December 19, 1977 12:00 PM

Even before the recent terrorist execution of industrialist Hanns Martin Schleyer, furious West Germans were clamoring for vengeance against the murderous radicals who had shaken their nation. One of the few voices of calm was that of Stuttgart Mayor Manfred Rommel, 49. When three of the terrorists committed suicide in prison, Rommel overrode vehement local opposition to permit their burial in his city. (“Death,” he declared, “ends all hostilities. “) He has also defended several alleged terrorist “sympathizers” (including Nobel laureate author Heinrich Böll) against public vilification.

Unflinching leadership in the face of adversity is apparently a trait that runs in the family. The mayor’s father was Field Marshal Erwin Rommel, the legendary Desert Fox, commander of Germany’s World War II Afrika Korps. One of the Allies’ most feared and respected antagonists, the elder Rommel was forced to drink poison in 1944 after it was discovered he was plotting to help overthrow Hitler. The Third Reich then staged an elaborate public funeral. Young Manfred, only 15 at the time of his father’s death, later attended law school, became an early member of Konrad Adenauer’s Christian Democratic Union party, and enjoyed a distinguished civil service career. He was elected mayor of Stuttgart in 1974. Affectionately nicknamed Desert Füchsle—Little Desert Fox—Mayor Rommel recently discussed his father, and his own attitudes toward German terrorism, with Franz Spelman for PEOPLE.

How would you describe your relationship with your father?

He still dominates an essential part of my subconscious. In my youth I was a rebel, and considering the hard tasks my father liked me to undertake perhaps this wasn’t entirely unjustified. For instance, when I was about 5 years old, before I had learned to swim, Father handed me a life belt and told me to jump in the pool from a 10-foot-high diving tower. Naturally I refused. Whereupon he told me what he often repeated to me afterward: “In life one is given the chance either to show or not to show courage. Courage seeks out its users.”

Was there constant conflict between you?

Certainly not. Father wished to mold me in his image, and it particularly grieved him that I never understood his pet science, mathematics, even though he sat down with me for hours to explain calculus. He often told me that I was hopeless. But this did not prevent me from admiring his aggressive courage and his deep sense of tolerance. Though our tempers and opinions differed, we still had a very close relationship.

Were you a National Socialist [a Nazi] in those years?

Of course. There was no other choice, and no way to develop any critical thought. I was a total victim of the propaganda, dizzied by meaningless slogans, the beauty of that dashing black-and-silver uniform, the pomp of the ceremonies—and, in the background, the Führer looming remote and magnificent. In the Third Reich it was virtually impossible to escape this sorcery. One became blinded by the esthetics of it. My father also fell under the spell for a while. But he soon sobered up.

When two SS generals came to your house to arrest your father, did you know you would never see him again?

We had expected this for two months, and had freely discussed it. Gestapo men in plain clothes stayed in front of our house day and night. This enraged Father, and he ordered an army guard to be posted at the gate 24 hours a day. “I’m not ready to be shot down by those bastards at midnight,” he said. “That simple I won’t make it for them.” His precautions, of course, were to no avail. Later we found out how well the entire procedure had been plotted in advance. Even before they arrested him, they had drafted the cables of condolence which Hitler was to send. The official statements had been prepared, the funeral arrangements completed, the wreaths woven, the speeches written. Everything went like clockwork.

Didn’t news of your father’s forced suicide reach the German people?

No. Before it happened, my father admonished me: “If anything happens to me, keep your mouth shut. If they found out you talked, they would come for you too.”

Isn’t this reminiscent of the ruthlessness of today’s German terrorists?

One is liable to forget that the terror, both in its cruelty and the perfection of its execution, was infinitely more frightening and efficient under the Nazis. It emanated not from a small group but from the state, and it affected everyone. Unfortunately the lesson seems to have been largely forgotten. The generation which came afterward seems unable to imagine what this meant. The tendency of youth is to resist being told. This might help explain the attitude of today’s terrorists.

Do you think the current terrorism is a peculiarly German phenomenon?

Terrorist impulses can be found everywhere. But we in Germany are at a disadvantage to combat them because of our traumatic experience during the Weimar Republic that preceded Hitler. The Weimar government tried hard to be tolerant. They let the Communists have their say, and let the Nazis have their say, in the hope that the cause of freedom would triumph anyway. It proved to be a fatal mistake.

Do you believe that Germany can rid itself of terrorism?

Yes. But to achieve this it will be mandatory to convince people to call a crime a crime. It is equally criminal if somebody wants to murder me because he is after my wallet or because he doesn’t share my political beliefs.

Do you advocate capital punishment?

Certainly not. Above everything else, we Germans must aim at the most radical separation from our past. It is lethally dangerous to surrender freedom because of the fear of losing it. That is the greatest danger posed by terrorism.

Then how can we fight terrorists?

By educating people toward tolerance. Freedom, above all, means granting freedom for the other person. I personally happen to know some anarchists who are ardent pacifists, against the use of any force. There is only one criterion which separates so-called sympathizers from the terrorists themselves: whether or not they remain within the law.

Why did you allow the terrorists to be buried in Stuttgart?

If I hadn’t, those bodies would still be unburied. A quick decision had to be made. Leaving it for the city council to decide would have resulted in 60 different opinions. I wanted to save the world from the spectacle of Germany being unable to bury three terrorists.

How would you describe your philosophical outlook?

I am a Christian liberal. I’m not a very pious man, but I am a believer. This doesn’t mean that I withdraw into my faith, or that I feel I must shut the mouths of nonbelievers. I believe that the Christian faith in freedom can stand on its own. This at least is what life has taught me and where my father, even though he couldn’t teach me calculus, planted the roots.

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