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A Cautionary Tale for Military Leaders that Give Obedience to a Tyrant: the Story of Erwin Rommel, the Legendary Desert Fox

 

rommel

Friends of Padre Steve’s World,

Just over 75 years ago in Ulm Germany a car pulled up to the residence of Field Marshal Erwin Rommel. In the car was the driver and two Generals dispatched by Hitler.  Rommel was recuperating following being severely wounded in an air attack in Normandy on July 17th 1944.

Rommel had been awarded the Pour le Merite, sometimes known as the Blue Max, Imperial Germany’s highest award for valor in the First World War. He was never an official member of the Nazi Party, but like many Germans he believed Hitler’s promises and propaganda. As Hitler really ose to power he like many others was carried away by early Nazi successes, the bloodless conquests of the Rhineland, Austria, Czechoslovakia, and the spectacle of the Olympics.

He was also an opportunist. With the rise of the Nazis came the expansion of the German military. Rommel was already well known due to his exploits as a platoon and company commander during the First World War in France, Romania, and Italy. In Italy he captured an entire Italian infantry division during the Battle of Mount Cosna, which was part of the Caporetto in October 1917. His company of 150 troops, exploited terrain and weather to surprise and capture 9,000 soldiers and 81 artillery pieces at the cost of 6 men killed and 30 wounded. Rommel used infiltration tactics, flanking maneuvers, and even disobeyed the orders of his superiors during the battle. Less than two weeks later at Langarone using the same tactics, his company surprised the 1st Italian Infantry which thinking it surrounded by superior forces surrendered to Rommel. For these actions Rommel was awarded the coveted Blue Max. 

Rommel was retained in the 100,000 man Reichswehr, but he had refused to attend the course that would have made him part of the elite General Staff. As such he was not assigned to the critical billets that would normally lead to high command. Instead he served in company command and as an instructor at the Infantry School in Dresden. While assigned to the school he wrote a manual of infantry tactics and training based on his experience. The book, Infantrie Greift an, or Infantry Attacks is still considered a classic book on infantry tactics and leadership, and was highly influential in his rise to high command. He was promoted to Major after serving 14 years as a Captain in 1932. In October 1933 he was assigned to command the 3rd Jaeger Battalion of the 17th Infantry Regiment where he first met Hitler when the latter reviewed his troops on an inspection visit.

Rommel, like many officers was caught in the thrall of Hitler. His wife, Lucy was caught up in the moment and was an avid Hitler supporter. Rommel was never a Nazi party member, but that did not keep him from supporting the overtly nationalist and militarist actions of the Hitler regime. In 1935 he was assigned to the Military Academy at Potsdam where as a Lieutenant Colonel he published Infantrie Greift an. In 1937 Hitler appointed Rommel as the liaison officer from the War Ministry to the Hitler Youth. Rommel clashed with the head of the Hitler Jugend, Baldur von Schirach and twiced proposed removing the organization from the Party to the War Ministry.

The conflict resulted in Rommel being quietly reposted from that assignment, promoted to Colonel and assigned to command the former Austrian Theresian Military Academy  in Wiener Neustadt. He was then selected by Hitler to command the Führer-Begleit-Battalion (Escort battalion) which served as the force protection unit for Hitler’s headquarters during the Polish campaign.

Following that campaign, Rommel, now a Major General was appointed to command the newly formed 7th Panzer Division which he commanded with great distinction during the Battle of France, 1940. When the campaign ended the division was placed in reserve where it readied to become part of the planned invasion of Britain, Operation Sea Lion. When that operation was postponed due to the defeat of the Luftwaffe during the Battle of Britain, and Mussolini’s Italian army in North Africa was routed by the small British Western Desert Force, Rommel was assigned to command the Deutsches Afrika Korps, composed of the 5th Light Division, which would soon be re-designated as the 21st Panzer Division and the 15th Panzer Division.

Over the next two years in North Africa built a reputation as an energetic and often risk taking commander who fought against long odds in a campaign which his own high command gave little support. The isolation of North Africa and its purely military significance in supporting a weak ally made it a different war from the concurrent, racially driven German invasion of the Soviet Union. Fighting the British and later the Americans, Rommel built a reputation of being a noble and chivalrous opponent. Unlike most of Europe and especially in Russian there was little to no influence of the SS in theater and the Jewish population of Libya, Tunisia, and Algeria suffered little under Nazi occupation, which many North African Jews attributed to Rommel.

During the North African campaign Rommel soared to the heights of international fame due to his exploits. The Nazi Propaganda Minister, Josef Goebbels sent one of his aides, Lieutenant Alfred Berndt to serve on Rommel’s Staff.  Berndt sent reports to the Propaganda Ministry which became the staple of Nazi propaganda to build Rommel into a German hero. Despite serving in a remote theater and commanding a relatively small number of troops, Rommel became the poster child for Goebbels’s propaganda machine. He was revered by the German people, and at the same time despised by many of his Army contemporaries and superiors.

His fame also earned the resentment of many fellow officers who because he was not an officer of the General Staff regarded him with jealous envy and distain. Even so, Rommel was a soldier’s soldier. He believed in sharing in the suffering of his troops. He once said: 

“Be an example to your men in your duty and in private life. Never spare yourself, and let the troops see that you don’t in your endurance of fatigue and privation. Always be tactful and well-mannered, and teach your subordinates to be the same. Avoid excessive sharpness or harshness of voice, which usually indicates the man who has shortcomings of his own to hide.”

Rommel basked in the praise of Hitler but as time wore on in Africa he became disillusioned by the course of the war, and while maintaining faith in Hitler, he openly despised many of the Nazi elite and his own High Command. While in Africa, Rommel was promoted to Field Marshal but denied the troops and supplies that he needed to successfully hold out in Africa. He opposed efforts to send more troops to Africa and recommended withdrawing his German and Italian soldiers before the Allies closed the door on withdraw across the Mediterranean.

As his troops were being chewed to pieces at El Alamein he requested permission to withdraw to the west. The request was refused and Hitler issued and order to stand in place and not withdraw. Rommel’s words are revealing for a man who had previously trusted Hitler and taken every opportunity from the dictator to advance his career.

“The order demanded the impossible. Even the most devoted soldier can be killed by a bomb. In spite of our unvarnished situation reports, it was apparently still not realized at the Fuehrer’s H.Q. how matters really stood in Africa.  Arms, petrol, and aircraft could have helped us, but not orders. We were completely stunned, and for the first time during the Africa campaign I did not know what to do. A kind of apathy took hold of us as we issued orders for the existing positions to be held on instructions from highest authority. I forced myself to this action, as I had always demanded unconditional obedience from others and, consequently, wished to apply the principle to myself. Had I known what was to come I should have acted differently, because from that time on, we had continually to circumvent orders from the Fuehrer or Duce in order to save the army from destruction. But this first instance of interference by higher authority in the tactical conduct of the African war came as a considerable shock.”

Like most other officers Rommel had served the Hitler regime as it spread its dark pall over Europe without protest. Yet, unlike so many other officers when he suffered a crisis in conscience about the Nazi leadership and their policies, he refused to obey orders that he knew were both illegal and immoral, and then risked his life by joining the conspiracy to kill Hitler.bundesarchiv_bild_146-1991-031-25a_nordafrika_vor_tobruk_rommel

It was at El Alamein that Rommel discovered the emptiness of Hitler’s promises as the troops of the Afrika Corps found themselves subjected to constant privation from lack of supply, air support and reinforcements. As commander of the Afrika Corps and later the Panzer Armee Afrika he and his troops achieved amazing success against an enemy that was always better supplied, equipped and which always had air and sea superiority. Battling the British as well as the political machinations of Mussolini and Germany’s Italian Allies as well as opponents in the German government such as Hermann Goering, Rommel saw his troops crushed under the press of the British as well as the Americans who landed in French North Africa. Eventually, sick and worn out, Rommel was sent back to Germany to recuperate.

rommel-with-soldier

Rommel had a sense of honor and humanity that many other German generals lacked. He refused to allow anti-Jewish measures in areas occupied by German troops in North Africa, ensuring that the approximately 425,000 Jews living in Libya, Tunisia, Algeria, and Morocco were spared the fate of the Holocaust. He refused to execute Jewish POWs, including members of the Jewish Battalion serving with the British 8th Army. Likewise, Rommel refused to follow the notorious “commando order.” In June of 1944 he protested the massacre of the people of the village of Oradour-sur-Glane by units of the 2nd SS Panzer Division directly to Hitler and asked for the authority to punish those responsible, but was refused.

After his return from Africa, Rommel’s honest and open assessments of the chances of the Germans winning the war made him persona non grata in Berlin and Berchtesgaden. He was posted to France in early 1944 according to some accounts he became a part of the plot to end the war and overthrow Hitler. Rommel’s Chief of Staff at OB West, General Hans Speidel, was a key man in the conspiracy and Rommel had contacts with a number of key conspirators. There are arguments about Rommel’s connections and activities in regard to the anti-Hitler plot among respected historians.

When the invasion came Rommel was away from Normandy visiting his wife. On learning of the invasion he sped back to Normandy. When he arrived he fought a desperate battle against the Allied forces. His outnumbered forces were under constant assault from the land, sea and air received paltry reinforcements compared to the Allies. Even so, German troops inflicted many local defeats and exacted a heavy price in allied blood in Normandy but were ground to dust. Even so, many American and British infantry regiments suffered 100% casualties but remained in action because of a continuous stream of replacements. Rommel urged Hitler and the High Command to withdraw German forces from Normandy before the allies broke through his front. By doing so he found that he was now considered a defeatist.

If Rommel had joined the plot to topple Hitler, he did not stop working to defend Germany against the coming Allied invasion. He believed that the war was lost if his forces failed to repel the Allies on the beaches of France, and he worked feverishly to bolster the beach fortifications. He recommended that the Panzer Divisions be deployed near the coast where they could immediately counterattack Allied invasion forces while they were still vulnerable. But his advice was not taken. He was given command of the Army Group but was not given control of most of the Panzer Divisions, which Hitler kept under his direct control. Neither did he approve of an assassination attempt but realizing that his front was about to collapse he was in favor of independent peace negotiations with the Allies on the Western Front.

Many commanders in the west, including Waffen SS commanders were in agreement Rommel was severely wounded in an air attack on his vehicle by a just days before the attempt on Hitler’s life. Hitler survived the attempted assassination and exacted a terrible revenge on anyone connected with the plot. Show trials and public hangings of officers who had served valiantly at the front were common. Thousands were killed and thousands more imprisoned. Many of those arrested, imprisoned, or killed, were those who knew Rommel’s views on ending the war.

