next World War was attributed to a number of corners all over Germany, including Dresden, Stuttgart, and Berlin. Subsequent to the annexation of Austria, Rommel was appointed to supervise a military school to the South of Vienna, as a prelude to curate the safety of Adolf Hitler during the diplomatic visits beyond Germany. With the outbreak of the Second World War, Rommel would be in attendance of Hitler on his way along the frontlines in Poland, indeed absorbed with a thought to commander own armored tank force to make the dogmas of his ‘Infanterie greift an’ (Infantry attacks) book a reality. By the time of the assignment to command the German expedition forces in Africa Rommel had already been praised among the heroes of the ‘Battle of France’.
ROMMEL MOVES TO HERRLINGEN
As we have discussed above, the geography of the military career of Erwin Rommel, as well as the majority of the German lifetime military men under Kaiser, Reichswehr and then Wehrmacht, can be attributed as diversified on many directions. To the moment of taking a married oath eyes-to-eyes with Lucia Maria Mollin on November 27, 1916, Erwin Rommel had already been a father to an extramarital child (Gertrude was born on December 8, 1913), as well as the holder of the Iron Cross. Regardless of Erwin’s relations with another woman before the marriage, Lucia did not confront the idea of living side by side with two women (mother Walburga Stemmer and a daughter Gertrude), still waiting for the birth of the own first-born child (Manfred would be born no sooner than in 1928). The reverential relations of Erwin Rommel with his wife Lucia have become history largely due to the personal correspondence, that Rommel had been sending home from the battlefields of WW1, then during his multiple career trips and later from the frontline of a new World World and from Africa in particular. These very letters as well as Rommel’s frankness on the doomed faith of the Afrika Korps and later of the Atlantic Wall and Germany as a state, are easy to be found in every first praised historical research, which makes mention of the famous field-marshal.
Erwin and Lucia entered into a marriage in the heart of the city of Danzig (German at that time), a place they had found each other five years before. Soon after the discharges of last rifles of the Great War, at the time when the city of Erwin-Lucia’s love affair had been assigned to Poland under the Treaty of Versailles, Erwin received an appointment to Stuttgart, a city that would be their home for the next eight years. Lucia and son Manfred, born on Christmas eve, December 24, 1928, would follow the father of the family for the next fifteen years. As well as prior to their marriage, a family would be accompanied by Maria Gertrud, a daughter of a woman, who had died a few months before Manfred was born. Soon after Rommel was assigned as a commander of the ‘Theresianische Militärakademie’ military academy in 1938, the family moved to a new house in a small Austrian city of Wiener Neustadt. The Rommels would spend the next five years close to Vienna. No sooner than in October 1943, more than a half year after his definitive return from Africa, Erwin Rommel took his family to a new residence in a small city of Herrlingen, a suburb of Ulm. This very region of Germany had already been his heartlands in the childhood, youth and in the early days of Rommel’s military service. The decision was driven by the fact, that the Wiener Neustadt was no more a save harbor due to the intense Allied air raids on Germany (Hamburg was devastated in July), as it allocated some potential military targets, such as the Messerschmitt works nearby.
ROMMEL’S HOME IN HERRLINGEN
More than a century prior to the day, when the Erwin Rommel, the German Fieldmarshal, devastated by his own retreat from Africa, moved his family to a cozy city of Herrlingen, Philipp Jakob Wieland, a local German industrialist had become a pioneer of the metals industry in the territories. He was way more than just a founder of the gargantuan metals conglomerate, known today as Wieland-Werke. Philipp Jakob Wieland once made his mind to fund the construction of a cheap accommodation-for-rent around the factories for the needs of his workers and he eventually established one among the first insurance companies in Germany of its kind, which was initiated to preserve the rights of the manpower. While being far from ignoring the needs of his staff, the manufacturer himself set his heart on a charming location within the Herrlingen village, a cradle of his business empire, where he had once bought a couple of scrubby flour mills. The mid of the XIX century would witness the construction of Wieland’s countryside residence on this very location, destined to be remodeled and reconstructed for a number of occasions.
