The death of Manfred Rommel last week, at 84, ended a life that might be taken as a metaphor for contemporary Germany.
The only child of Hitler's favorite field marshal, he personified in his long public life the postwar German republic that sought, in contrition for its past, some path to the future. Even in the scale of his own career, Rommel sought proportion: He could have been a candidate for the Bundestag, and might well have been chancellor or federal president. But he chose, deliberately, to be the well-respected, well-beloved mayor of Stuttgart for 21 years. A member of the (conservative) Christian Democratic Union in Baden-Württemberg, he permitted Red Army faction terrorists to be buried together in Stuttgart—"all wrath," he said, "must end with death"—and championed Germany's immigrants.
I am being a little unfair to his father. Erwin Rommel, the "Desert Fox," was no Nazi but exactly the kind of principled officer who should have resisted the Nazis from the very beginning. As it was, when his son Manfred was 15, the elder Rommel was given a choice for his part in the resistance: A show trial, execution and abuse of his family, or suicide. After Erwin Rommel's death, Manfred Rommel abandoned his post as an anti-aircraft gunner and gave himself up to French forces.
Of course, the central mystery of modern Germany is how Das Land der Dichter und Denker—the land of poets and thinkers—could surrender itself, not just to Adolf Hitler, but to the virtual abandonment of civilization in the war. It is a question without an answer, certainly no single answer. But in the postwar emergence of leaders guided by conscience, assisted by a benevolent occupation in the West, the Federal Republic began the slow process of rebuilding the structure of German nationality and, perhaps, the nature of German identity.
In that sense, since the 1991 reunification, Manfred Rommel outlived the Germany he served; and as Germany once again dominates Europe, it will be interesting to see how deeply the lessons of the 20th century have been learned. For Rommel himself, the experience was bittersweet: Witness, at close range, to depravity, heroism, and defeat, he sought not recompense but reconciliation. Surely the most moving detail of his biography is the friendship he forged, in the last third of his life, with the son of Britain's Field-Marshal Bernard Montgomery, his father's great wartime opponent. "I have," he said, "in the course of my life, thank God, known happier days."