Various conspirator’s testimony exposed Rommel as part of the plot. Leading Nazis, including Martin Bormann, and Heinrich Himmler urged Hitler to deal with Rommel. Likewise, some in the High Command, including Heinz Guderian turned upon Rommel. After a secret hearing it was recommended by the “Court of Military Honor” that Rommel be expelled from the military and tried by the “People’s Court” of Judge Roland Freisler. During the purge that followed the attempt on Hitler’s life, many noted German military commanders were hauled before this court and humiliated by Freisler before they were sent to their deaths. Freisler, a fanatic Nazi judge was a participant at the infamous Wannsee Conference which planned the details of the Final Solution was killed when his courtroom was bombed in February 1945.

On 27 September, Martin Bormann submitted to Hitler a memorandum which claimed that “the late General Stülpnagel, Colonel von Hofacker, Kluge’s nephew who has been executed, Lieutenant Colonel Rathgens, and several … living defendants have testified that Field Marshal Rommel was perfectly in the picture about the assassination plan and has promised to be at the disposal of the New Government.”

Rommel’s fate was sealed, but because of his fame and popularity in Germany Hitler decided to offer Rommel a choice of being tried by the People’s Court or committing suicide. Goebbels who had spent so much time building up the Rommel legend, turned against him. The latter with an offer to ensure his family’s safety, which he would not guarantee if Rommel choose to defend himself in open court. Hitler dispatched Generals Wilhelm Burgdorf and Ernst Maisel from Berlin to personally deliver the message. Burgdorf was the last Army Chief of Staff and killed himself following Hitler’s suicide.

492px-Erwin_rommel_death

Rommel suspected that he would be identified and killed and told that to his friends and family in the days leading up to the arrival of Generals Wilhelm Burgorf and Ernst Maisel from OKW with the ultimatum. They met with Rommel for a short time before giving him the opportunity to say goodbye to his family. Rommel told them of his choice and left his home for the last time. 15 minutes later the Generals called his wife to say that he had died of a heart attack. Rommel was given a state funeral and the German people were lied to about his cause of his death.

Winston Churchill wrote of Rommel:

“He also deserves our respect because, although a loyal German soldier he came to hate Hitler and all his works, and took part in the conspiracy to rescue Germany by displacing the maniac and tyrant. For this, he paid the forfeit of his life. In the sombre wars of modern democracy, chivalry finds no place … Still, I do not regret or retract the tribute I paid to Rommel, unfashionable though it was judged.”

Rommel was just 52 years old when he died. I find in the story of Rommel some commonality in my own life. Before Rommel went to Africa he believed that Germany would win the war, during his command there he discovered that what he believed was lies and that Hitler had little regard for him or his troops.

Rommel is a complex character. His attitudes towards Hitler waxed and waned. He was no Nazi. He conducted his battles in an honorable manner and displayed much chivalry towards his opponents. His views on race were not at all Nazi like. In North Africa he faced down a White South African commander who did not want to be imprisoned with his Black troops. Rommel told the officer: “For me, soldiers are all equal. Those black people wore your same uniform, fought on your side, and so you will be in the same jail.”

But from the beginning he willingly served Hitler’s regime and basked in the fame that he enjoyed due to Goebbels’s propaganda machine. At the same time while he was according to the Chief of the German Navy in the West, Admiral Friedrich Ruge, as well as his Rommel’s letters to his wife, indicated that Rommel’s mood fluctuated wildly regarding Hitler: while he showed disgust towards the atrocities and disappointment towards the overall military and strategic situation, he was overjoyed to welcome a visit or praise from Hitler, only to return to depression the next day when faced with reality.

The example of Erwin Rommel is a cautionary tale of what can happen when a brilliant and honorable man comes under the spell of a demagogue. Rommel believed Hitler and blindly followed him until he ran into the hard face of reality in Africa at which point he had the moral courage to do the right thing, but many others didn’t.

Sadly there are otherwise honorable men and women in the current United States military that blindly support a delusional madman who happens to be the President: a man who promises to order soldiers to commit war crimes, who threatens to jail political opponents, who condemns whole races of people and religions, who incites violence against his opponents, a man who has no respect for the courts, the law, or the Constitution to which they are sworn to defend.

But I think that we also have to remember the men like Rommel who though not a true believer in the Nazi cause and polices, not only willingly served the Reich, but basked in the adulation lavished on him by friends and foes alike.

To me this is not about partisan politics but something that is bigger than politics, bigger than temporary political advantage, bigger than any single political issue, for which in our country, at least for the moment, that there are many ways to express dissent which were not available to most Germans of Rommel’s era. It is about the Constitution, the rule of law, and the foundational principles of the Declaration of Independence.

Personally, as a historian I cannot understand the blind obedience in the face of the evidence; but then I blindly followed President George Bush into the ill-advised and criminal invasion of Iraq. It was in the desert of Iraq’s Al Anbar Province that I had my own revelation that the man I supported had led the country into a war that could not be won. Like Rommel at El Alamein, it opened my eyes to things that I had never seen before.

Now, in light of President Trump’s immoral, unconstitutional, and foolhardy policies and decisions I wonder why so few high ranking military officers, active or retired have the courage to oppose them. Surely, some must, like Rommel, Ludwig Beck, Henning Von Tresckow, Erich von Witzleben, Hans Oster, Claus von Stauffenberg and others like them realize the abyss that the President is leading the nation to, and far to few are willing to tell the truth when most needed. It took far more courage for the German officers to oppose Hitler than it does American officers to tell the truth about Trump’s policies. Maybe we have become so insulated from political realities that we make excuses for ourselves, and our actions.

Maybe we as officers need to remember the works of General Ludwig Beck:

“It is a lack of character and insight, when a soldier in high command sees his duty and mission only in the context of his military orders without realizing that the highest responsibility is to the people of his country.”

Until tomorrow,

Peace,

Padre Steve+

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Filed under ethics, History, holocaust, leadership, middle east, Military, nazi germany, Political Commentary, war crimes, world war two in europe

“He Deserves Our Respect…” Remembering the Resistance, Honor, Integrity, and Murder Of Erwin Rommel

rommel

Friends of Padre Steve’s World,

Some seventy-five years ago in Ulm Germany that a car pulled up to the residence of Field Marshal Erwin Rommel. In the car was the driver and two Generals dispatched by Hitler who had orders to give the hero of Germany a choice, death by suicide or a trial before the kangaroo “People’s Court” of judge Roland Freisler.  Rommel was recuperating following being severely wounded in an air attack in Normandy on July 17th 1944.

Rommel had been awarded the Pour le Merite, Imperial Germany’s highest award for valor in the First World War. He was never an official member of the Nazi Party, but like many Germans he believed Hitler’s promises and propaganda. As Hitler rose to power he like many others was carried away by early Nazi successes, the bloodless conquests of the Rhineland, Austria, Czechoslovakia, and the spectacle of the Olympics.

Like most other officers he would serve the regime as it spread its dark pall over Europe, and unlike so many others when he suffered a crisis in conscience about the Nazi leadership and their policies he refused to obey orders that he knew were illegal and immoral and then risked his life by joining the conspiracy to kill Hitler.

After years of stalled promotion, Hitler’s expansion of the military allowed Rommel to be promoted, and when Germany went to war he was commander of the unit which guarded Hitler’s headquarters train when he went into Poland. Rommel received command of the 7th  Panzer Division after Poland and as a division commander in France he led his troops on some of the most epic advances of the French campaign.

He was then given command of the troops sent to bail out Mussolini’s failed African adventure. His small force and always ill-supplied force, which became known as the Afrika Korps scored impressive victories against British forces. In Africa, Rommel gained fame and earned rapid promotion. Though Africa was a sideshow in the Nazi war effort, Rommel became a poster-child for Joseph Goebbels’ propaganda machine. His fame also earned the resentment of many fellow officers who because he was not an officer of the General Staff regarded him with jealous envy and distain. Even so, Rommel was a soldier’s soldier. He believed in sharing in the suffering of his troops. He once said:

“Be an example to your men in your duty and in private life. Never spare yourself, and let the troops see that you don’t in your endurance of fatigue and privation. Always be tactful and well-mannered, and teach your subordinates to be the same. Avoid excessive sharpness or harshness of voice, which usually indicates the man who has shortcomings of his own to hide.”

bundesarchiv_bild_146-1991-031-25a_nordafrika_vor_tobruk_rommel

In Arica Rommel showed himself to be a remarkable tactician and field commander. Likewise, unlike many other German (and sadly Allied) commanders had the ability to recognize the valor and soldierly virtues of his opponents, even those who were not white. A captured South African officer pleaded with Rommel to spare him being imprisoned with Black troops under his command. Rommel told him:

“For me, soldiers are all equal. Those black people wore your same uniform, fought on your side, and so you will be in the same jail.”

That was not until Rommel discovered the reality of Hitler’s promises as the troops of the Afrika Corps were hollow that he began to understand the man he had sworn his allegiance. He and his gallant German and Italian soldiers found themselves subjected to constant privation from lack of supply, air support and reinforcements. As commander of the Afrika Corps and later the Panzer Armee Arfika he and his troops achieved amazing success against an enemy that was always better supplied and equipped and which had air and sea superiority. Battling the British as well as the political machinations of Mussolini and Germany’s Italian Allies as well as opponents in the German government such as Hermann Goering, Rommel saw his troops crushed under the press of the British as well as the Americans who landed in French North Africa. Eventually, sick and worn out, Rommel was sent back to Germany to recuperate.

While visiting Hitler’s headquarters during that leave Rommel was struck by the atmosphere and made this observation:

“During the conference I realised that the atmosphere in the Fuehrer’s H.Q,. was extremely optimistic. Goering in particular was inclined to minimise our difficulties. When I said that British fighter-bombers had shot up my tanks with 4O-mm. shells, the Reichsmarschall, who felt himself touched by this, said: ” That’s completely impossible. The Americans only know how to make razor blades.” I replied: “We could do with some of those razor blades, Herr Reichsmarschall.”

rommel-with-soldier

Rommel had a sense of honor and humanity that many other German generals lacked. He refused to allow anti-Jewish measures in areas occupied by German troops in North Africa, ensuring that the approximately 425,000 Jews living in Libya, Tunisia, Algeria, and Morocco were spared the fate of the Holocaust. He refused to execute Jewish POWs, and refused to follow the notorious “commando order.” In June of 1994 he protested the massacre of the people of the village of Oradour-sur-Glane by units of the 2nd SS Panzer Division directly to Hitler and asked for the authority to punish those responsible, but was his protest was refused.