No sooner than in October 1943 Erwin Rommel, his wife Lucia and their son Manfred finally left their long-go residence in the Austrian city of Wiener Neustadt, their home from 1938, to move in a villa in Herrlingen, a small township next to Ulm. Manfred Rommel, a young man of fifteen years old at that time, would periodically visit his parents and stay for some granted days while serving his cadet military service at the air defense battery. A luxurious villa attributed back then as an icon of modern style in the Württemberg region had been in private ownership of Wieland family for more than a century and were entrusted to Erwin Rommel for use. The field-marshal was severely hurt on July 17, 1944, on the occasion when his car had been attacked by an Allied fighter-aircraft. The 52-years-old German national hero came across the believable loss of an eye, he suffered from a fracture of a temporal bone and cheek-bones. Not before August 8, 1944, Rommel got medical approval (of own volition) to leave the second-in-a-row hospital and to go back home to Herrlingen for home treatment. His transfer to Herrlingen was arranged by mean of a car under the Red Cross.
For the first time in years of his intense career as a lifetime military man, Erwin Rommel finally had a chance to take advantage of a rest back at his home, surrounded by a treat of his wife, a son, an adjutant and two doctors. It took him less than a month to initiate walkings around the mansion and his damaged eye was now half-recovered. Being wounded for the sixth time over the span of two World Wars, at that in Herrlingen Rommel used to wear ‘the golden sign’, had been granted to him by the ‘Oberkommando of Wehrmacht’ after the accident of July 17. Subsequent to the failed attempt on Hitler’s life on July 20, 1944 (The ‘July plot’) the German Fieldmarshal finally reconsidered the accumulated warnings of his neighbors in Herrlingen, that his home had been under the supervision of ‘Geheime Staatspolizei’, generally known as ‘Gestapo’. In a matter of two years between 1942 and 1944, the national star of Rommel had been brought down (in the eyes of Hitler and regime) to the status of an all-out and exhausted field-marshal, absorbed in defeatist thoughts, a figure that should now keep track on. The American investigators had succeeded in researching (after the war) the captured archives of ‘Gestapo’ and ‘Reichskanzlei’ (Reich Chancellery) to reveal the documented validation of the fact, that Rommel had been supervised by three agents, summoned from Munich not to be identified by the locals. They used to keep an eye on the villa in Herrlingen and even used threats to make the neighbors provide information on Erwin Rommel.
At 6 o’clock a.m. on October 14, 1944, Manfred Rommel made his steps on the platform of the Herrlingen train station, being previously released for visiting home at a personal request from his father to the commander of the air defense station (Manfred would be assigned retired a few weeks later). Once he reached the villa after a walk of a few hundred meters, Manfred found his father awaken, yet worried about the upcoming announced visit of two officers. The father and the son made a few hours of promenading around the villa until the very afternoon (Fieldmarshal also contributed time to speak to his wife and to his adjutant) to see the arrival of two high-ranking officers: Wilhelm Emanuel Burgdorf, the chief officer of the Personnel Department of Wehrmacht and Ernst Maisel, the authorized investigator of the ‘July plot’, accompanied with his adjutant Anton Ehrnsperger, a holder of ‘Deutsches Kreuz in Gold’. By virtue of the testimonies of Lucia Rommel, Manfred Rommel, Hermann Aldinger (adjutant), it was later established that the villa was surrounded by five trucks with armored men in civilian clothes. The field-marshal shared his worries and the given ultimatum with his nearest and dearest and took a place in a car apr, at 1 p.m. on October 14, 1944. In the aftermath of the 45-minute arrangement with the generals within his cabinet, the German national hero put his dress-coat, a leather coat and dais final goodbyes to his wife, son, and adjutant.
The villa that witnessed the last two months and the last hours of Erwin Rommel was in the ownership of the Wieland family until 1950, five years after the metals factory in Ulm had been destroyed by the Allied air raid. The mansion was sold out to the authorities of Herrlingen, yet the greater part of the territory, including a number of the household outbuildings, had been in possession of the ancestral metallurgists until the year of 1977. No later than in 1952 the city authorities of Herrlingen allocated a local school into the villa, which would severely change the historical appearance of the building and its artifact interiors. In 1969 ‘Lindenhofschule mit Werkrealschule Herrlingen’ was built less than one hundred meters distanced from the Wieland-Rommel villa and the next year witnessed a release of demolition permission to devastate the villa in order to widen the territory of the school. All while the construction plans were drowned in the lack of the financing back in the mid-1970s, the protests finally resulted in assigning the villa with a status of a historical monument. Already in the 1980s a new reconstruction works, valued at 1 million Deutsche marks, would turn the villa into a museum devoted to Erwin Rommel.
