This month news outlets throughout the world reported that Manfred Rommel, German lawyer and three term mayor of Stuttgart, died on November 7 from complications of Parkinson’s disease. Dr. Rommel (lawyers in Germany are customarily so addressed) was the son of Field Marshal Erwin Rommel, known as the “Desert Fox” for his brilliant tactics while commanding the German Army in North Africa during World War II.
Dr. Rommel was 15 in late 1944 when his father was given a choice by two Nazi SS officers: either commit suicide or face a show trial on charges of conspiring to kill Hitler. The Nazis made a veiled threat that if he chose a trial, Erwin Rommel’s family would not be safe. He chose the former.
The rank of Field Marshal was the highest in the German Army, equivalent to five-star general in the U.S. Army. Unlike some of the other officers that attained that rank as a result of toadying to Hitler, there is little doubt that Rommel earned it through his military prowess. His talents and abilities were enlisted in service of a thoroughly bad regime, but as a career soldier he had little choice but to do his job and do it as best he could. There has never been an accusation or even suggestion that he participated in, or was even associated with, any of the Nazi war crimes. Rommel also insisted that prisoners of war be treated honorably, and hoped his adversaries would do likewise. The Americans and British, at least, generally did so. When as a callow teenager, Manfred expressed a wish to join the Waffen SS, the Nazi paramilitary fighting force, his father forbade it, and arranged for him to be posted to a Luftwaffe anti-aircraft battery at age 14.
After his father’s death, young Manfred left his post and surrendered to Free-French forces. When released he completed his preparatory education and then studied law at Tubingen University. He began a career in the civil service of the Baden-Wurttemberg state government, serving in the interior and finance ministries. He was elected mayor of Stuttgart in 1974 and held that post until his retirement in 1996.
During his tenure, Mayor Manfred Rommel met and became friends with both Major General George Patton IV, who was assigned to a U. S. Army post near Stuttgart, and Lord David Montgomery, both sons of his father’s World War II adversaries, General George S. Patton and British Field Marshal Bernard Montgomery. His friendship with these scions of former enemies went a long way toward solidifying the friendship of the postwar Federal Republic of Germany with the United States and Great Britain. Manfred Rommel is quoted “father once said during the war, ‘The best thing would be to live as a British dominion now that we’ve shown we can’t manage our own affairs.’ He was being sarcastic, of course.”
Sarcastic, perhaps, but prescient. For roughly seven years after the surrender, western Germany was indeed governed by the British and Americans. During the latter part of the occupation, and throughout the early days of the Federal Republic, Manfred Rommel was instrumental in the rebuilding, physically and spiritually, his state and country.
Possessing the name of a legendary wartime officer untainted by the Nazis, regarded by many Germans as a hero, and by former adversaries as an honorable opponent, Manfred Rommel could easily have entered national politics and conceivably become chancellor or president. He eschewed national in favor of local and state politics. One of the features of the German Constitution, written under the tutelage of American and British occupiers, was federalism and separation of powers. The prerogatives and powers of the German states were restored and strengthened. Manfred Rommel experienced firsthand the result of centralization of political power. One of the first things Hitler and the Nazis did was strip the German states of their powers, making the government in Berlin all powerful, and able to establish the totalitarian regime that it did. Possibly with that in mind, he used his talents to strengthen his city and state.
One of his acts as mayor of Stuttgart that underscored Manfred Rommel’s character occurred during his first term. He was a member of the Christian Democratic Union (CDU) (the party of the present German Chancellor Angela Merkel) regarded as center-right. He was regarded as a liberal which, in Europe, is generally analogous to an American conservative who leans libertarian. In the 1970s, West Germany was rocked by terrorist acts of the ultra-left Red Army Faction (sometimes known as the Baader-Meinhoff Gang). Many leaders of that gang had been arrested and were held in a Stuttgart prison. Several, including Ulrike Meinhoff and Andreas Baader, committed suicide there. Dr. Rommel insisted, against the wishes of many politicians and ordinary citizens, that the terrorists be given a decent burial, even though many feared that the terrorist graves would be a shrine and rallying point for their followers. Perhaps he hoped such magnanimity would help dampen the terrorist’s ardor for their cause. Despite their atrocious acts, he is reported to have said that “with a little generosity of spirit, enmity ends with death.”
But perhaps good will can live on.
Manfred Rommel was 84.
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