In late 1943 and early 1944 Rommel began to learn of the mass killings being orchestrated by Himmler’s SS. His son Manfred asked his father’s permission to join the Waffen SS, which Rommel insisted that he not do, the younger Rommel recounted:

“While, he said, he perfectly well recognised the quality of the S.S. troops, under no circumstances did he want me to be under the command of a man who, according to his information, was carrying out mass killings. ” Do you mean Himmler? ” I asked. ” Yes,” he answered, and instructed me to maintain absolute silence about the whole affair. The war was not going at all well and he had heard that people like Himmler were trying, by actions of this kind, to burn the bridges of the German people behind them. I think he was not at all certain at that time whether Hitler knew anything about what was going on, for no mention of the mass executions had ever been made at the Fuehrer’s H.Q. And perhaps he would never have brought himself to the decision to end the war -by a revolt if necessary -if he had not received further information in the early months of 1944 which confirmed these crimes and gave some idea of their extent. From that moment on, all my father’s inner allegiance to Adolf Hitler, whom he had once admired, was destroyed, and he brought himself, from his knowledge of the Fuehrer’s crimes, to act against him.” 

Rommel’s honest assessments of the chances of the Germans winning the war which he spoke candidly to Hitler and the High Command made him persona non grata in Berlin and Berchtesgaden. In the time before he was posted to France in late 1943 he became a part of the plot to end the war and overthrow Hitler. Rommel’s Chief of Staff at OB West, General Hans Speidel, was a key man in the conspiracy and Rommel had contacts with a number of key conspirators. He believed that the war was lost unless his forces could repel the coming Allied invasion on the beaches and worked feverishly to bolster the beach fortifications. He recommended that the Panzer Divisions be deployed near the coast where they could immediately counterattack Allied invasion forces while they were still vulnerable. But his advice was not taken. He was given command of the Army Group but was not given control of most of the Panzer Divisions, which Hitler kept under his direct control.

When the invasion came Rommel was away from Normandy visiting his wife. On learning of the invasion he sped back to Normandy. When he arrived he fought a desperate battle against the Allied forces. His outnumbered forces were under constant assault from the land, sea and air received paltry reinforcements compared to the Allies. Even so, German troops inflicted many local defeats and exacted a heavy price in allied blood in Normandy but were ground to dust. Even so, many American and British infantry regiments suffered 100% casualties but remained in action because of a continuous stream of replacements. Rommel urged Hitler and the High Command to withdraw German forces from Normandy before the allies broke through his front. By doing so he found that he was now considered a defeatist.

Rommel was severely wounded in an air attack on his vehicle by a just days before the attempt on Hitler’s life. Hitler survived the attempted assassination and exacted a terrible revenge on anyone connected with the plot. Show trials and public hangings of officers who had served valiantly at the front were common. Thousands were killed and thousands more imprisoned.

Eventually, other conspirator’s testimony exposed that Rommel was part of the plot. He was recommended by the “Court of Military Honor” to be expelled from the military and tried by the “People’s Court” of Judge Roland Freisler. During the purge that followed the attempt on Hitler’s life, many noted German military commanders were hauled before this court and humiliated by Freisler before they were sent to their deaths. Freisler, a fanatic Nazi judge has been part of the infamous Wansee Conference which planned the details of the Final Solution was killed when his courtroom was bombed in February 1945.

Because of his fame and popularity in Germany Hitler was decided to offer Rommel a choice of being tried by the People’s Court or committing suicide and ensuring his family’s safety. Hitler dispatched two generals from Berlin to personally deliver the message.

492px-Erwin_rommel_death

Rommel suspected that he would be identified and killed and told that to his friends and family in the days leading up to the arrival of Generals Wilhelm Burgorf and Ernst Maisel from OKW with the ultimatum. They met with Rommel for a short time before giving him the opportunity to say goodbye to his family. Rommel told them of his choice and left his home for the last time. 15 minutes later the Generals called his wife to say that he had died of a heart attack. Rommel was given a state funeral and the German people were lied to about his cause of his death.

Winston Churchill wrote of Rommel:

“He also deserves our respect because, although a loyal German soldier, he came to hate Hitler and all his works, and took part in the conspiracy to rescue Germany by displacing the maniac and tyrant. For this, he paid the forfeit of his life. In the sombre wars of modern democracy, chivalry finds no place … Still, I do not regret or retract the tribute I paid to Rommel, unfashionable though it was judged.”

Rommel was just 52 years old when he died. I find in the story of Rommel some commonality in my own life. Before Rommel went to Africa he believed that Germany would win the war, during his command there he discovered that what he believed was lies and that Hitler had little regard for him or his troops. Before I went to Iraq in 2007 I believed much of the political propaganda promoted by the Bush administration and right wing news media and pundits about that war.

The example of Erwin Rommel is a cautionary tale of what can happen when a brilliant and honorable man comes under the spell of a demagogue. Rommel believed Hitler and blindly followed him until he ran into the hard face of reality in Africa at which point he had the moral courage to do the right thing, but many didn’t.

The fact is that it is hard for most Americans to imagine what it would be to,serve in the military, law enforcement, intelligence, or justice departments of a totalitarian regime, but we are fast approaching that point.

Sadly there are otherwise honorable men and women in the current United States military who are blindly supporting a delusional and quite probably criminal President;  a man who promises to order soldiers to commit war crimes, who threatens to jail political opponents, who condemns whole races of people and religions, a man who has no respect for the courts, the law, or the Constitution.  Personally as a historian I cannot understand that kind of blind loyalty especially when the the leader in question has no loyalty to anyone other than himself. Not long before he was killed Rommel told his son:

“one thing is quite clear, it’s intolerable that the fate and welfare of a whole nation should depend on the whim of a small group. There must be some limit, otherwise, the most fantastic things can happen without anyone noticing.”

Rommel refused to obey the criminal orders that so many other German Generals and Officers obeyed. He lost his life because of his honor and personal integrity, and willingness to oppose a criminal regime. The question is, if President Trump and his administration cross that line, will American military leaders emulate Rommel or the officers who obeyed their orders, aided and abetted War Crimes and Crimes Against Humanity, and in many cases lied about the activities after the war in order to secure lucrative employment advising the Western Allies on the tactics and operational methods of the Soviets while writing their memoirs, which coincidentally omitted or denied their cooperation with Hitler’s most criminal orders.

Others, who were captured by the Soviets and worked for the Army or Security and Intelligence Services Of East Germany never admitted their roles in Hitler’s crimes. It was like they all sought to erase history, but the archives don’t lie, whether they worked for NATO or the Soviets.

The frightening thing is that almost all had served many of their formative years in the service of the Kaiser, or the Weimar Republic. They were not products of the Hitler Youth or Nazi education. They knew better. We should too, but that is no guarantee that we will not devolve as they did.

I hope that own better angels prevail.

Peace,

Padre Steve+

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Filed under ethics, History, holocaust, Loose thoughts and musings, Military, nazi germany, Political Commentary, world war two in europe

The Responsibility Of Command: Eisenhower’s Letter in Case the D-Day Invasion Failed

Friends of Padre Steve’s World,

The great Prussian military theorist Carl Von Clausewitz noted: “It is now quite clear how greatly the objective of war makes it a matter of assessing probabilities. Only one more element is needed to make war a gamble – chance: the very last thing that war lacks. No other human activity is so continuously or universally bound up with chance. And through through the element of guesswork and luck come to play a great part in war…. If we now consider briefly the subjective nature of war – the means by which war has to be fought – it will look more like a gamble. The highest of all moral qualities in time of danger is certainly courage.”

For a year General Dwight D. Eisenhower had worked to marshal the largest force possible to launch the long awaited invasion of Nazi Occupied France. Eisenhower surrounded himself with an exceptional staff, but had to fight for what he would need for the coming invasion. He had to struggle with Admiral Ernest King for the landing ships and crafts he needed, against the competing needs of Admiral Nimitz and General MacArthur’s Forces in the Pacific Theatre of operations. He had to battle Allied bomber commands, British Bomber Command, and 8th Air Force for bombers to support the invasion, taking them away from the strategic bombing command against the heart of German industry; and finally he had to battle Winston Churchill to be in overall command of the multi-national force being assembled to attack.

The invasion was in fact his baby. He had the ultimate responsibility for its success or failure. He knew the dangers. In 1942 the British launched a raid using Canadian troops on the English Channel port of Dieppe. It was a disaster. With all the work he had done to get his forces ready for the invasion, Eisenhower knew that he owned the result.

Eisenhower understood that everything in war is a gamble and that success is not guaranteed. The weather conditions of the English Channel are unpredictable and only offer a few month window of opportunity to successfully mount a cross channel invasion. The Germans found that out in 1940 when after their failure to clear the skies of the Royal Air Force that the a favorable opportunity for Operation Sea Lion had passed.

The Allied invasion required a full moon for a nighttime paratroop drop, and favorable weather for the landing craft to get ashore. Unfortunately, the weather was not cooperating. High winds, seas, and rain forced a cancellation of the planned June 5th invasion, the open question was whether conditions would be on the 6th would be favorable. If not the next opportunity would not be for at least two more weeks.

The German weather forecasters, having lost the ability to observe weather in the western and mid-Atlantic anticipated that the weather would continue to be unfavorable for an invasion. With this in mind, Field Marshal Erwin Rommel, Commander of Army Group B which had operational control over the potential landing beaches, decided to make a visit to his wife for her birthday and a trip to Berlin to plead for more resources. Other Senior German Commanders departed to inland areas to conduct war games and were not with their units.

Meanwhile, forecasters at Eisenhower’s headquarters who had access to weather data from the mid-Atlantic, predicted a brief lull, not perfect weather, but acceptable. Eisenhower met with his staff and made the decision to go ahead with the invasion in the night of June 5th and June 6th.

