If Erwin Rommel, lauded as a master military tactician even by his enemies, had managed to fight his way through North Africa, he would have sealed the fate of thousands of Jews who had fled to Palestine from the Nazi terror in Europe.
A new documentary broadcast on Germany's ZDF television channel this week seeks to correct Rommel's image as a gentleman warrior whose campaigns in North Africa weren't connected with the murderous wars of destruction Nazi Germany unleashed in Europe.
Separately, recently published research by two Stuttgart-based historians, Klaus-Michael Mallmann and Martin Cüppers, claims that Hitler had worked out plans to extend the Holocaust to the Middle East, and that the Nazis had forged an alliance with Arab nationalists who wanted to drive the Jewish refugees out of Palestine -- a murderous version of German-Arab friendship founded on common hatred of Jews. Jews living in the Middle East were petrified by Rommel's victories. After seizing the British fortress of Tobruk in Libya in June 1942 he set his sights on the Suez Canal, on Palestine and the oil fields of the Middle East.
"Those fighting Jewry can always rely on the sympathy of the Arab population," the German army general staff wrote in an information booklet to prepare troops for the conquest of Palestine.
Arabs Shouted "Heil Rommel"
Hitler was celebrated in large parts of the Arab world, and some newspapers even likened him to the Prophet. The Desert Fox was almost as popular as Hitler. "Heil Rommel" was a common greeting in Arab countries.
Many Arabs thought the Germans would free them from the rule of the old colonial powers France and Britain. Hitler had shown how to burst the shackles of the Treaty of Versailles. After Germany defeated France in 1940, chants against the French and British echoed around the streets of Damascus: "No more Monsieur, no more Mister, Allah's in Heaven and Hitler's on earth."
Adolf Hitler assured the exiled Grand Mufti of Jerusalem, Muhammad Amin al-Husseini, at a meeting in Berlin in November 1941 that his goal was the "destruction of Jewry living in Arabia." The Führer had racist objections to Arabs as well, though. He declined to shake the Mufti's hand and refused to drink coffee with him.
Hitler nevertheless provided the Mufti, who later sponsored Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat, with a budget of 750,000 Reichsmark per month to foment Jihad in Palestine. In an example of ideological flexibility, the SS even recruited Muslim volunteers and declared that the Muslims living in the Balkans belonged to the "racially valuable" peoples of Europe.
SS Unit Created to Kill Jews in North Africa
Behind the front line of Rommel's Afrikakorps, a special unit was created in July 1942 to to plan the murder of Jews in the region. It was led by SS Obersturmbannführer, or Lieutenant Colonel, Walther Rauff, an experienced mass murderer who helped develop the mobile gassing vehicles the Germans used to murder Jewish people in their campaign in eastern Europe and the Soviet Union.
Rauff and his men were empowered to "take executive measures against the civilian population", Nazi jargon for robbery, murder and enslavement.
The Jews of Palestine were spared that fate. In October 1942 the Allies halted the German advance at the Egyptian town of El Alamein and thereby destroyed the myth of Rommel's invincibility. The Desert Fox had to evacuate his beaten army to Tunisia, back where his African campaign began.
The SS had established a network of labor camps in Tunisia. More than 2,500 Tunisian Jews died in six months of German rule, and the regular army was also involved in executions.
Rauff's men seized silver, jewellery and sacred objects. On the Tunisian island of Djerba alone, 43 kilograms of gold was taken from the local Jewish population. The SS later deposited the treasure in the sea off the island of Corsica. Ever since, the undiscovered "Rommel's Treasure" has attracted generations of treasure hunters.
Rommel's reputation was spared only because his strategy failed. He was later dispatched to Italy and then to France, where his contact with the plotters who tried to assassinate Hitler on July 20, 1944, cost him his life. He committed suicide after Hitler ordered that he be given the choice between killing himself and being tried in court.
The notion that the North African war was a clean one was a "legend", said Jörg Müllner, who made the TV documentary together with Jean-Christoph Caron. Rommel himself was no racial fanaticist, but he "paved the way for ther machinery of destruction with his victories." Consumed by ambition, he only thought of his own glory, and ignored the consequences of his campaign.