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Posted on Apr 21, 2008 in Stuff We Like

Author POV – Rommel’s ‘War Without Hate’

By Steven Pressfield

Steven Pressfield

Steven Pressfield was born in Trinidad, British West Indies, and educated at Duke University. A former Getty Scholar and U.S. Marine, he has worked in every form of writing from advertising to screenwriting (except journalism, which he may get to some day.) He is the author of The Legend of Bagger Vance, Gates of Fire, The War of Art, and the upcoming (May 6) Killing Rommel. In 2004, the city of Sparta in Greece made him an honorary citizen.

In this article, he introduces a new ArmchairGeneral.com feature called POV – Point of View – in which authors and other experts present questions based on their research for readers to discuss in our forums; later, we’ll post the author’s own thoughts on the questions raised. Here, Pressfield raises questions about why the North Africa Campaign is known as a "war without hate."

Rommel insisted that Allied prisoners receive the same rations and care that he did.

The North Africa campaign (1940–43) of World War II was characterized by a quality rarely seen in warfare of this age or any other: chivalry. This is particularly interesting since just about every other campaign of that war produced no shortage of barbarities, atrocities, torture and genocide, with which the world is all too familiar—not to mention the outrages we see now coming from Iraq and other Middle East theaters. What made North Africa different?

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Field Marshal Erwin Rommel, who commanded the Axis forces for most of the campaign, wrote a book about his experiences there called Krieg Ohne Hass (War Without Hate). It was common practice in the North Africa campaign for machine gunners of both sides to hold their fire when enemy soldiers bailed out of shot-up tanks. Stretcher bearers were routinely permitted to dash into the open to retrieve the wounded. (Of course there were notorious exceptions; the Italians displayed the nasty habit of killing any Arabs suspected of collaborating with the British by hanging them by a hook set under their jaw.) But by and large, the troops of Archibald Wavell, Claude Auchinleck, Neil Ritchie, Bernard Montgomery, Harold Alexander, and those of Rommel and his generals behaved with remarkable restraint.

Rommel himself was one of the foremost practitioners of this knightly self-command. One famous incident reported in the British press tells of Afrika Korps troops overrunning a British field hospital in which both Axis and Allied soldiers were being cared for by the British staff, who had refused to withdraw in the face of the enemy approach but had insisted on remaining with their patients. When Rommel learned of this, he went personally to the hospital, shook the hand of every man and woman on the staff and with great emotion thanked them for their care of his men. He asked them to stay on until he could bring up his own doctors and nurses, to which the British readily agreed. Rommel deliberately did not take them prisoner (which might have set them at hazard once they were out of his direct care) but instead saw to it that they were repatriated through neutral Switzerland.

Rommel insisted that Allied prisoners receive the same rations and care that he did. Desmond Young (later a brigadier, who wrote the excellent Rommel The Desert Fox) tells the story of his own capture by the Germans. The battery that Young commanded remained unsubdued, though surrounded. An Afrika Korps officer held Young at gunpoint, demanding that Young order his men to hoist the white flag. Young told him to stuff it. The situation was getting a bit sticky, as the Brits might say, when suddenly a staff car chanced to appear, braking in a cloud of dust. Out stepped Rommel. As soon as the situation was explained to the Desert Fox, he upbraided his own officer for conduct in violation of the code of soldierly honor. The officer would have to find, Rommel declared, another way of solving the problem.

My questions are: Was this sort of chivalrous conduct merely a freak of war, an anomaly? Or were there reasons why the Germans, British and Commonwealth troops behaved by and large so decently toward one another—and, if so, what were those reasons? Can we learn something from them? Are those days gone forever?


Post a comment below to offer your answers to these questions (free site registration required). After two weeks, we’ll post the author’s own POV on the answers.

Learn more about Killing Rommel or Steven Pressfield, or watch a video at killingrommel.com.

Want to pit your skills against the British in North Africa? Check out Bill Bodden’s review of the boardgame Field Commander Rommel.

Members of the LRDG Preservation  Society kick up the dust 
Vehicle photos courtesy Long Range Desert Group Preservation Society, Jack Valenti president.

