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Introductions: Three Portraits
In December 1940 the lord mayor of Heidenheim, a small town fifty miles east of Stuttgart, sent a Christmas gift parcel to Wehrmacht troops born in the town and now serving abroad. It contained a fir branch as a token of the trees that decorated their homes, Magenbrot (locally made biscuits), cigars and a color postcard of Major General Erwin Rommel, Heidenheim’s most famous son.
Rommel was forty-nine years old and had commanded the 7th Panzer Division during the invasion of France. The spectacular success of his armored blitzkrieg made him the first divisional commander to reach the English Channel coast and his name was celebrated throughout Germany. Jealous voices in the Oberkommando der Wehrmacht (High Command of the Armed Forces) already whispered that he was Hitler’s favorite general, but the troops applauded him and none more than those also born in Heidenheim. One soldier replied to the mayor:
"My greatest thanks for the Rommel card. This picture catches our general exactly as he is in real life. Hard and relentless on himself and his men. It was with this face that he himself fired a round from a flare gun into the vision slit of a French tank, forcing it to retire. This is “our Rommel.” Can I ask you to send me more cards for my comrades?"
Although sent ostensibly by the mayor of Heidenheim, the parcel was funded by the local branch of the National Socialist Party. The postcard had been reproduced from a portrait painted by war artist Wolfgang Willrich. Sergeant Willrich believed that art should portray the “heroic ideal” defined in racial as well as military terms and had produced a book of drawings, Des edlen ewiges Reich (The Everlasting Nobility of the Reich). He was recruited by Propaganda Minister Joseph Goebbels and attached to the Propaganda Company that traveled with the 7th Division in its thrust across France.
The portrait of Rommel showed him in uniform and greatcoat with a cap and goggles, wearing the Knight’s Cross of the Iron Cross and the Pour le Mérite. War correspondent Hanns Gert von Esebeck described in print the Rommel caught on canvas by Willrich: “He has a high forehead, a strong, forceful nose, prominent cheekbones, a narrow mouth with tight lips, and a chin of great determination. The strong lines around his nostrils and the corners of his mouth relax only when he smiles. His clear blue eyes, penetrating and focused, reveal the cunning that marks the man.”
At the end of the war the victorious Allies portrayed Rommel for reasons of their own as “the good German” and “conspirator against Hitler.” Much was made of the fact that he had never joined the Nazi Party. But neither did Willrich, who considered his work to be a record of racial purity and who in his portrait of the general caught a quite different Rommel. Here was the original Rommel formed by the nationalist bias of the Second Reich in which he grew up and the war academy he attended as a young man. He was a nationalist and a devout believer in the Führer, and cooperated happily with both the portrait painter and the propaganda minister in presenting an image not only of the victory of the Wehrmacht over its enemies but also of the German superiority that they defined in racial terms. Rommel appears to have had no problem with that and accepted Willrich as happily as he did Lieutenant Karl-August Hanke, the “Party man” attached to the 7th Division: “I won’t have to watch my tongue, but some of the others will be on guard.” When Goebbels wrote in his diary that Rommel was “not just sympathetic to the National Socialists; he is a National Socialist,” he was aware of the general’s non-membership but implying a deeper identity. Willrich saw this too and caught it brilliantly on canvas: an innate sense of superiority that fed the darkest roots of Nazi doctrine.
Thousands of copies of the Willrich portrait were printed by the Volksbund für das Deutschtum im Ausland (National
League for Germans Abroad) and distributed among the troops. So popular had the general become that poster-size reproductions were printed by the Propaganda Ministry and several of these appeared in the windows of Heidenheim. Its citizens were proud that this hero of the Reich was one of them.
It was this portrait, rather than any photograph of his foe, that Montgomery chose to hang above the desk in his command caravan, perhaps because this was the Rommel—fiercely nationalist, devoted to the Führer, convinced of ultimate German victory—that he had to defeat before the course of the war, and the deepest beliefs of the man himself, could be changed.
Erwin Johannes Eugen Rommel was born in Heidenheim in the German state of Württemberg on Sunday, November 15, 1891. According to his sister, Helena, the boy who was to become the much feared “Desert Fox” began life as “a very gentle and docile child who took after his mother. He had a white skin and hair so pale that we called him the ‘white bear.’?”