But the weather was but one factor, the Allies did not know the latest German deployments, including the movement of the crack 352nd Infantry Division to Omaha Beach. Likewise, a prompt German response with heavy Panzer units could throw the invaders back into the sea if they moved fast enough. However, neither Eisenhower or his staff knew of the conflict in the German High Command and Hitler regarding the deployment of the Panzer Divisions. Rommel argued that the Panzer Divisions should be deployed near the potential invasion beaches, but traditionalists in the German command and Hitler decided that most of the Panzer Divisions should be held back awaiting the point that they could make a decisive counterattack. Rommel, a veteran of Africa and the West knew the power of allied tactical air assets, and the havoc they could inflict on the Panzers. Rommel believed that the invasion had to be defeated on the beachheads and not given the chance to advance inland.

Eisenhower also knew that the success of the invasion depended on the success of the landings. A disaster at any of the landing beaches could doom the invasion. In light of this and so many other ways that could fail, Eisenhower, wrote a letter to his troops and the world when the invasion commenced. It read:

“Soldiers, Sailors, and Airmen of the Allied Expeditionary Force:

You are about to embark upon the Great Crusade, toward which we have striven these many months.

The eyes of the world are upon you. The hopes and prayers of liberty-loving people everywhere march with you.

In company with our brave Allies and brothers-in-arms on other Fronts you will bring about the destruction of the German war machine, the elimination of Nazi tyranny over oppressed peoples of Europe, and security for ourselves in a free world.

Your task will not be an easy one. Your enemy is well trained, well equipped, and battle-hardened. He will fight savagely.

But this is the year 1944. Much has happened since the Nazi triumphs of 1940-41. The United Nations1 have inflicted upon the Germans great defeats, in open battle, man-to-man. Our air offensive has seriously reduced their strength in the air and their capacity to wage war on the ground. Our Home Fronts have given us an overwhelming superiority in weapons and munitions of war, and placed at our disposal great reserves of trained fighting men. The tide has turned. The free men of the world are marching together to victory.

I have full confidence in your courage, devotion to duty, and skill in battle. We will accept nothing less than full victory.

Good Luck! And let us all beseech the blessing of Almighty God upon this great and noble undertaking.

However, prepared for any eventuality he also also wrote a letter in case the invasion failed, as it nearly did on Omaha Beach. That letter noted:

“Our landings in the Cherbourg-Havre area have failed to gain a satisfactory foothold and I have withdrawn the troops. My decision to attack at this time and place was based upon the best information available. The troops, the air and the Navy did all that Bravery and devotion to duty could do. If any blame or fault attaches to the attempt it is mine alone.”

It was dated July 5th, not June 5th, the mistake obviously due to the pressure of what he was feeling for his soldiers, the mission, and if the mission failed, his adversaries in the United States military and in Britain would have seen to his relief. It also could have aided those in the United States and Britain willing to make peace with Germany, which could have destroyed the allied alliance that ended up defeating Germany and rebuilding a democratic Europe, establishing NATO, the United Nations, and many other international organizations that have done much good for America and the world, but which are now under threat from leaders in the United States and Europe who would rather go back to the days of Hitler than advance into a better future.

Eisenhower did not make excuses if the invasion failed. He was ready to take full responsibility if Overlord failed, regardless of how it happened.

Likewise, he knew that the failure of the invasion would have made it possible for the Nazis to divert needed forces to the Eastern Front, where they might have been able to turn back the Soviet Operation Bagration which destroyed the German Army Group Center and opened the way for the Soviets to drive the Nazis from Soviet territory, advance to Warsaw, and knock key German allies out of the war. Before long, Hungary, Romania, and Finland were abandoning the Germans.

The fact that the invasion succeeded was as much as luck as it was the careful planning, and the exceptional courage, and dogged determination of the Allied troops.

Eisenhower’s willingness to take responsibility for defeat as well as give his troops credit for the eventual victory over the Nazis sets him apart from so many others then, and now who would deflect blame for a failed operation to their subordinates and lie about the results achieved.

In the age of Trump it is something to remember.

Peace,

Padre Steve+

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Filed under History, leadership, Military, national security, News and current events, Political Commentary, us army, world war two in europe

The Tragedy Of the “Mighty Hood” at 78 Years

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Artist rendition of the Loss of the HMS Hood

Friends of Padre Steve’s World,

Seventy-eight years ago today the HMS Hood, the  “Mighty Hood” was sunk by the German Battleship Bismarck. It was an event that began a tragic and legendary week in Naval history. The news was broken to most of the world by American journalist Edward R. Murrow who in his radio broadcast reported:

“This is London, Ed Murrow reporting. This island, which is no stranger to bad tiding, received news today that HMS Hood largest warship in the British fleet and pride of the British navy, has been sunk by the German battleship Bismarck. From the Hood’s compliment of 1500 men, there were three survivors.”

The news of the sinking of the great ship stunned the world, and it is a tragic anniversary that I always mark. I first read about this battle in C.S Forrester’s little book Hunting the Bismarck when I was in 4th grade. That book was used as the screenplay for the 1960 film Sink the Bismarck.

This essay is in honor of the gallant HMS Hood and her crew.  It is fitting although the HMS Hood and her killer, the German battleship Bismarck were not American. Both were great ships manned by gallant crews and the loss of both ships was tragic, especially from the aspect of the great loss of human life. I do hope and pray that we never forget the sacrifice of these men and all others who have gone down to the sea in great ships.

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HMS Hood entering Valetta Harbor, Malta

There are some warships and naval engagements which assume legendary proportions.  The Battle of the Denmark Strait on 24 May 1941 between the two largest battleships in commission at the time, the pride of the British Royal Navy the HMS Hood and the German behemoth Bismarck is legendary as are those two mighty ships.  The battle came at a critical time as the Britain stood alone against the seemingly invincible German Blitzkrieg.

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Hood in San Francisco on 1920s goodwill tour

Britain had been driven from Western Europe and was being bombed regularly by Herman Goering’s Luftwaffe while a British expeditionary force that had been sent to Greece had been defeated and the Germans were assaulting Crete with airborne forces.  In the Western Desert the Afrika Korps under Field Marshall Erwin Rommel had driven off a British counter-offensive on the Libyan-Egyptian frontier and were laying siege to Tobruk and in the Atlantic German U-Boats sank 66 Allied Merchant Ships of over 375,000 tons and the Royal Navy would lose 25 warships not including the Hood.

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The Hood was the pride of the Royal Navy and was world famous due to her inter-war international presence and goodwill visits.  Displacing 47,430 tons full load she was armed with eight 15” guns in four twin turrets.  Designed as a battle cruiser she was less heavily armored than contemporary battleships and had very weak vertical protection from plunging shellfire.  This was a fault which was known but never rectified between the wars, and when the war came the Royal Navy could ill-afford to take her out of service for the necessary improvements to her protection system.  She was fast with a designed speed of 31 knots which been reduced to 28 knots by 1939 as a result of modifications which increased her displacement.   This was further reduced by the wear and tear on her propulsion plant to 26.5 knots by 1940.

Hood was designed before the battle of Jutland (May 1916) where the weaknesses in the armor protection of British Battlecruisers was exposed as three, the HMS Invincible, HMS Queen Mary and HMS Indefatigable were destroyed by plunging fire which exploded their magazines.  Though her design was modified during construction she still was vulnerable to plunging fire. She was scheduled for a major refit which would have included significant improvement in armor protection in 1941, but the war prevented Hood from receiving anything more than improvements to her anti-aircraft batteries.

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Hood (nearly hidden by falling shells) in action at Mers-El-Kebir

During the war Hood was engaged in patrol and search operations against German raiders in the North Atlantic and in June 1940 joined Force “H” in the Mediterranean.  As Flagship of Force “H” she took part in the sinking of French Fleet Units including the Battleship Bregtange  at Mers-El-Kebir on 3 July 1940 following the French surrender to the Germans and remained in operation searching for the German Pocket Battleship Admiral Scheer and the Heavy Cruiser Admiral Hipper until she was withdrawn for a brief refit in January 1941.

Following another brief refit in mid-March, Hood was underway from mid-March searching for the German raiders Scharnhorst and Gneisenau and also false report of Bismarck breaking out into the Atlantic in April 1941. She returned to Scapa Flow on 6 May 1941.

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The German Leviathan, Bismarck

When the British discovered that Bismarck had entered the Atlantic, Hood the flagship of Vice Admiral Lancelot Holland, was dispatched to find and sink her with the newly commissioned battleship HMS Prince of Wales.  The battleships were to join the Heavy Cruisers HMS Suffolk and HMS Norfolk at the entrance to the Denmark Strait.  When the cruisers discovered Bismarck along with her consort the Heavy Cruiser Prinz Eugen the two British battleships steamed into naval history.

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Bismarck was slightly larger than Hood and mounted the same main armament but that was about all the two ships had in common. If the battle was a battle between heavyweight prize fighters Hood was the valiant but crippled champion and Bismarck the young and overpowering challenger.  Bismarck was slightly faster than the limping Hood and was one of the most well protected ships ever built.  Her gunnery officers and the men that manned her deadly 15” guns, like previous generations of German sailors, were gunnery experts, working with some of the finest naval guns ever made.

<img src="https://padresteve.files.wordpress.com/2014/05/bundesarchiv_bild_146-1984-055-13_schlachtschiff_bismarck_seegefecht1.jpg?w=500&h=324&quot; class="aligncenter size-full wp-image-14605" data-attachment-id="14605" data-permalink="https://padresteve.com/2014/05/24/remembering-the-mighty-hood-and-the-battle-of-the-denmark-strait/schlachtschiff-bismarck-seegefecht-3/&quot; data-orig-file="https://padresteve.files.wordpress.com/2014/05/bundesarchiv_bild_146-1984-055-13_schlachtschiff_bismarck_seegefecht1.jpg&quot; data-orig-size="500,324" data-comments-opened="1" data-image-meta="{"aperture":"0","credit":"Bundesarchiv","camera":"","caption":"Seegefecht des Schlachtschiffes \"Bismarck\" unter Island.\nNunmehr richtet Schlachtschiff Bismarck seine ganze Feuerkraft auf das sich zur\u00fcckziehende Schlachtschiff \"Prince of Wales\".\nProp.Kp.:MPA Nord Film-Nr. 100\/27\nBildberichter: Lagemann\nWilhelmshaven; Herausgabedatum: Juni 1941","created_timestamp":"0","copyright":"","focal_length":"0","iso":"0","shutter_speed":"0","title":"Schlachtschiff Bismarck, Seegefecht"}" data-image-title="Schlachtschiff Bismarck, Seegefecht" data-image-description="

Seegefecht des Schlachtschiffes “Bismarck” unter Island.
Nunmehr richtet Schlachtschiff Bismarck seine ganze Feuerkraft auf das sich zurückziehende Schlachtschiff “Prince of Wales”.
Prop.Kp.:MPA Nord Film-Nr. 100/27
Bildberichter: Lagemann
Wilhelmshaven; Herausgabedatum: Juni 1941

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Bismarck firing on Hood, Picture taken from Prinz Eugen

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The German ships were shadowed at a distance by the County Class heavy cruisers  Norfolk and Suffolk. The German task force under the command of Admiral Gunther Lütjens emerged from the strait and were sighted by the British at 0537.  Knowing his ships weakness in regard to plunging fire Admiral Holland desired to steer a direct course at the German ships in order to close the range quickly in order to narrow the range and prevent being hit by the same kind of plunging fire that doomed the British battle cruisers at Jutland.

