How enthusiastic was Erwin Rommel about “Operation Walküre” in July 1944?

HL History Internal Assessment


How enthusiastic was Erwin Rommel about “Operation Walküre” in July 1944?

Examination Session: May 2014
Word Count: 1996

Section A – Plan of Investigation

In October 1944, General Rommel was charged with supposed involvement in the Stauffenberg coup and given a choice: to be found guilty and executed through trial, or to take his own life; Rommel chose the latter.[1] But How Far did Rommel Support the Plot? To determine this, three aspects will be examined: an examination of the possible military involvement Rommel may have provided, his attitude towards the idea of assassinating Hitler, and the motives of his possible involvement or rejection of the Stauffenberg’s plans. A variety of sources will be examined. As a German, I have access to German-language articles, such as “Der Spiegel” to determine the latest controversy, as well as a British biography of Rommel, which includes interviews with Rommel’s son, and a variety of other accounts from letters to recordings of conversations from the time.

Section B – Summary of Evidence

Political and Public Standing

Rommel,  regarded as  Hitler’s “favourite General,”[2] enjoyed great popularity within the National-Socialist government and the German people. [3] Göbbels used him for propaganda purposes, re-writing his life story as an early member of this Nazi party.[4]
In fact, considered politically unengaged, Rommel never joined the NSDAP, focussing solely on the military. He refused to allow his son Manfred to join the Waffen-SS, referring to rumours of mass-shootings and murders committed by the SS in the East. Rommel’s primary concern was to maintain or implement the honour, safety and success of his troops.[5]

Clashes with Hitler

In 1942, Rommel had defied Hitler’s orders concerning the battle of El Alamein of the Western Desert Campaign during the Second World War, in which his tank division fought against British General Montgomery’s troops, concerned that Hitler’s orders would worsen the situation for his troops in Egypt[6].
By 1944, Rommel was actively engaged against Hitler concerning the battle proceedings at the Western front.[7] In the same year, Rommel was made responsible for the prevention of the landing of allied forces as well as the Army Group B on the Western Front.[8] After D-Day Germany’s military situation changed drastically. Rommel desired peace negotiations with the enemy to end the war, and considered opening the front to let enemy forces trigger the overthrow of Hitler’s regime.[9] Speaking with Karl Strölin, mayor of Stuttgart at the time, Rommel declared he had to act in support of a “German rescue”.[10] This clashed severely with Hitler’s orders.[11]

Operation Walküre

Rommel was introduced to the plans of Operation Walküre and the following coup which aimed to bring about revolution[12] and hopefully end the war through negotiations with the enemy,[13] presenting an alternative to war for Rommel.[14]  During Colonel Lattman’s visit to Rommel in hospital, Rommel stated that war had to be ended under whatever circumstances,[15] leading Rommel to agree to meetings and talks with Stauffenberg’s men,[16] who required a popular face to represent the coup.[17] During a meeting with conspirator Caesar von Hofacker, Rommel stated that “Germany had made enough sacrifices” agreeing to collaborate with the plan and give support, according to the men Hofacker conversed with after the meeting.[18] Finally, the Eberbach Protocol supposedly records Rommel’s clear desire for the assassination of the Führer, reporting him as having said “there is no other opportunity for Germany other than to kill the Führer and his clanship as quickly as possible.”[19]
According to his son, Rommel was always strictly against an assassination[20], but supportive of a coup.[21] After the assassination failed, Rommel wrote to his wife expressing his shock at hearing about the attempt.[22] Rommel preferred the idea of putting Hitler on trial[23] as the General remained loyal to the dictator, owing him the success of his career.[24]

Section C – Evaluation of Sources

Rommel – David Fraser, 1993, Original: Knight’s Cross: A life of Field Marshall Erwin Rommel
Fraser, a British Army Officer who had served between 1940 and 1980 intended to investigate Rommel, with focus on his standpoint to Hitler. He aimed to determine to what extent he was a national-socialist and to what extent he was involved with the resistance against Hitler. The majority of the credentials are interrogations from during and after Hitler’s regime, testimonies as well as witness reports from several accused Generals and of those who knew Rommel and worked with him. Fraser also used interviews and explanations from Manfred Rommel, Rommel’s son, adding to the analysis. Peter Badastelli, describes Fraser’s work as "outstanding", tackling the myths through primary sources and accounts of those at the time.[25]
However, Fraser leaves the portrait of Rommel somewhat incomplete, by dedicating many chapters to general history of the time (although this is helpful in providing context). Fraser also does not write objectively, describing statements by Rommel to suggest active engagement in the resistance as weak or not giving similar attention to statements that imply otherwise. Most of his evidence relies only on the memories of people involved as well as second-hand translations from the original German which could affect nuance.