ROMMEL’S LAST RIDE
At the midst of the conversation between Erwin Rommel and two generals in his cabinet, frau Rommel picked up the ringing phone to hear the voice of her neighbor, warning the fact their villa is being surrounded with the trucks and the exit out of a town is prohibited with men, armed with no less than machine-guns. On the one hand, such sophisticated precautionary measures left Rommel no chance to live through the situation, yet can be designated as needless as eight guards with only two guns, as well as a fifteen-year-old son and one adjutant had no perspective to make the field-marshal free. Once Erwin Rommel said last words to his wife Lucia, his son Manfred and captain Hermann Aldinger (Rommel insisted that Adlinger should make no attempt to fight through), the former national hero took his field-marshal’s baton, put a black leather coat (his recognition mark back to the days of the commanding the Army Group B in Normandy) and a cloth cap to step into a car in backyards of the villa. Generals Burgdorf and Maisel took the back seats next to Rommel, major Anton Ehrnsperger filled the place next to the driver, an SS sergeant Doose at the wheel.
After sharpening a measured turn around the immense territory of the villa, the car with Fieldmarshal and three of his escortees ride out into the open space of a wide street of Herrlingen, which would be later named no less than ‘Erwin-Rommel-Steige’ (Road of Erwin Rommel). Frau Rommel found herself frustrated and worried about the fact, that the automobile had made its way in the direction of town exit and a village of WIPPINGEN, rather than towards ULM. The last houses on the outskirts of Herrlingen neighbors with a road 1 km in length, which makes a junction to the countryside of Wippingen to the West. Once getting across a lifting passage of the road and leaving a car rear viewing with only yellow October fields and apple trees along the road, Erwin Rommel was now nothing less than 500 meters distanced out of sight. Regardless of the after-war self-justification testimonies of general Maisel (he claimed, that Rommel had taken his own poison to avoid public embarrassment), the operation on elimination Rommel had been scheduled roughly minute-by-minute in advance. The American investigators revealed the fact, that a chosen officer of RSHA (Reich Main Security Office, a patrimony of Ernst Kaltenbrunner and later one of the guests on the funeral) was assigned to settle a portion of poison for Erwin Rommel.
The very place, that witnessed the enforced and inglorious death of Erwin Rommel in the afternoon hours of October 14, 1944, in our generation is attributed as ‘Erwin Rommel Gedenkstein’ (Erwin Rommel Memorial site). It takes a little more than 15 minutes of a moderate walk (from the villa or railway station as well) to follow the way of the car, once lead by an SS driver with a passenger, who had been left no choice than to meet death. One can only hypothesize on what thoughts and worries had once floated in mind of Erwin Rommel within that doomed minutes of his last ride. The Fieldmarshal told his wife and son a few minutes before getting into a car, that he had been promised, that the family would be treated with respect and would be supported financially as applied to his voluntary debt to nature (death). A cozy bench is now accompanied by two historical plates. The first one is encrusted with the German Cross and ‘GENERAL-FELDMARSCHALL ERWIN ROMMEL 14.10.1944’ inscription. The second lettering includes: ‘On this place, on October 14, Erwin Rommel committed suicide, sacrificed his life for the sake of his family at the hands of Hitler’s hangmen’. The second plate is made of a piece of a tank and was once installed by the former soldiers and officers of the Afrika Korps.
Only 15 minutes after the automobile with three officers and an SS carman took Erwin Rommel at the backyards of his residence, Anton Ehrnspergeran, an adjutant of general Maisel and one of the passengers, darkened Rommels’ door with a devastating message. The post-WWII testimonies of Manfred and Lucia Rommel differentiate the occasion of the message on the death of the Fieldmarshal. Manfred Rommel tested in court that he got to know on the news by mean of a telephone call from the military hospital of Ulm and he did not make mention of Maisel’s adjutant, unlike the testimonies of his mother. Captain Hermann Aldinger testified that Maisel’s adjutant made a phone call with the message and later appeared at the doorway of the villa to reannounce the news first-hand. At any rate, after a while, the tragical message was replicated by a commandant of the city of Ulm, who made a personal call to Frau Rommel with the news, that her husband had been handed to the hospital unconscious and had passed away. The darkest fears of the family, resulting from the words of the Fieldmarshal himself on the ultimatum, were now consolidated in the most dramatic sense.