However, events dictated otherwise and the British were forced to close the range much more slowly than Admiral Holland desired, this exposed both Hood and Prince of Wales to German plunging fire for a longer period of time.  Because of this Holland then turned and tried to close the German ships faster. The result was that his gunnery was degraded by wind and spray coming over the bows of his ships compounded by his inability to bring his after turrets to bear on the German ships.

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Hood, photographed from Prince of Wales just before being sunk by Bismarck

At 0553 Holland ordered his ships to open fire. Unfortunately, he dis so without the benefit of Suffolk and Norfolk being in position to engage the Prinz Eugen.  Due to the similar appearance of the German ships Hood initially concentrated her fire on Prinz Eugen assuming her to be the Bismarck while Prince of Wales engaged Bismarck.

During the initial exchange of fire Prince of Wales drew first blood by hitting Bismarck three times with her 14″ guns. One hit damaged Bismarck’s seaplane catapult. A second did minor damage to machinery spaces, and a third which passed throughBismarck’s bow near the waterline and severed the fuel lines from her forward fuel tanks to her engines. The third hit would prove the mighty German Leviathan’s undoing.

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Prinz Eugen

Both German ships opened fire at 0555 and concentred their fires on the Hood.  Prinz Eugen immediately hit Hood with at least one 8” shell which set a large fire among the ready to use 4”ammunition stored in lockers near the mainmast. The hit started a large fire which Hood’s damage control teams raced to contain.  At 0600, Admiral Holland ordered his ships to turn to port in order to bring the rear turrets of his battleships into the fight.

As the squadron executed the turn Hood was straddled by a salvo from Bismarck and observers on Prince of Wales observed an explosion between “X” turret and the mainmast of Hood. The hit set off the 4″ magazine and the resultant explosion consumed the Hood causing her bow to jut sharply out of the water before sinking beneath the waves in under 3 minutes time. Witnesses on both sides of the engagement were stunned by the sudden and violent end of the Hood. 

With Hood now destroyed the Germans rapidly shifted their fire to the Prince of Wales, crippling the battleship and knocking her out of the action.  Bismarck was now in a perfect position to finish off Prince of Wales but she did not do so. Against the advice of Bismarck’s Captain Ernst Lindemann, Admiral Lütjens refused to follow up his advantage to sink the crippled British battleship and instead broke off the action.

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Hood blows up. Drawing by the Captain of HMS Prince of Wales J.C. Leach

Only three crewmen for Hood, Petty Officer Ted Briggs, Seaman Bob Tilburn and Midshipman Bill Dundas survived the cataclysm out of a total of 1415 souls embarked. They were rescued 4 hours later nearly dead of hypothermia. They stayed awake by singing  “Roll out the Barrel” until they were rescued by the destroyer HMS Electra.

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Briggs who died in 2008 recounted the sinking:

“Then she started listing to starboard. She righted herself, and started going over to port. When she had gone over by about 40 degrees we realised she was not coming back…” Briggs was sucked under the water “I had heard it was nice to drown. I stopped trying to swim upwards. The water was a peaceful cradle – I was ready to meet my God. My blissful acceptance of death ended in a sudden surge beneath me, which shot me to the surface like a decanted cork in a champagne bottle. I turned, and 50 yards away I could see the bows of the Hood vertical in the sea. It was the most frightening aspect of my ordeal, and a vision which was to recur terrifyingly in nightmares for the next 40 years.” (The Daily Telegraph 5 October 2008)

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Ted Briggs

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Bob Tilburn

The Admiralty reported the loss of the Hood later in the day saying Hood received an unlucky hit in a magazine and blew up.”  The official report of the sinking released later in the year said:

That the sinking of Hood was due to a hit from Bismarck’s 15-inch shell in or adjacent to Hood’s 4-inch or 15-inch magazines, causing them all to explode and wreck the after part of the ship. The probability is that the 4-inch magazines exploded first.”

The commission’s findings have been challenged by a number of naval historians and there are several theories of how the magazines might have exploded. However, all theories point to a massive magazine explosion which may not have be caused by a plunging round but from a hit which detonated the unprotected 4” magazines or a hit from Bismarck that struck below Hood’s waterline and exploded in a magazine.

For forty years the Hood’s wreckage lay undiscovered. Her wreck was located in 2001 lying across two debris fields. The post mortem examination revealed that Hood’s after magazines had exploded.  Hood’s resting place is designated as a War Grave by Britain and protected site under the Protection of Military Remains Act of 1986.

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Bismarck sinking

Bismarck and her crew did not long survive her victory.  When close to refuge in the French port of Brest on May 26th the great ship was crippled by a lucky aerial torpedo hit from a Fairley Swordfish bomber flying from the HMS Ark Royal. 

The hit damaged Bismarck’s rudders and forced her to steer a course towards the approaching British fleet. Throughout the night Bismarck fought off attacks by British and Polish destroyers on the morning of May 27th 1941, after absorbing massive damage from the HMS King George V, HMS Rodney and several cruisers including HMS Dorsetshire, he plucky and persistent Norfolk and several destroyers, Bismarck was scuttled by her crew. When she went down she took with her all but 115 souls of her crew of over 2200 which included the Fleet Staff of Admiral Lütjens.

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HMS Prince of Wales

A few months later, Prince of Wales would take Winston Churchill to Argentia Bay Newfoundland to meet with Franklin Roosevelt. At the conference that took place in August 1941, the Atlantic Charter was drafted. With the increased threat of Japanese expansion Prince of Wales reported to the Far East where she was sunk along with the Battlecruiser HMS Repulse on 9 December 1941 by a force of land based Japanese aircraft.  The Prinz Eugen was the only heavy ship of the German Navy to survive the war and was taken as a prize by the US Navy when the war ended. She was used as a target during the Able and Baker nuclear tests at Bikini Atoll, but did not sink. She was too radioactive to be repaired and her hulk was towed to Kwajalein Atoll where she capsized and sank on 22 December 1946. Her wreck is still visible.

The loss of the Hood traumatized the people of Britain and the Royal Navy; she had been the symbol of British Naval power for over 20 years and people around the world were likewise stunned at her demise. The sinking of the Hood and the loss of her crew was a tragedy which all sailors assigned to large and prestigious ships and the nations that they sail for need to keep in mind.

No matter how mighty any ship may be, every ship has an Achilles heel and no ship is unsinkable, and human beings bear the brunt of such tragedies.  Of the over 3600 officers and crew of the Hood and the Bismarck only 118 survived.

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I will continue to remember the gallant Hood, her brave crew, especially my very distant relative Midshipman Bill Dundas who I never met.  He left the Royal Navy with the rank of Lieutenant Commander in about 1960, and was killed in a car wreck in 1965. According to the Hood Association website he was troubled by the sinking for the rest of his life.  I think that I could understand as I am still troubled by my far less traumatic experience of war in Iraq.

Until tomorrow,

Peace

Padre Steve+

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Filed under History, Military, Navy Ships, nazi germany, World War II at Sea, world war two in europe

The War that did not End All War: Recommended Reading in Light of the Centennial of the End of the Great War

Fort Vaux, Verdun France, 1984

Friends of Padre Steve’s World,

Many Americans are infatuated with the Second World War. I think this is because it is closer to us and how it has been recorded in history and film. I think much of this is due to the resurgence of popular works such as Tom Brokaw’s The Greatest Generation, Stephen Ambrose’s Band of Brothers and the associated classic mini-series, and Steven Spielberg’s cinema classic Saving Private Ryan. Of course there were many other books and films one World War Two that came out even during the war that made it an iconic event in the lives of Americans born in the 1940s, 1950s, and 1960s. In fact I have many of the books and videos in my library.

But as pervasive as is the literary and filmography of the Second War War remains, the fact is that the First World War is much more important in a continuing historical sense than the Second World War. Edmond Taylor, the author of the classic account The Fall of the Dynasties: 1905-1922 wrote:

“The First World War killed fewer victims than the Second World War, destroyed fewer buildings, and uprooted millions instead of tens of millions – but in many ways it left even deeper scars both on the mind and on the map of Europe. The old world never recovered from the shock.”

First World War is far too often overlooked in our time, yet it was the most important war in the effects that still resonate today. One cannot look at the Middle East, Africa, the Balkans, or Eastern Europe without recognizing that fact. A similar case can be made in Asia where Japan became a regional power capable of challenging the great powers in the Pacific by its participation on the side of the Allies in that war. The same is true of the United States, although in the aftermath of the war it retreated into a narcissistic isolationism that took Japan’s attack on Pearl Harbor to break.

But I digress. The purpose I have tonight it to recommend some books and films that I think are helpful in understanding just how important the First World War remains to us today.

I made my first visit to a World War One battlefield when I went to Verdun in 1984. I was a young Army Second Lieutenant, preparing myself for time time that the Red Army would attack across the Fulda Gap. The walk around the battlefield was one of the most sobering events of my life. It was hard to imagine that a minimum of 700,000 German and French soldiers were killed or wounded on this relatively small parcel of ground over a period of nine months in 1916. The fact that many parts of the battlefield are off limits to visitors due to the vast amount of unexploded ordnance and persistent chemical agents, in this gas Mustard Gas also made an impression on me. But what affected me most was unearthing a bone fragment as I shuffled my feet near Fort Vaux and turning it over to a docent. I am sure that it was added to the Ossuary which contains the skeletal remains of over 130,000 French and German soldiers. It is hard to forget.

Barbara Tuchman wrote:

“Books are the carriers of civilization. Without books, history is silent, literature dumb, science crippled, thought and speculation at a standstill. Without books, the development of civilization would have been impossible. They are engines of change (as the poet said), windows on the world and lighthouses erected in the sea of time. They are companions, teachers, magicians, bankers of the treasures of the mind. Books are humanity in print.”