The Germans knew Württemberg as “the home of common sense,” a backhanded compliment meant to indicate the population’s lack of intellect and sophistication, and at first Erwin appeared true to type. Helena noted that he spoke slowly and spent all his leisure time “in the fields and woods.” His father (also called Erwin) was a schoolteacher in Heidenheim and this was not the bookish son he might have expected. When Erwin senior was appointed headmaster of the Realgymnasium (which prepared pupils for university) in nearby Aalen the difference between them widened. School life was difficult for the headmaster’s son, who lagged behind his classmates in every academic subject.
The father-son relationship was saved by a glider. Erwin junior was obsessed by airplanes and airships, and when he was fourteen he and his friend Keitel decided to build a full-size glider in a field near Aalen. They had hopes that it might really fly but to get the aerodynamics right required a number of complex mathematical calculations. His father’s obsession was mathematics and in this project the two found common ground. The two boys built the glider, and although they had no way of getting it off the ground, Erwin was so convinced of its aerodynamic qualities that he persuaded anyone who would listen (and some of his later biographers) that it flew for thirty yards.
From this came a decision as the end of his schooldays approached: to become an engineer in the Zeppelin works at Friedrichshafen. Erwin senior, unhappy with any child of his working in a factory but aware that Erwin was not destined for university, came to a commonsense conclusion: the best career for a young man who excelled in practical and outdoor pursuits was the army. The officer class was still largely dominated by the Prussian aristocracy (the “vons”) but had opened up to the bourgeoisie and a headmaster’s son stood a fair chance. The idea of a military career appealed to him and particularly the thought of joining the engineers. The army, however, did not see Erwin Rommel as prime officer material and his father’s letter of support hardly helped by describing his highest quality as “good at gymnastics.” His application was rejected by the engineers and next by the artillery. If the infantry had not accepted him he might have ended up in the Zeppelin works, where his best friend, Keitel, had already found work.
On July 19, 1910, at Weingarten, a small garrison town near Stuttgart, the eighteen-year-old Rommel enlisted in the 124th Württemberg Infantry Regiment as a Fahnenjunker (officer cadet). Württemberg had been one of several states brought together with Prussia in 1871 to form the German Reich. In this new country, only twenty years older than Rommel himself, the one institution that immediately took on a national identity was the Imperial German Army, with the kaiser as its supreme commander. Rommel earnestly adopted this nationalist ethos, becoming for the first time aware of himself as a German rather than a Württemberger, fiercely loyal to Kaiser Wilhelm II and the Reich.
While attending the Königliche Kriegsschule in Danzig for officer training he met Lucie Maria Mollin at a ball held in the officers’ mess. She was a slim, dark-haired language student and despite their differences—she wished to attend every dance held in the city; he was eager to save every pfennig for the motorcycle he wanted—they became lovers. Lucie’s mother was not happy about the relationship: the Mollins were Catholic and the Rommels were Protestant. Erwin and Lucie agreed secretly that they would eventually marry but told no one.
Rommel graduated from the Kriegsschule without distinguishing himself. The training officer who filled in his final report described him as “of medium height, thin and physically rather awkward and delicate...firm in character with immense willpower and a keen enthusiasm...with a strong sense of duty.” He was considered to be merely “average” in all marking categories except one: “Führung—Gut” (Leadership—Good).
He and Lucie celebrated his graduation by having their photograph taken. She wore a flared suit and wide-brimmed hat, he the high-collared tunic and Pickelhaube (spiked helmet) of an infantry officer, his hands stuck firmly in the pockets of a greatcoat that bulked out his wiry frame. The middle-class provincial boy had made something of himself; in the new Reich civilians were expected to step from the pavement into the road to give precedence to officers in uniform. He was shortsighted in one eye and sometimes sported a monocle, Prussian style, rather than the pince-nez spectacles his father wore. But he was not one of the “vons” and, as he would discover more than thirty years later, when they still predominated in the General Staff, the greatest of victories on the battlefield could not alter that.
