There’s something about the German Afrika Korps of WW2 that puts them apart from the rest of the Third Reich. They’re like Nazi-lite, low fat National Socialists, diet totalitarianism. You don’t see the hates directed at them as you do the rest of the Wehrmacht of the Second World War.
Don’t get me wrong, they’re still the baddies and it’s a much better thing that they didn’t win but whereas the German army and the Nazis instilled fear and hatred across Europe there’s instead a grudging respect for the Afrika Korps when you read about them. To be sure, they’re still an instrument of the Nazis but why is their reputation a whole lot better than the rest of their bretheren when their aims were the destruction of Allied forces and the expansion of the Nazi and Fascist empires?
The Korps embody the myth of the “good German soldier” of WW2: Professional, no-nonsense and honourable. Their duty to their comrades and the uniform that they wear and the dedication to the military arts overcoming the mindless obedience to Hitler and the wanton destructiveness of their counterparts in Europe. “You see, Major, we Germans aren’t all barbarians” is the kind of Hollywood quote you’ll find fits the Afrika Korps image. There are no jackboots in their uniforms, which always looked cool, and the Swastika is very discretely tucked into the stylised image of a palm tree as if to play down the Nazi connection. You only have to look at their commander, Rommel, to see this myth being perpetrated….Rommel being the image of the Good German Soldier itself. Handsome, stylish, utterly professional and with a code of honour of fighting a “clean” war which led to his involvement in the July 1944 assassination plot on Hitler, it glosses over his willing participation in the Third Reich’s military conquests and the fact that he was a reluctant conspirator in 1944 after much agonising. But his popular image has led him to be listed in GQ magazine’s list of the top 100 male style icons of the 20th Century and more than one Allied general seemed to have a man crush on him. His real image and that of his portrayal by James Mason have become intertwined.
Also, a big reason why the Korps never committed the atrocities associated with the Nazi war machine was a) there were no SS units in it and b) they’re fighting in a largely empty desert and there’s no one to oppress. Still, a code of honour still persisted and it was an unwritten rule on both sides that surrendering troops be treated fairly well because no one wanted to die of thirst and exposure in the desert. It was a code the Afrika Korps kept, to their credit. However, if they had beaten the 8th Army, captured Cairo and then sped on to Palestine you wonder if they would have kept their professionalism and honour once they’d reached there. Maybe Hitler would have suddenly sat up and taken more notice, and the horrors of the Reich brought down on the Holy Land.
That’s the other thing about the Korps: North Africa was always a side-show for the Third Reich, who were there to prop up the ailing Italian army. It wasn’t on Hitler’s to do list; even that famous uniform with the peaked cap was designed and produced at the last minute. Without a great deal of interference from Nazi high command, they were left to get on with the job, German army style. A “war without hate” as Rommel himself called it.
The Afrika Korps were just as much an instrument of the Nazi war machine as any SS unit, but because of a number of factors they get a pass. When Prince Harry tactlessly wore an Afrika Korps uniform to a costume party, he was berated on the one hand for wearing a Swastika armband but on the other hand there were voices saying “hey, it’s only the Afrika Korps, not a black SS uniform”. Like the Red Baron and the image of the German fighter pilot of WW1, the Afrika Korps are a more palatable vision of an army in the service of a despicable regime. It’s right not to demonise an entire enemy army and those who fought in it, but at the same time one should never completely fall for the mythical image and think it excuses anything.