The literature that came out of the First World War by participants or observers, either as memoirs, works of fiction, or poems is impressive. Likewise the volumes chronicled by soldiers which influenced later military strategic, operational, and tactical developments between the World Wars remains with us today. In fact the military works still remain the basis for much of the current understanding of combined arms, counterinsurgency, and mission command doctrine.

More importantly, and perhaps less appreciated by policy makers and strategists are the personal works of soldiers that fought the in the great battles along the western front during the war. For the most part, the soldiers who served on the Western Front, the Balkans, Italy, and the Eastern Front are part of an amorphous and anonymous mass of people who simply became numbers during the Great War, thus the individual works of men like John McRea, Sigfried Sassoon, Erich Maria Remarque, Winfried Owen, Ernst Junger, Erwin Rommel, and even Adolf Hitler, are incredibly important in understanding the war, the ideology, and the disappointment of the men who served in the trenches. This applies regardless of the particular writer’s experience or political ideology.

The fact is that very few men who served on the ground in Europe reached the distinction of individual recognition is remarkable. More often those who achieved fame as relatively low ranking individuals were the Knights of the Air, the aviators who in individual combat above the trenches were immortalized by friend and foe alike. These men were represented as an almost mythological portrait of chivalry in a war where millions of men died anonymously, riddled by machine gun fire, artillery, and poison gas in mud saturated ground, trenches, and no man’s land. There are war cemeteries in France and Belgium where the majority of those interred are unknowns. On the Eastern Front, even those cemeteries and memorials are sparse, swallowed by war, shifting borders, and massive forced population migrations between 1918 and 1948.

For different reasons the books and poems written by the otherwise anonymous soldiers in Europe are important if we are to understand the world that we have inherited and must live in today. The same is true of men like T. E. Lawrence who served in the Middle East, or his East African counterpart, the German Paul von Lettow-Vorbeck. Both of them made their names by conducting inventive campaigns using indigenous irregular soldiers to tie down and defeat far stronger opponents.

Histories and biographies written about the period by later historians using the documents and words of the adversaries, as well as solid hermeneutics and historiography are also quite important. So are the analysis of economists, sociologists, psychologists, philosophers, and even theologians as to the effects of the war on us today, but I digress.

Tonight I will list a number of books, poems, and films that I think are important in interpreting the Great War, especially, in trying to understand just how the men who directed and fought that war set the stage for today.

Lawrence’s “Seven Pillars of Wisdom” as well as many of his post-war letters, articles, and opinion pieces help us understand the current Middle East through the lens of a brilliant but deeply troubled man. Remarque, Sassoon, McRea, Junger, Owen, and Hitler help us to understand the ideology, motivations, fears, and hopes of men on different sides and even very different ideological and political points of view. Now I would not recommend Hitler’s poorly written, turgid, almost unreadable, and hate filled book to anyone but a scholar of the period or biographer the the Nazi dictator.

Later historians Barbara Tuchman, Holger Herweg, Edmond Taylor, Richard Watt, and Robert Massie help us understand that bigger picture of international politics, intrigue, and strategy. Lest to be trusted, are the memoirs of high ranking men of any side who helped to write, and re-write the history of the war and its aftermath in order to bolster their own historical credibility. The same is true of the men who urged on war in 1914 and retreated from that in 1918 as if they had never heard of the war.

As for the books that came out of the war I would have to recommend Lawrence’s classic Seven Pillars of Wisdom, as well as articles, and letters, written by him available online at T. E. Lawrence Studies . Likewise, Remarque’s All Quiet on the Western Front is a classic account of a combat soldier with a distinct anti-war message. Junger’s Storm of Steel is also an account of a combat soldier who came out of the war but with a message completely different than Remarque’s. The poetry of the British Soldiers McRea, Sasson, and Owen is moving and goes to the heart of the war experience in a way that prose, no matter how well written cannot do.

Of the later histories I think that Taylor’s The Fall of the Dynasties, The Collapse of the Old Order, 1905-1922, Tuchman’s The Proud Tower: A Portrait of the World Before the War, 1890-1914 and The Guns of August, Christopher Clark’s The Sleepwalkers: How Europe Went to War In 1914, and Margaret McMillen’s The War that Ended Peace: The Road to 1914, are essential to understanding the events and conditions leading up to the war.

Herweg’s World War One and Massie’s Castles of Steel: Britain, Germany, and the Winning of the Great War at Sea are both good accounts of the war. Catastrophe 1914: Europe Goes to War by Max Hastings, and Home Before the Leaves Fall: A New History of the German Invasion of 1914, by Ian Senior, and Tannenberg: Clash of Empires by Dennis Showalter are excellent recent histories of the opening months of the war which are a good compliment to Tuchman’s The Guns of August.

Books about battles and campaign outside of the opening months and general histories of the war I have to admit that I have not read many. Most of the ones I have read deal with the ordeal and crisis of the French Army in 1916 and 1917. Alistair Horne’s The Price of Glory: Verdun 1916, Richard Watt’s Dare Call it Treason, and David Murphy’s The Breaking Point of the French Army: The Neville Offensive of 1917 document the valor, sacrifice, and near collapse of the French Army.

A book that is focuses on the American military in the war and how it helped change American society is Jennifer Keene’s Doughboys: The Great War and the Making of American Society.

A book that I found interesting was Correlli Barnett’s The Sword-bearers: Supreme Command in the First World War. The book provides short biographies of the lives and influences of German Field Marshal Von Moltke, British Admiral Jellicoe, French General Petain, and German General Ludendorff. It is a good study in command. Another biography that I recommend is

As for the war at sea, I recommend Edwin Hoyt’s The Last Cruise of the Emden, R. K. Lochner’s The Last Gentleman of War: The Raider Exploits of the Cruiser Emden, Geoffrey Bennett’s Coronel and the Falklands, Holger Herweg’s Luxury Fleet: The Imperial German Navy, 1888 – 1918 in addition to Massie’s Castle’s of Steel, of which the latter is probably the best resource for the naval aspects of the war.

A couple of books that deal with the often overlooked campaign in East Africa are Lettow Von Vorbeck’s My Reminiscences of East Africa, and Königsberg: A German East Africa Raider by Kevin Patience shed light on this obscure but important campaign.

Erwin Rommel’s Infanterie Greift An (Infantry Attacks) is quite possibly the best book on tactics and operational methods published by a participant. Likewise, the the British historians and theoreticians B. H. Liddell-Hart and J. F. C. Fuller, and German Panzer theorist and Commander Heinz Guderian, who also served on the front produced a number of volumes which influenced later strategic and operational advancements which are still in evidence today.

Watt’s The Kings Depart: The Tragedy of Germany: Versailles and the German Revolution is a necessity if one is to understand the rise of the Nazi State. Likewise, a good resource of the deliberations leading to the Treat of Versailles is Margaret McMillen’s 1919: Six Months that Changed the World. Related to this is the very interesting account of the scuttling of the interred German High Seas Fleet at Scapa Flow in the aftermath of Versailles, The Grand Scuttle: The Sinking of the German Fleet at Scapa Flow In 1919 by Dan Van der Vat.

One work of fiction that I can recommend is The General by C. S. Forester.

I am sure that there are many other volumes that others could recommend, but these are mine.

In an age where there are many parallels to the years leading up to the Great War, it is important not to forget just how catastrophic such a war can be.

So until tomorrow,

Peace,

Padre Steve+

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The Tale of the Desert Fox: Erwin Rommel, a Cautionary Tale for Men Who Serve Tyrants

rommel

Friends of Padre Steve’s World,

Just over 74 years ago in Ulm Germany a car pulled up to the residence of Field Marshal Erwin Rommel. In the car was the driver and two Generals dispatched by Hitler.  Rommel was recuperating following being severely wounded in an air attack in Normandy on July 17th 1944.

Rommel had been awarded the Pour le Merite, sometimes known as the Blue Max, Imperial Germany’s highest award for valor in the First World War. He was never an official member of the Nazi Party, but like many Germans he believed Hitler’s promises and propaganda. As Hitler rose to power he like many others was carried away by early Nazi successes, the bloodless conquests of the Rhineland, Austria, Czechoslovakia, and the spectacle of the Olympics.

He was also an opportunist. With the rise of the Nazis came the expansion of the German military. Rommel was already well known due to his exploits as a platoon and company commander during the First World War in France, Romania, and Italy. In Italy he captured an entire Italian infantry division during the Battle of Mount Cosna, which was part of the Caporetto in October 1917. His company of 150 troops, exploited terrain and weather to surprise and capture 9,000 soldiers and 81 artillery pieces at the cost of 6 men killed and 30 wounded. Rommel used infiltration tactics, flanking maneuvers, and even disobeyed the orders of his superiors during the battle. Less than two weeks later at Langarone using the same tactics, his company surprised the 1st Italian Infantry which thinking it surrounded by superior forces surrendered to Rommel. For these actions Rommel was awarded the coveted Blue Max. 

Rommel was retained in the 100,000 man Reichswehr, but he had refused to attend the course that would have made him part of the elite General Staff. As such he was not assigned to the critical billets that would normally lead to high command. Instead he served in company command and as an instructor at the Infantry School in Dresden. While assigned to the school he wrote a manual of infantry tactics and training based on his experience. The book, Infantrie Greift an, or Infantry Attacks is still considered a classic book on infantry tactics and leadership, and was highly influential in his rise to high command. He was promoted to Major after serving 14 years as a Captain in 1932. In October 1933 he was assigned to command the 3rd Jaeger Battalion of the 17th Infantry Regiment where he first met Hitler when the latter reviewed his troops on an inspection visit.

Rommel, like many officers was caught in the thrall of Hitler. His wife, Lucy was caught up in the moment and was a Hitler supporter. Rommel was never a Nazi party member, but that did not keep him from supporting the overtly nationalist and militarist actions of the Hitler regime. In 1935 he was assigned to the Military Academy at Potsdam where as a Lieutenant Colonel he published Infantrie Greift an. In 1937 Hitler appointed Rommel as the liaison officer from the War Ministry to the Hitler Youth. Rommel clashed with the head of the Hitler Jugend, Baldur von Schirach and twiced proposed removing the organization from the Party to the War Ministry.

The conflict resulted in Rommel being quietly reposted from that assignment, promoted to Colonel and assigned to command the former Austrian Theresian Military Academy  in Wiener Neustadt. He was then selected by Hitler to command the Führer-Begleit-Battalion (Escort battalion) which served as the force protection unit for Hitler’s headquarters during the Polish campaign.