4 Comments

  1. Dear author,

    I’ve found this interesting article just a day ago.
    I have been an enthusiast amateur researcher of military history since I’ve learned reading some 33 years ago.
    Let me please share my thoughts about the topic with you.
    I think there are several reasons why the war in the North-African theater at that time could have really happen to be a “Krieg ohne Hass”, a war without hate.
    First of all, the adversaries (it is not by chance I do not write of enemies) were the citizens of two militant nations: The British Empire and Germany, both countries(and of course their ancestor states/empires) being notable for their long record of wars waged against an astonishingly high number of enemy countries/empires througout their history.
    So at the time of the North African campaign, two professional armies composed of soldiers of two highly military-minded nations had to face their adversary, for which their felt a high degree of respect, not lastly for the above mentioned reason. In this two countries, military career was a nation-wide respected occupation. When it came to granting higher military ranks and promotions, both countries were known to be highly conservative and restrictive in the sense that only a relatively low percentage of their middle to high-rank officers came from the lower social classes.
    This means that quite all the officers had ties with the aristocracy of their country and had been educated to behave as per the ancient code of chivalry and soldierly honour.
    Another important reason for the opponents to behave as you mentioned in yor article was the fact that Germans considered the British to be a “German-originated”, or “Germanly” or “German-like”, but whichever was the expression to be used, in all respects an ARIAN, pure nation.
    One of the reasons of the horrific war crimes committed by both sides on a daily bases on the eastern front was the fact that the Germans considered the Russians and all the other inhatbitants of the Soviet Union to be inferior arians (“untermensch”), to be treated at maximum as slaves, but in most cases like talking animals. The Soviets, on the other hand considered all Germans to be “fascist beasts” and treated them like that, once facing them in battle or captivity.
    The third reason for the described kind of “chivalric contest” between the Germans and British I suppose is the fact that neither parties had to battle the other on their home-ground. Even without wishing to diminish the significance and losses for both involved parties during the long years of hard fightings of the theater, it could be compared to the fightings between two medieval aristocratic armies composed of knights and paladins for a third county or barony.
    In your article you write about Feldmarschal Rommel’s deeds and chivalric behaviour. Although Rommel was not born in an aristocratic family, (this was one of the reasons why some German generals did unlike him, like von Arnim, an old aristocrat leading another army of the African theater) I think he had an innate sense of honor, paired with a superb military education from his quite early years of life, that brought him to be arguably the most respected military leader of WWII by all participants. Besides being a very good tactician, Rommel is known being the first, or one of the first modern military leaders willingly and very efiiciently employing PR and contemporary media in building his reputation of an inerring, invincible general.
    Perhaps some of his chivalric deeds were exagerated and/or augmented during the process, but there are several real and controlled proofs of his deeds and conduct.
    In his book “Krieg ohne Hass” he has written about his esteem of the British as individual soldiers more than once…

  2. Interesting question Steven.

    The chivalrous conduct experienced in North Africa apparently was based upon a common respect that each side had
    for their enemy. Both were world powers that previously combatted each other in WWI, and that loss stuck hard in
    many German’s minds. They knew they had a formidable adversary, yet the advancements they made since that
    first confrontation was indeed astounding and confidence ran high.

    However, the Germans’ other enemies included the Poles, Slavs and of course the Jews. These peoples did not earn
    the “respect” of the Germans, who looked down upon these groups as vermin.

    Even Hitler harbored chivalrous traits, oddly favoring single shot rifles to machine guns, which he perceived as
    cowardly. Valor counted against a respected foe, however, those he viewed as parasites could be brutally dealt with.
    Hitler was temporarily blinded in WWI by mustard gas, and knew how horrible and inhumane that was. Yet, he
    condone its use on exterminating the Jews. Here is where the deep belief in a foe being inferior vermin or even
    hostile to one’s own superior “Aryan” existence takes precedence, and turns ugly.

    You mention the war against Iraq, or in essence radical Islam, and this is based upon religious beliefs that are extremely deep rooted. The Koran clearly states that all infidels should be smitten at their necks. Therefore, Daniel
    Pearl’s horrible and disgusting death should not come as a shock to those that “read and know” what the Koran truly
    professes. A command from a highly sacred and allegedly irrefutable source is not something that will instill
    chivalrous behavior in its warriors.