In January 1912 he was commissioned as a second lieutenant and rejoined his regiment at its barracks in the old monastery in Weingarten. The kaiser was building up his army and navy in preparation for the great battle that most believed must eventually come. Germany felt itself hemmed in by Russia to the east and France to the west, and when France agreed to assist Russia in any future European war this hardened into a sense of being surrounded. The entente cordiale between France and Britain made a potential enemy of the latter too. The nationalist fervor of the Reich included a deeply felt suspicion that these nations would use any means to prevent Germany taking its rightful place among the European nations.
Rommel’s main tasks at Weingarten were the drilling and training of new recruits. Now that they were apart he wrote to Lucie every day, but to keep their continuing relationship secret from her mother he sent his letters care of the Danzig post office instead of to her home. Each one began “Meine liebste Lu” and was signed “Dein Erwin.” They were a lover’s letters and on March 28 he told her, “I’m looking forward hugely to your long letter. I hope you’re going to make it really intimate.”
If this relationship was kept from Lucie’s mother, a matter just as crucial was kept from Lucie herself. In Weingarten he was seeing a teenage fruit seller, Walburga Stemmer, and in the spring of 1913 Walburga gave birth to his illegitimate daughter, Gertrud. There is no evidence that he considered “doing the right thing.” By then Lieutenant Rommel had made the army his “first family” and, in the unwritten ethos of the officer corps, a fruit seller was an impossible match if he hoped for further advancement. There was even a word for it: Kavaliersdelikt (gentleman’s mistake). Rommel knew the child would be seen as an unfortunate slip that need not harm his career; marrying the mother would abruptly end it. He informed Walburga that he would support the child financially. At the same time he confessed all to Lucie and their “understanding” continued.
When war came to Europe in 1914 no one was quite sure why. It was as if the European nations had prepared for it and now that its time had come any cause would do, and the assassination of Archduke Ferdinand was suitably bloody. In the first week of August Germany declared war on Russia and France, and Britain declared war on Germany. Rommel, like most Germans, saw the war as a defensive act against the hostile alliance of Britain, France and Russia. He described the scene at the regimental barracks in Weingarten on August 6, the day that the 124th Infantry expected the order to mobilize:
"I greeted the men of 7th Company whom I would lead into battle. Their young faces beamed with joy and anticipation. Nothing could be better than leading such soldiers against an enemy. At 1800 hours Colonel Haas inspected his regiment of riflemen—all in field gray—and just then the mobilization order came through. The cheering of young Germans eager for battle rang through the ancient cloister."
The young man whose first career choice had been the airship factory was going to fight for the kaiser and the Reich. His only concern was that he might reach the front too late for the first battle.
In London on February 26, 1944, George Bernard Shaw, then eighty-eight years old, visited the Chelsea studio of his friend Augustus John. Britain’s leading portrait painter, John had painted Thomas Hardy, W. B. Yeats, Dylan Thomas and Shaw himself. Now his latest subject had expressed a wish to meet the playwright.
John’s studio was located on Tite Street. Outside, a chauffeur sat waiting in a Rolls-Royce. As Shaw reached the top of the stairs he found John with brush and palette in hand. Sitting stiffly upright on the dais, in beret, battle dress and medal ribbons, was General Bernard Montgomery. Shaw was struck first of all by his diminutive stature—only five feet seven inches, with a head that seemed too small for even his slender frame—compared with the hugeness of his reputation, lauded by the prime minister, Winston Churchill, and fêted by the British public for his victory over Rommel’s Deutsches Afrika Korps. Then he noted the details: “What a nose! What eyes!”
Surprisingly, there was an immediate rapport between the clean-shaven soldier and the exuberantly bearded playwright. Shaw attempted, without success, to persuade Monty of the importance of the beard as an attribute of greatness. They did agree that only 5 percent of generals were good at their jobs. Shaw wrote later that he was surprised to discover a soldier intelligent enough to want to talk to him at all.
After the sitting Montgomery returned by Rolls-Royce to his 21st Army Group headquarters, established in St. Paul’s School in Hammersmith, which he had attended as a boy. The school had been evacuated and from there he was planning the D-Day landings and the invasion of occupied France. Eisenhower, as supreme commander, had delegated this task to Monty, who would command all Allied ground troops during the initial phase of the war in Europe before handing control back to Ike. Montgomery wrote wryly: “My office was located in the room of the High Master. Although I had been a school prefect, I had never entered that room before. I had to become a Commander-in-Chief to do so.”