Following that campaign, Rommel, now a Major General was appointed to command the newly formed 7th Panzer Division which he commanded with great distinction during the Battle of France, 1940. When the campaign ended the division was placed in reserve where it readied to become part of the planned invasion of Britain, Operation Sea Lion. When that operation was postponed due to the defeat of the Luftwaffe during the Battle of Britain, and Mussolini’s Italian army in North Africa was routed by the small British Western Desert Force, Rommel was assigned to command the Deutsches Afrika Korps, composed of the 5th Light Division, which would soon be re-designated as the 21st Panzer Division and the 15th Panzer Division.

Over the next two years in North Africa built a reputation as an energetic and often risk taking commander who fought against long odds in a campaign which his own high command gave little support. The isolation of North Africa and its purely military significance in supporting a weak ally made it a different war from the concurrent, racially driven German invasion of the Soviet Union. Fighting the British and later the Americans, Rommel built a reputation of being a noble and chivalrous opponent. Unlike most of Europe and especially in Russian there was little to no influence of the SS in theater and the Jewish population of Libya, Tunisia, and Algeria suffered little under Nazi occupation, which many North African Jews attributed to Rommel.

During the North African campaign Rommel soared to the heights of international fame due to his exploits. The Nazi Propaganda Minister, Josef Goebbels sent one of his aides, Lieutenant Alfred Berndt to serve on Rommel’s Staff.  Berndt sent reports to the Propaganda Ministry which became the staple of Nazi propaganda to build Rommel into a German hero. Despite serving in a remote theater and commanding a relatively small number of troops, Rommel became the poster child for Goebbels’s propaganda machine. He was revered by the German people, and at the same time despised by many of his Army contemporaries and superiors.

His fame also earned the resentment of many fellow officers who because he was not an officer of the General Staff regarded him with jealous envy and distain. Even so, Rommel was a soldier’s soldier. He believed in sharing in the suffering of his troops. He once said: 

“Be an example to your men in your duty and in private life. Never spare yourself, and let the troops see that you don’t in your endurance of fatigue and privation. Always be tactful and well-mannered, and teach your subordinates to be the same. Avoid excessive sharpness or harshness of voice, which usually indicates the man who has shortcomings of his own to hide.”

Rommel basked in the praise of Hitler but as time wore on in Africa he became disillusioned by the course of the war, and while maintaining faith in Hitler, he openly despised many of the Nazi elite and his own High Command. While in Africa, Rommel was promoted to Field Marshal but denied the troops and supplies that he needed to successfully hold out in Africa. He opposed efforts to send more troops to Africa and recommended withdrawing his German and Italian soldiers before the Allies closed the door on withdraw across the Mediterranean.

As his troops were being chewed to pieces at El Alamein he requested permission to withdraw to the west. The request was refused and Hitler issued and order to stand in place and not withdraw. Rommel’s words are revealing for a man who had previously trusted Hitler and taken every opportunity from the dictator to advance his career.

“The order demanded the impossible. Even the most devoted soldier can be killed by a bomb. In spite of our unvarnished situation reports, it was apparently still not realized at the Fuehrer’s H.Q. how matters really stood in Africa.  Arms, petrol, and aircraft could have helped us, but not orders. We were completely stunned, and for the first time during the Africa campaign I did not know what to do. A kind of apathy took hold of us as we issued orders for the existing positions to be held on instructions from highest authority. I forced myself to this action, as I had always demanded unconditional obedience from others and, consequently, wished to apply the principle to myself. Had I known what was to come I should have acted differently, because from that time on, we had continually to circumvent orders from the Fuehrer or Duce in order to save the army from destruction. But this first instance of interference by higher authority in the tactical conduct of the African war came as a considerable shock.”

Like most other officers Rommel had served the Hitler regime as it spread its dark pall over Europe without protest. Yet, unlike so many other officers when he suffered a crisis in conscience about the Nazi leadership and their policies, he refused to obey orders that he knew were both illegal and immoral, and then risked his life by joining the conspiracy to kill Hitler.bundesarchiv_bild_146-1991-031-25a_nordafrika_vor_tobruk_rommel

It was at El Alamein that Rommel discovered the emptiness of Hitler’s promises as the troops of the Afrika Corps found themselves subjected to constant privation from lack of supply, air support and reinforcements. As commander of the Afrika Corps and later the Panzer Armee Afrika he and his troops achieved amazing success against an enemy that was always better supplied, equipped and which always had air and sea superiority. Battling the British as well as the political machinations of Mussolini and Germany’s Italian Allies as well as opponents in the German government such as Hermann Goering, Rommel saw his troops crushed under the press of the British as well as the Americans who landed in French North Africa. Eventually, sick and worn out, Rommel was sent back to Germany to recuperate.

rommel-with-soldier

Rommel had a sense of honor and humanity that many other German generals lacked. He refused to allow anti-Jewish measures in areas occupied by German troops in North Africa, ensuring that the approximately 425,000 Jews living in Libya, Tunisia, Algeria, and Morocco were spared the fate of the Holocaust. He refused to execute Jewish POWs, including members of the Jewish Battalion serving with the British 8th Army. Likewise, Rommel refused to follow the notorious “commando order.” In June of 1994 he protested the massacre of the people of the village of Oradour-sur-Glane by units of the 2nd SS Panzer Division directly to Hitler and asked for the authority to punish those responsible, but was refused.

After his return from Africa, Rommel’s honest and open assessments of the chances of the Germans winning the war made him persona non grata in Berlin and Berchtesgaden. He was posted to France in early 1944 according to some accounts he became a part of the plot to end the war and overthrow Hitler. Rommel’s Chief of Staff at OB West, General Hans Speidel, was a key man in the conspiracy and Rommel had contacts with a number of key conspirators. There are arguments about Rommel’s connections and activities in regard to the anti-Hitler plot among respected historians.

When the invasion came Rommel was away from Normandy visiting his wife. On learning of the invasion he sped back to Normandy. When he arrived he fought a desperate battle against the Allied forces. His outnumbered forces were under constant assault from the land, sea and air received paltry reinforcements compared to the Allies. Even so, German troops inflicted many local defeats and exacted a heavy price in allied blood in Normandy but were ground to dust. Even so, many American and British infantry regiments suffered 100% casualties but remained in action because of a continuous stream of replacements. Rommel urged Hitler and the High Command to withdraw German forces from Normandy before the allies broke through his front. By doing so he found that he was now considered a defeatist.

If Rommel had joined the plot to topple Hitler, he did not stop working to defend Germany against the coming Allied invasion. He believed that the war was lost if his forces failed to repel the Allies on the beaches of France, and he worked feverishly to bolster the beach fortifications. He recommended that the Panzer Divisions be deployed near the coast where they could immediately counterattack Allied invasion forces while they were still vulnerable. But his advice was not taken. He was given command of the Army Group but was not given control of most of the Panzer Divisions, which Hitler kept under his direct control. Neither did he approve of an assassination attempt but realizing that his front was about to collapse he was in favor of independent peace negotiations with the Allies on the Western Front.

Many commanders in the west, including Waffen SS commanders were in agreement Rommel was severely wounded in an air attack on his vehicle by a just days before the attempt on Hitler’s life. Hitler survived the attempted assassination and exacted a terrible revenge on anyone connected with the plot. Show trials and public hangings of officers who had served valiantly at the front were common. Thousands were killed and thousands more imprisoned. Many of those arrested, imprisoned, or killed, were those who knew Rommel’s views on ending the war.

Various conspirator’s testimony exposed Rommel as part of the plot. Leading Nazis, including Martin Bormann, and Heinrich Himmler urged Hitler to deal with Rommel. Likewise, some in the High Command, including Heinz Guderian turned upon Rommel. After a secret hearing it was recommended by the “Court of Military Honor” that Rommel be expelled from the military and tried by the “People’s Court” of Judge Roland Freisler. During the purge that followed the attempt on Hitler’s life, many noted German military commanders were hauled before this court and humiliated by Freisler before they were sent to their deaths. Freisler, a fanatic Nazi judge was a participant at the infamous Wannsee Conference which planned the details of the Final Solution was killed when his courtroom was bombed in February 1945.

On 27 September, Martin Bormann submitted to Hitler a memorandum which claimed that “the late General Stülpnagel, Colonel von Hofacker, Kluge’s nephew who has been executed, Lieutenant Colonel Rathgens, and several … living defendants have testified that Field Marshal Rommel was perfectly in the picture about the assassination plan and has promised to be at the disposal of the New Government.”

Rommel’s fate was sealed, but because of his fame and popularity in Germany Hitler decided to offer Rommel a choice of being tried by the People’s Court or committing suicide. Goebbels who had spent so much time building up the Rommel legend The latter with an offer to ensure his family’s safety, which he would not guarantee if Rommel choose to defend himself in open court. Hitler dispatched Generals Wilhelm Burgdorf and Ernst Maisel from Berlin to personally deliver the message.

492px-Erwin_rommel_death

Rommel suspected that he would be identified and killed and told that to his friends and family in the days leading up to the arrival of Generals Wilhelm Burgorf and Ernst Maisel from OKW with the ultimatum. They met with Rommel for a short time before giving him the opportunity to say goodbye to his family. Rommel told them of his choice and left his home for the last time. 15 minutes later the Generals called his wife to say that he had died of a heart attack. Rommel was given a state funeral and the German people were lied to about his cause of his death.

Winston Churchill wrote of Rommel:

“He also deserves our respect because, although a loyal German soldier, he came to hate Hitler and all his works, and took part in the conspiracy to rescue Germany by displacing the maniac and tyrant. For this, he paid the forfeit of his life. In the sombre wars of modern democracy, chivalry finds no place … Still, I do not regret or retract the tribute I paid to Rommel, unfashionable though it was judged.”

Rommel was just 52 years old when he died. I find in the story of Rommel some commonality in my own life. Before Rommel went to Africa he believed that Germany would win the war, during his command there he discovered that what he believed was lies and that Hitler had little regard for him or his troops.

Rommel is a complex character. His attitudes towards Hitler waxed and waned. He was no Nazi. He conducted his battles in an honorable manner and displayed much chivalry towards his opponents. His views on race were not at all Nazi like. In North Africa he faced down a White South African commander who did not want to be imprisoned with his Black troops. Rommel told the officer: “For me, soldiers are all equal. Those black people wore your same uniform, fought on your side, and so you will be in the same jail.”