Frau Rommel, her son Manfred and captain Hermann Aldinger (it was his second visit to the hospital, as he had been taken there a day before, shortly after the accident) arrived at the temporary military hospital, which was allocated within the local school of Ulm at that time. Dr. Meyer, the medical officer of the day let them know that a pulseless body of Erwin Rommel was handed to the hospital at 1:25 p.m. and the efforts of the medical personnel, which included the open-chest cardiac massage and delivering drugs into the heart, produced no effect. Frau Rommel would recall years after that day, that she found a mask of disdain on the face of her gone husband when she has been permitted to give a look on the body of the Fieldmarshal Rommel within a spaceless room of the former school.
At that obscure day, Lucia Rommel had no understanding that the officers, who had come to Ulm with the body of Rommel, put pressure on the medical personnel. The medical director of the hospital was granted access to the body of Fieldmarshal no sooner than on the next day and his claim on the necessity of autopsy was ignored and met with ‘a piece of advice’ to shift his attention to some other deals. The post-war investigation will reveal the fact, that the order to cremate the body of Rommel had been received ‘from Berlin’. The cremation of the body can be attributed as the most evident means to preclude the possibility of revealing the indeed cause of death (could be treated by any experienced autopsist even years later): poisoning, instead of officially voiced cerebrovascular disease.
The building, that witnessed the arrival of the body of the dead Erwin Rommel and the sorrow of his family and captain Hermann Aldinger, has a long history as the educational institution. The history of the place harkens back to the 1830s in the times of the historically formed high competition between a number of private and public girls-only schools in the region. No sooner than in 1904 the former ditch was filled with soil to make space for the construction of a new ‘Wagner-Schule’, educational institutions named after Richard Wagner, a legendary German composer. The revolution of joint education was followed by the outbreak of the First World War and a breakdown of the activity, yet the upcoming Weimar Republic brought a significant depreciation of fee as well as an increase in government funding. In the span of the WW2 years, the local authorities allocated a military hospital within the school, which were severely damaged in the course of the Allied bombardments of the city of Ulm. Soon after the end of the war, the ‘Wagner-Schule’ resumed work as a school despite the absence of windows, burned-out and stollen doors and a deficiency in heating. The initial name was once changed to «Mädchengymnasium Ulm» (A Gymnasium for girls of Ulm) and the latest shift to joint education resulted in the current naming as ‘Hans und Sophie-Scholl-Gymnasium’, honoring the famous runners of the ‘White Rose’ resistance movement in Germany.
ROMMEL’S FUNERAL — ULM RATHAUS
As soon as on October 15, 1944, a day after the devastating events in Herrlingen, Lucia Rommel, her son Manfred and captain Hermann Aldinger (adjutant of Erwin Rommel) visits the municipal kommandantur of the city of Ulm to arrange the details of the upcoming funeral of the Fieldmarshal. Later in the evening of the same day, the radio receivers all over Germany ultimates the daily semi-sacred evening news broadcast (eventually used by the government to angle the events on the theatres of war) with a short communique on the unfortunate death of Erwin Rommel. The announcer’s voice entitled the consequences of the severe injury, which Fieldmarshal suffered back in July, as the cause of death. In face of the fact, that the officers and soldiers of Wehrmacht, as well as common citizens, were left with no chance to be aware of the indeed actualities of the events in Herrlingen and Rommel’s recent restoration to health and strength, the news on the death of the national hero were generally taken with open doubts and whispering on the national scale. The government and Hitler put themselves in a position with no option to ignore public opinion and the authority of Rommel. The consequences of the made decision (to eliminate Rommel) were now to be wrapped in a form of a semi-festive state funeral, assigned by a fit decree by Hitler himself. On the next day, October 16, 1944, the open communique of Hitler was handed to Rommel’s widow. Later on the days before the funeral, Lucia Rommel would receive condolences from all over the country, even a message (delivered in person by Alfred Berndt, a journalist and one of the initiators of the so-called ‘Rommel’s myth’) from Henrich Himmler, intimating his bystanding of the events.
