Book Review: The Rommel Papers

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The Rommel Papers
are the incomplete memoirs of senior military commander Erwin Rommel that avoided burning by the author himself while under investigation by the gestapo, and remained hidden with the cooperation of friends and family after Hitler forced him to commit suicide on the grounds of suspected treason.

Kept safe from the hands of the Nazis and Soviets, and recovered from their secret locations or American possession following the culmination of the Second World War, Captain Liddell-Hart along with Paul Findlay have done a great justice helping bring Rommel's remarkable story to publication. From his exploits in France, to his daring feats in Africa that earned him stardom and prestige; infamy that would just as quickly be stripped from him by his fellow colleagues and jealous peers amidst the hunt for a scapegoat; and leading up to the tragic final days recalled by his son Manfred.

Paul Findlay's translation succeeds not just in accuracy, but in ensuring the life and voice of the author are preserved. Rich in detail, Rommel takes the reader along for a lucid and gripping journey, allowing active access to the military mastermind and the personal letters of a loving husband and father. One can feel the weight of every decision and the impact on the loyal soldiers under his command. It can't be helped to bond with him during the heart-racing close-calls that led to his nickname: The Desert Fox. And readers are not the only ones enamored by these exotic African escapades.

"Moreover, Rommel became much more than a bogey to the British. Awe for his dynamic generalship developed into an almost affectionate admiration for him as a man... fostered by the way that he maintained in African warfare the decencies of the soldierly code, and by his own chivalrous behavior towards the many prisoners of war he met in person. He became the hero of the Eighth Army who were fighting against him -- to such an extent that... when wanting to say that someone had done a good job of any kind on their own side, to describe it as "doing a Rommel". (Liddell-Hart, page '3' of Introduction)

Editor B.H. Liddell-Hart has outdone himself providing footnotes where necessary for clarification, or cross-analyses with other accounts like Montgomery's that serve both to legitimize as well as correct Rommel's story. Such mistakes made by Rommel are not due to "intentions to falsify the balance-sheet" (Liddell-Hart, page '1' of Introduction) as in the cases of Napoleon and Caesar, but instead are the result of working with limited information and using that to make conjectures and educated estimates that he did not have the opportunity to revisit.

Even so, a shocking amount of Rommel's guesswork and Zoltar-esque theorizing ultimately comes true. Over the course of the war we watch his hopes crumble and his fears become reality as he struggles against fate itself, most of it unfolding before his demise, the rest in hind-sight. With this knowledge in mind, I can't help but wonder how differently the war may have turned out had he been listened to and granted more control. Maybe blunders such as Stalingrad, the fall of Africa, and the Italian debacle could've been avoided had he been given the trust he deserved.

Maybe now in that alternate universe I'd be writing auf Deutsch about "The Churchill Chronicles".

His conflict with both Hitler and Mussolini are best distilled in Sun Tzu's "Art of War", where it states that interference from the sovereign in the execution of a battle spells inevitable defeat for the functionally hindered general. We observe this play out like a broken record in Rommel's memoirs, where supply quotas fall short over and over, while more and more is increasingly expected of him and his men who must figure out how to obey suicidal orders from the Fuhrer. Orders that would be the beginning of the end for Rommel's loyalty to Hitler.

From the outset, Liddell-Hart establishes himself as a reliable source, demonstrating prior to the beginning of Rommel's story that he is well-read on the subject of military history. This continued approach bolsters the overall objectivity of the work with an additional wealth of information and perspective, solidifying the integrity of The Rommel Papers on the whole. It's partly thanks to this -- and also thanks to trustworthy contributions made by Rommel's close subordinate Fritz Bayerlein, and son Manfred Rommel -- that I strongly recommend history buffs, World War II geeks, and those who are researching military philosophy should pick up this gem. Its impartial execution on behalf of Findlay and Liddell-Hart is worthy of high praise, and of course Rommel's shared tactical and strategical genius, and wisdom regarding what qualities constitute great men -- in addition to his faults and mistakes laid bare -- offers a lot to be learned.

As with most of history, there is debate as to the true motivations and intentions that were the driving forces behind the Desert Fox. What exactly was his involvement in the 20 July Plot, an assassination attempt on Hitler? It's clear that Rommel had some sort of contact and sympathies with many of those involved, although the specifics and extent of this is uncertain. On the contrary, he was also openly critical of the whole ordeal, but could that have been to cover for himself? Liddell-Hart does not avoid these murky territories that would most certainly have a huge impact on Rommel's image, but he makes sure to specify what little is known compared to the great amount of conjecture.

If nothing else, Rommel wielded the pen like he did the sword, as can be seen from the passage "On the way we saw the bodies of several British soldiers lying beside some destroyed anti-tank guns. Arabs had plundered the bodies and robbed them of their clothing. There was nothing to be seen of these ghouls, which was fortunate for them, for they would otherwise have had something to remember us by." (Rommel, 406). He blitzkriegs his t's, fausts his i's, and unlike myself still manages the rare stroke of humor. Thanks to first-rate translation and editing, Rommel's compelling tale will pull you into the backseat of his command vehicle and have you cheering on and sympathizing with a human being fighting on the wrong side for what so far appear to be the right reasons, winning the hearts of friend and foe alike; preserving in ink the honor of his fellow men who died serving their country first and an ideology second, and their view of the events that shaped our world today.

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Rommel, Erwin, Fritz Bayerlein, and Manfred Rommel. The Rommel Papers. Ed. Basil Henry Liddell-Hart. Trans. Paul Findlay. 15th ed. New York: Da Capo, 2003. Print.
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