Section D – Analysis

The initial sources of conflict in answering this investigation lie in Goebbels's use of Rommel to create the perfect example of a Nazi-General, describing him in his diary as an “almost mythical figure.”[27] This makes it difficult to analyse Rommel, given his persona was increasingly manipulated for public purposes. As Fraser relies on opinions from the time, the article from Der Spiegel becomes all the more important, as it recognises this limitation and attempts to overcome it.
The plan itself had two intentions, a coup, and an assassination. The idea that Rommel saw the coup as his chance to end the war (which had been his intention since D-Day) is strongly debated [28]. The “Der Spiegel” article concludes that he was faithful to Hitler’s regime,[29] however concur that Rommel was never a member of the NSDAP, and therefore both the article and Fraser make it clear that Rommel never was and is still not seen as a real Nazi. His defiance of Hitler’s orders during the battle of El Alamein in 1942, and similar rejection of Hitler’s plans in 1944 on the Western Front could work with this to suggest his attitude towards the plans were positive.
Primarily, the conspirators saw the perfect face of the coup in Rommel, suggesting they tried to persuade him extensively. Several talks between the conspirators and Rommel took place,[30] in one of which he told Colonel Lattmann that the war had to be ended, under whatever circumstances.[31] Whether with “circumstances” Rommel simply meant a coup or the assassination is not clear, yet the word “whatever” implies that Rommel was capable of going to extreme lengths to end WWII. There had also been meetings in May, earlier that year between several resistors, in which Rommel agreed to collaborate, as “Germany had made enough sacrifices.”[32] Another meeting with conspirator Ceasar von Hofacker was held on the 9th of July[33]. According to the men Hofacker spoke to after the meeting, he informed Rommel about Stauffenberg’s assassination plans, the plans for the coup and revolution in Berlin. These men later stated that Rommel replied that the “war was lost anyway”, and gave his support.[34] This evidence, however, can be considered weak, as the content of the meeting between Hofacker and Rommel was never officially divulged by either participant. However, as this evidence was provided after 1945, fear of speaking out in support of Rommel should have been eradicated, lending slightly more weight to these allegations.

For Rommel therefore, the Operation meant the end of the war and the possibility to save the last of German honour. This did not mean, according to Lieutenant Speidel, assassination of Hitler.[35] Clearly, Rommel experienced a clash between the two significant components of Stauffenberg’s operation. Most evidence presented in the sources agree Rommel was not anti-Hitler and did not support assassination. On July 21 Rommel was first informed about the attempted assassination by his adjutant Hellmuth Lang, who later described Rommel's clear shocked;[36] indeed, in a July 24 letter to his wife he declared “thank God that the assassination attempt failed”.[37] Although Fraser argues that Rommel had no choice but to speak out against the assassination in a letter that could be screened, Rommel appeared to prefer the idea of a trial for Hitler.[38]. Manfred Rommel has always maintained that his father had been strictly against an assassination[39] although whether his view on his father is objective is arguable as at the time of his father’s death he was only a teenager.
Further evidence for the General’s belief in the man to whom he owed his career were seen in his final days, where Rommel told the men in charge of his forced suicide that he “loved the Führer and still does”.[40] Whether it was an act of helpless self-defence, or to ensure the protection of his family, the truth cannot be known - but when Rommel was accused of holding back his tank division to support the coup, those who knew him, including Lieutenant Speidel, gave passionate testimonies in Rommel’s defence, stating these claims were incorrect.[41] This suggests that Rommel’s final testimony to his love of Hitler was not unsubstantiated, and he knew that there would be support to back up these words.
The only evidence that outright declares Rommel’s support of an assassination is referenced in Der Spiegel, discovered in 2005; the “Eberbach Protocol.” This record of his desire for an assassination of Hitler is based solely on what a British General overheard whilst listening in on a German officer in the autumn of 1944. [42] Although the Spiegel writes in hindsight, with access to evidence Fraser was not privy to, the tone of this statement and clear antipathy towards Rommel’s  “beloved” Hitler are not in accordance with the General’s normal manner.  Therefore it is not in line with the rest of the evidence provided by the bulk of sources.


Section E – Conclusion

Rommel was clearly unhappy with Germany’s situation by 1944, especially after D-Day, and sought an end to the war. Appearing unwilling to participate in talks with resistors, one could say that he saw “Operation Walküre” as the opportunity to realize this. Clearly, one must determine his enthusiasm for such a plot by considering differentiate between its two components: the coup and the assassination. There is no clear evidence that suggests Rommel was strictly against a coup; several sources state that he saw it as a way to end war. The only evidence that suggests he supported an assassination is the “Eberbach Protocol”, which contradicts other pieces of evidence which otherwise agree that Rommel had always spoken out against an assassination. One can come to the conclusion that Rommel was enthusiastic about “Operation Walküre” in terms of the coup it would result in, and the positive consequences this would have on the army but less so about assassinating Hitler, and almost always made this point clear.