The arrangement of Rommel’s funeral was pre-assigned to the officers of the ‘Personnel Department of Wehrmacht’, a career homestead of Emanuel Burgdorf, one of two executioners on October 14. Hermann Aldinger, Rommel’s adjutant testified after the war, that his patron had confessed (during their short chat before departure), that it was his idea to be buried in Ulm after all the events coming on to happen. The morning ceremony was scheduled on October 18, 1944, to be held inside ULM RATHAUS, the second most notorious building in the city of Ulm, next to the ‘Ulmer Münster’ (once the tallest church in the world). The local authorities released a special public decree, which vetoed citizens to open windows and to use balconies, which at one provoked the unfounded rumors on Hitler’s visit to the city. Indeed and not in name, the German dictator had no intentions to attend the funeral of Rommel, a revolted field-marshal, condemned to death by Hitler himself. Beyond that, to that period of 1944 Adolf Hitler self-abandoned himself from public appearances. In the context of the absence of Hitler, Gerd von Rundstedt, the famous elderly field-marshal, Rommel’s immediate superior on the West front, found himself the most high-ranking attendee of the event. Inasmuch as Heinrich Himmler, the Reichsfuhrer of the SS, was also absent, Ernst Kaltenbrunner, the chief officer of the RSHA (‘Reichssicherheitshauptamt’: Reich Main Security Office), who would be sentenced to death and hanged under sentence of the Nuremberg trials on October 16, 1946 (two days prior to two years since the procession in Ulm), was a man in replace on behalf of Himmler.
The ceremony was also attended by the representatives of different branches of the military, as well as city officials of Ulm and event the assignees of the Axis powers, who were at that time still tied together with the Third Reich in the same doomed boat. Fieldmarshal Rundstedt sounded the funeral oration, pre-assigned and nominally corresponding the public position (never announced first-person) of Hitler and a few minutes after the procession came out the Rathaus. The coffin with Rommel’s body (that had been previously kept in the villa for two days with two guards) was now finally handled to the carriage to the strains of the cannon shots to be delivered to the crematorium of Ulm in the Northern part of the city. It won’t take two full months until 17 December 1944, when the Rathaus of Ulm, founded back in the XIV century, would be almost completely destroyed. The center of Ulm was chosen as the target for bombardments due to the predominance of the wooden constructions and the 25-minute raid with 1500 tons of bombs would turn the Altstadt (Old city) to the dust. The walls of the Rathaus survived the raid, yet the interiors would be restored almost a half-century after the end of the Second World War.
ROMMEL’S GRAVE IN HERRLINGEN
Regardless of the fact, that October 18, 1944, is generally attributed as the funeral day of Erwin Rommel, the day included no more than a procession at the Rathaus and beyond. After the ceremony with all VIP guests were completed, the gun carriage with Rommel’s body, followed by his widow, a son, an adjutant and a number of military men, were got to a place of the main crematorium of the city of Ulm, located to the North next to the HAUPTFRIEDHOF (Main cemetery). The city of Ulm had been historically accounted as one of the pioneers of the cremation in Germany and now the premise was destined to conceal the case of the death of the national hero. As soon as in January 1945, only three months after the Rommel’s funeral, the city crematorium would be complete devastated by mean of the Allied raid on the North part of the city.
The burial ceremony of the mortuary urn with the remains of Erwin Rommel was brought into execution in three days, no sooner than October 21, 1944, in fact, one week after the death of the field-marshal. Ulm was not initially considered as the burial place and the family insisted on a small local cemetery in Herrlingen, 200 meters distanced from the villa, which would make it possible for them to visit the grave until their moving. In March 1945 Lucia Rommel would receive a letter from the chief design officer for German Military Cemeteries with the message, that he had been personally called by Hitler to erect a monument to Erwin Rommel, but these plans would never be completed due to the collapse of the Third Reich.
Modern days, the entrance to the cemetery is accompanied by a sign of remembrance to encrypt the name of the field-marshal, days of birth and death, and an arrow, pointing the direction to the burial place itself. The grave itself is being shaped with a wooden cross and two modern tables, which honor the fact, that the name of Erwin Rommel would be eternally associated with the Afrika Korps. For decades after the end of the Second World War, the former military colleges and subordinates had been visiting Herrlingen annually to honor the legacy of Erwin Rommel. Lucia Maria Rommel, wife and later widow of the Fieldmarshal was also buried in this very place, a few steps from her beloved husband back in 1971. Manfred Rommel, the son of the national hero, had been visiting the grave of his father for almost seven decades until his death in 2013. Manfred was buried within the cemetery of Ostfilderfriedhof in Stuttgart.
No monuments to Erwin Rommel would ever be raised in Germany. It is very easy to believe that, if he somehow knew of it, Rommel would be pleased by that fact: for all of his vanity, he was never guilty of ostentation. He would be quite satisfied, certainly, with the knowledge that his ashes are buried, as he had wished, in the cemetery at the Community Church of St. Andrew in Herrlingen, and that Lucie rests beside him.
Daniel Allen Butler (The life and death of Erwin Rommel, 2015)