But from the beginning he willingly served Hitler’s regime and basked in the fame that he enjoyed due to Goebbels’s propaganda machine. At the same time while he was according to the Chief of the German Navy in the West, Admiral Friedrich Ruge, as well as his Rommel’s letters to his wife, indicated that Rommel’s mood fluctuated wildly regarding Hitler: while he showed disgust towards the atrocities and disappointment towards the overall military and strategic situation, he was overjoyed to welcome a visit or praise from Hitler, only to return to depression the next day when faced with reality.

The example of Erwin Rommel is a cautionary tale of what can happen when a brilliant and honorable man comes under the spell of a demagogue. Rommel believed Hitler and blindly followed him until he ran into the hard face of reality in Africa at which point he had the moral courage to do the right thing, but many others didn’t.

Sadly there are otherwise honorable men and women in the current United States military that blindly support a delusional madman who happens to be the President: a man who promises to order soldiers to commit war crimes, who threatens to jail political opponents, who condemns whole races of people and religions, who incites violence against his opponents, a man who has no respect for the courts, the law, or the Constitution to which they are sworn to defend.

But I think that we also have to remember the men like Rommel who though not a true believer in the Nazi cause and polices, not only willingly served the Reich, but basked in the adulation lavished on him by friends and foes alike.

To me this is not about partisan politics but something that is bigger than politics, bigger than temporary political advantage, bigger than any single political issue, for which in our country, at least for the moment, that there are many ways to express dissent which were not available to most Germans of Rommel’s era. It is about the Constitution, the rule of law, and the foundational principles of the Declaration of Independence.

Personally, as a historian I cannot understand the blind obedience in the face of the evidence; but then I blindly followed President George Bush into the ill-advised and criminal invasion of Iraq. It was in the desert of Iraq’s Al Anbar Province that I had my own revelation that the man I supported had led the country into a war that could not be won. Like Rommel at El Alamein, it opened my eyes to things that I had never seen before.

Peace,

Padre Steve+

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Filed under ethics, History, leadership, Military, nazi germany, Political Commentary, world war two in europe

Repeating Historical Myths: The Trump Administration and the “Stab in the Back”

stab-in-the-back

Friends of Padre Steve’s World,

In light of the many flagrant lies, historical myths and conspiracy theories being floated by President Trump and his supporters  is always appropriate to look at examples of the power of those myths in the lives of nations and their influence on citizens.

It is true that some myths can be positive and inspiring so long as they remain recognized as myth. But myths which are believed as truth lead to conspiracy theories, false accusations and the demonization of others. The vast majority of the time this is done for the purpose of inciting hatred against political, social or religious opponents, or to justify indefensible polices at home or abroad.

Myths also can be used to perpetuate false beliefs about other countries that influence policy decisions, including the decision to go to war that ultimately doom those that believe them. There are many times in history where leaders of nations and peoples embrace myths about their history even when historical, biographical and archeological evidence points to an entirely different record.  Myths are powerful in the way that they inspire and motivate people. They can provide a cultural continuity as a people celebrates the key events and people that shaped their past, even if they are not entirely true.  At the same time myths can be dangerous when they cause leaders and people to make bad choices and actually become destructive.

A good example of this is the Stab in the Back myth that began after the armistice that ended the First World War, as well as the false beliefs held by Hitler and other Nazi leaders about the United States.

Just two days ago President Trump’s Chief Economic Advisor Larry Kudlow accused Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau of “stabbing President Trump in the back” following the G7 meeting in Quebec. The choice of words was not only unfortunate but buttresses every action that the President has taken to delegitimatize faithful allies and partners since long before his inauguration.  In doing so he embraced an infamous term used so often by the Nazis and others on the German right following the defeat of Germany in the First World War.

After the war the belief that the German Army was not defeated but was betrayed by the German people, especially those of the political left.  Like all myths there was an element of truth in the “stab in the back” myth, there were revolts against the Monarchy of Kaiser Wilhelm II and even mutiny on elements of the German High Seas Fleet and Army units stationed in Germany. However the crisis had been brought about by General Ludendorff who until the last month of the war refused to tell the truth about the gravity of Germany’s position to those in the German government.

So when everything came crashing down in late October and early November 1918 the debacle came as a surprise to most Germans.  The myth arose because the truth had not been told by Ludendorff who was arguably the most powerful figure in Germany from 1916-1918.  In the looming crisis which included Ludendorff’s collapse and relief, General Wilhelm Groener presented the facts to the Kaiser and insisted on his abdication.  The Republic that was proclaimed on the 9th of November was saddled with the defeat and endured revolution, civil war and threats from the extreme left and right.  When it signed the Treaty of Versailles it accepted the sole responsibility of Germany for the war and its damages. Ordered to dismantle its military, cede territory that had not been lost in battle and pay massive reparations the legend of the “stab in the back” gained widespread acceptance in Germany.

Hitler always believed that the defeat of Germany in the First World War was due to the efforts of internal enemies of the German Reich on the home front and not due to the fact that the German army was collapsing, the U-Boat campaign had failed, and the Navy’s High Seas Fleet was hopelessly outnumbered and incapable of defeating the Royal Navy and breaking the blockade that was strangling Germany.

The Stab in the Back was a fundamental belief of Hitler and was expressed in his writings, speeches and actions.  The internal enemies of Germany for Hitler included the Jews, as well as the Socialists and Communists who he believed were at the heart of the collapse on the home front.  Gerhard Weinberg believes that the effect of this misguided belief on Hitler’s actions has “generally been ignored” by historians. (Germany, Hitler and World War II p. 196)

Hitler believed that those people and groups that perpetrated the “stab in the back” were “beguiled by the by the promises of President Wilson” (World in the Balance p.92) in his 14 Points.  Thus for him Americans were in part responsible for undermining the German home front, something that he would not allow to happen again.  In fact Hitler characterization of Wilson’s effect on the German people in speaking about South Tyrol.  It is representative of his belief about not only the loss of that region but the war: “South Tyrol was lost by those who, from within Germany, caused attrition at the front, and by the contamination of German thinking with the sham declarations of Woodrow Wilson.” (Hitler’s Second Book p.221)

While others will note Hitler’s lack of respect for the potential power of the United States, no other author that I am familiar with links Hitler’s actions and the reaction of the German political, military and diplomatic elites to the entry of the United States into the war to the underlying belief in the “stab in the back.”   Likewise Hitler had little regard for the military abilities or potential of the United States. Albert Speer notes that Hitler believed “the Americans had not played a very prominent role in the war of 1914-1918,” and that “they would certainly not withstand a great trial by fire, for their fighting qualities were low.” (Inside the Third Reich: Memoirs by Albert Speer p.121)

Hitler not only dismissed the capabilities of the Americans but also emphasized the distance that they were from Germany and saw no reason to fear the United States when “he anticipated major victories on the Eastern Front.” (Germany Hitler and World War II p.92)   Hitler’s attitude was reflected by the majority of the military high command and high Nazi officials. Ribbentrop believed that the Americans would be unable to wage war if it broke out “as they would never get their armies across the Atlantic.” (History of the German General Staff, Walter Goerlitz, p.408).  General Walter Warlimont notes the “ecstasy of rejoicing” found at Hitler’s headquarters after Pearl Harbor and the fact that the he and Jodl at OKW caught by surprise by Hitler’s declaration of war. (Inside Hitler’s Headquarters 1939-1945 pp.207-209) Kenneth Macksey notes Warlimont’s comments about Hitler’s beliefs; that Hitler “tended to dismiss American fighting qualities and industrial capability,” and that Hitler “regarded anyone who tried to show him such information [about growing American strength] as defeatist.”(Why the Germans Lose at War, Kenneth Macksey, p.153.)

Others like Field Marshal Erwin Rommel record the disregard of senior Nazis toward American capabilities in weaponry.  Quoting Goering who when Rommel discussed 40mm anti-aircraft guns on aircraft that were devastating his armored forces Goering replied “That’s impossible. The Americans only know how to make razor blades.” (The Rommel Papers edited by B.H. Liddell-Hart p.295) Rommel was one of the few German commanders who recognized the folly of Hitler’s declaration of war on the United States noting that “By declaring war on America, we had brought the entire American industrial potential into the service of Allied war production. We in Africa knew all about the quality of its achievements.” (The Rommel Papers p.296)

When one also takes into account the general disrespect of the German military for the fighting qualities of American soldiers though often with good reason (see Russell Weigley’s books Eisenhower’s Lieutenants and The American Way of War) one sees how the myth impacted German thought.  This is evidenced by the disparaging comments of the pre-war German military attaché to the United States; General Boeticher, on the American military, national character and capability. (See World in the Balance pp. 61-62)

The overall negative view held by many Germans in regard to the military and industrial power and potential of the United States reinforced other parts of the myth. Such false beliefs served to bolster belief in the stab-in-the back theory as certainly the Americans could not have played any important role in the German defeat save Wilson’s alleged demoralization of the German population.  This was true not only of Hitler, but by most of his retinue and the military, diplomatic and industrial leadership of the Reich. Hitler’s ultimate belief shaped by the stab-in-the back and reinforced by his racial views which held the United States to be an inferior mongrel people. This led him to disregard the impact that the United States could have in the war and ultimately influenced his decision to declare war on the United States, a decision that would be a key factor in the ultimate defeat of Germany.

Myth can have positive value, but myth which becomes toxic can and often does lead to tragic consequences. All societies have some degree of myth in relationship to their history including the United States.  The myths are not all the same, various subgroups within the society create their own myth surrounding historic events. The danger is that those myths can supplant reason in the minds of political, military, media and religious figures and lead those people into taking actions that work to their own detriment or even destruction.

Today the President leads the way in promoting lies patently false myths in the name of his personal greatness which he shrouds himself while conflating that with making America great again all the while endangering the country. He has been promoting conspiracy theories for nearly a decade and has never stopped doing so or offered an apology for those words.

It is the duty of historians, philosophers and others in the society to ensure that myth does not override reality to the point that it moves policy both domestic and foreign in a manner that is ultimately detrimental to the nation.  The lesson of history demonstrated by myths surrounding the German defeat and role of the United States in that defeat shows just how myth can drive a nation to irrational, evil and ultimately tragic actions not only for that nation and its people, but for the world.

Sadly, it appears that the United States led by President Trump is following the path of Hitler’s Germany in terms of how it views the world and treats other nations and history will not be kind to us.

Peace,

Padre Steve+

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