David Fraser - Knight's Cross: A Life of Field Marshal Erwin Rommel

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Portrait of a Desert Fox

Jan 24, 2004
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Rated a Very Helpful Review

Pros:Thorough, fascinating, well-argued book.

Cons:None come to mind.

The Bottom Line: Required reading for those with an interest in the period.

Any attempt to examine the complicated historical figure that is Erwin Rommel is a serious undertaking, indeed. It’s not something that can be readily accomplished without exhaustive research, painstaking analysis, and frankly, a hell of a lot of work. Reading David Fraser’s Knight’s Cross: A Life of Field Marshal Erwin Rommel, one gets the sense from page one that the author did all of the above in his examination of Germany’s most revered military leader. The result: a detailed, thorough, fair, and accurate portrayal of the Desert Fox.

Of course, Rommel’s military career spanned much more than the campaigns he waged in North Africa during the Second World War, as Fraser so deftly shows us. Rommel’s service to Germany actually began during World War I. It is during this period that Rommel’s tactical genius was first displayed, though it was not fully appreciated until the next war.

As the author moves us through time, he paints a portrait of Rommel as a complex and enigmatic character. A man to whom honor mattered above all else, he nevertheless fought (if unwittingly) to defend one of the most brutal regimes in history. Rommel was for a very long time Hitler’s favorite general. Hitler esteemed him highly, and the feeling was mutual.

Yet how could a man as respected as Rommel, admired not only by his own countrymen but also his opponents the likes of Patton and Montgomery, been so blind to the evils of Hitler and the Nazis? Fraser argues that Hitler’s malevolence was something most Germans of the day were blind to, and it should not be surprising that Rommel, who had fought in the Great War, would be caught up in what he saw as a rectification of the injustice done to Germany at that conflict’s conclusion.

In addition, Fraser postulates, Rommel always attributed the rumors of civilian massacres, most notably in Russia, to subordinates like Himmler. Though tragic, he thought them inevitable in war, and likely exaggerated.

That Rommel was an honorable figure is beyond doubt, and Fraser supports this contention with ample evidence. When Hitler ordered that certain enemy soldiers be summarily executed rather than treated as prisoners of war, Rommel disobeyed and destroyed the orders.

When a British South African unit was taken prisoner in the desert campaign, the white soldiers demanded that they be segregated from the black. Rommel refused this request; the two had fought together honorably, and they would be treated on an equal basis. Ironic indeed considering the racial policies of the Third Reich.

Not surprisingly, the military genius of the Desert Fox is also frequently addressed. Almost always up against larger forces of men and material, Rommel nevertheless often managed to come out on top in France and Africa. The author also argues that had more of Rommel’s initiatives been pursued to counteract the D-Day invasion, the tide of battle may well have been turned against the allies there.

Rommel’s life is examined from childhood to his death in much detail. The analysis is as impressive in depth, however, as it is in breadth. We see Rommel the man who, though clearly overshadowed by Rommel the soldier, found time when he could for the wife and son he loved so much.

Fraser also does an excellent job exploring the events occurring around Rommel, so crucial to understanding the man himself. This is especially important for the final chapters dealing with the attempted assassination on Hitler’s life.

Though it has never been proven whether or not Rommel was involved in the foiled plot, Rommel was forced to commit suicide by the Nazis because they suspected him of being a conspirator. Fraser explores this accusation at length. He makes very good arguments for the case that Rommel was likely innocent of these charges, though he believes that Rommel often made it clear after the allied invasion of Normandy that Hitler had to go if Germany was to be saved. This in itself was likely enough for the Nazis to condemn him.

One walks away from reading Knight’s Cross: A Life of Field Marshal Erwin Rommel with a firm conviction that Fraser highly admires the man. That doesn’t mean he is blind to Rommel’s faults; they are enumerated here too. In the end, however, the arguments are convincing, the admiration contagious. The reader, too, is left with a sense of respect for Rommel, his sense of honor, and his accomplishments.

Recommend this product? Yes

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