    Radical Muslims view Americans as vermin and parasites just like Hitler viewed the Jews. That volatile core belief
    system is noxious and deadly, hence why the war against radical Islam is going to be nasty business. When “some”
    Americans see their comrades butchered it incites that primal response, which we don’t wish to see. In another light,
    however, that is actually a Biblical response, an eye for an eye. Here too, the Germans and British eventually
    condoned bombing innocent civilians in cities in lieu of military installations. It got progressively worse with the
    “eye for an eye” mentality. So just how do humans gain a proper perspective when even holy scriptures profess
    baffling and brutal actions? Hence, “all” of our sources need to be seriously examined.

    However, suicide bombers that kill innocent civilians or random attacks that brutally decapitate Christians or Jews
    will be the order of the day for this current battle. Unpleasant and unfortunate, but that appears to be the grim
    reality. Fortunately, most Muslims do not practice those brutal passages, yet their silence does not help the radicals
    in their midst that are fermenting. A message of tolerance and active grooming by peaceful Muslims would be far
    more effective than a message of tolerance emanating from the Christian or Jewish infidels. Hence, the peaceful
    Muslim community has a responsibility, and they too must take action if things are to change.

    My recent book “The Winds of Time” covers a great deal of history and analyzes the titans that shaped Western
    civilization. During that treatise the book touches upon various impetuses and ideologies that caused various wars
    throughout Western history, as well as the many great deeds that we should all examine and emulate. Yet, the fight
    for survival is always ugly business, and if we learn one major lesson from history, it’s that irreconcilable differences
    have always been a part of mankind, and conflict will always be a part of our existence. The day that every human
    being believes in the same god or the same form of government or truly believes that our different-looking,
    different-speaking earthly brothers are equals is the day that we all will reside in Heaven….as Paradise (World
    Peace) never has and never will exist on Earth.

    Not to leave off on such a negative note…there is much hope. In fact a great deal of hope, as we can learn a great deal
    by studying great leaders. There are many to chose from. In that regard, I applaud your efforts with Rommel, and in
    enlightening us to this very honorable man, even if he was our foe. We humans may strongly disagree but if we can
    at least conduct ourselves with some modicum of sanity amidst the insanity of war, that’s a plus. I look forward to
    hearing your POV.

  3. To a large extent the conduct of troops is a direct result of the conduct of commanders/leaders. Rommel was no NAZI but a professional soldier with a sense or honour to suit the noble Officer of the German Army. Once the British got wind of the way the Germans were treating their prisoners, it was easy for them to return the same treatment.

    Even those soldiers who could be termed NAZI’s would not violate the orders or conduct expected by Rommel, because they knew Rommel was a favourite of Hitler.

    In other theatres the leadership was different and so was the conduct.

    I believe of all the German Officers of WWII, if Rommel had survived, He would have been held up by the Allies as the role model the German Nazi’s should have followed conduct wise. He was not perfect but he was a compassionate and honourable man.

    This is why leaders are held responsible for the conduct of those under their leadership. If your orders are strictly followed and they are to treat the enemy with respect and honour, then your troops will do just that. If your unclear and ambiguous then you can expect bad treatment will happen. There are bad apples in every Army, but if they are on notice about conduct and they know everyone is watching then they will do whats right.

  4. The book “War Without Hate” carries 3 x authors: Gen Rommel, his wife and Rommel’s chief of staff. You can buy it at , It is unlikely that Rommel would have found the time to write a book after returning from Africa. Too much chaos, too many other things to do. He certainly would have planned to write a book because he had already written on one tactics.

    I am merely an amateur military historian. But I think that Rommel’s success in Africa was not planned. Until Rommel took responsibility in Africa, I don’t know if he was well-known. I doubt if anyone in Berlin looked at the Africa endeavor as a well-planned offensive; rather, I believe he was being sent there to bail-out the italians who were failing. Rommel, being who he was, immediately sized-up what he had & attacked — that was his characteristic; he attacked. Once the success was achieved and he was threatening Cairo & the Suez, then the german general staff realized they had a tiger by the tail & had to back this new success. This might be why the gestapo presence there was minimal. It is unlikely that Rommel would have made any public statement of a dislike for the gestapo as that would be a bad career move.

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