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- Published on Amazon.com
David Fraser's "Knight's Cross" is a good book - it just isn't a particularly good biography. My hunch would be that most prospective readers are interested in learning about Rommel's legendary campaigns, especially those with the Afrika Korps, and this book certainly delivers on that account. Fraser is better known as a novelist, and his writing reflects that heritage. He keeps the drama high and openly professes his admiration for Rommel, both as a military leader and a man.
As a biography, though, "Knight's Cross" fails to deliver much meaningful insight into the subject's true character. Rather than providing a deep and rich background on Rommel's formative experiences growing up in southern Germany, with his siblings and family, at school, with personal relationships in the army, the company he kept during the Weimar years and so on, Fraser instead relies on clichés and generalizations. For instance, the book is over 550 pages long, yet by page 50 Rommel is already a gallant and increasingly renowned 26-year-old infantry officer on the Western Front. The rest of the book reads like a military history with a central character, rather than a biography of a great man that happened to become a field marshal. Fraser only mentions parenthetically that Rommel had two brothers and a sister, and his relationship with his parents is left totally unexplored, as are his religious beliefs (which is particularly disappointing given the fact that so many of his future letters to his [Catholic] wife Lucy are laced with references to God's will). Instead, Fraser seems content to offer up his assessment that "Rommel was a Swabian [area of Germany he grew up in] through-and-through" (whatever that's supposed to mean) and then hurry on to the presumably more interesting topics of his later battlefield exploits.
The above notwithstanding, Erwin Rommel is certainly a compelling subject for a full-length biography. Especially interesting was his unusual relationship to the two things that made him famous: armored warfare and Adolf Hitler.
To many, Rommel is synonymous with blitzkrieg and the genius of the Wehrmacht's combined arms doctrine developed during the interwar period. Despite his association with the panzer force and his reputation for military genius, Rommel was an infantryman by training and was passed over for membership in Germany's elite General Staff system, a snub he never quite got over. His first hands-on experience with armored units only came, unbelievably enough, as a divisional commander during the invasion of France in 1940. He managed to pull off such an unlikely feat, Fraser suggests, thanks to the personal intervention of Hitler himself.
Rommel's relationship with Hitler (and Goebbels) was close, although Fraser is adamant that Rommel was never a Nazi. The field marshal clearly supported most of the regime's policies, felt the war was just and attributed Nazi excesses to the Furher's leading acolytes, such as Bormann and Himmler. To Hitler, Rommel exemplified everything a German soldier ought to be: aggressive, courageous, indefatigable, and unpretentious. In return, Rommel was genuinely impressed with Hitler's accomplishments and abilities. It was a relationship based on mutual admiration that, strangely enough, ended with one being implicated in a plot to kill the other. Fraser does an admirable job in reviewing and assessing the evidence tying Rommel to the failed 20 July attendat and comes to the conclusion that he likely knew that something was afoot, but wasn't an active conspirator. Moreover, Fraser argues that by the summer of 1944 Rommel felt that a negotiated peace with the western allies was essential to save Germany from utter destruction, but that he also felt that the murder of Hitler was wrong and, if successfully carried out, was unlikely to be supported by the German army and people and thus unlikely to achieve its ultimate objective of negotiated peace.
In closing, if you're looking for a fun and informative military history on one of the all-time greatest commanders, you'll likely enjoy "Knight's Cross." If, however, you're looking for a serious biography on a great commander in the mold of D'Este's biography of George Patton, for instance, you'll likely come away disappointed.