If I asked you to pick a group of people that you could safely say were the worst people of all time, you would probably give me a funny look and start feeling vaguely uncomfortable. You know, the way you feel in front of your grandma just before you tell your friends you're sorry and she's from a different time. Eventually, after all the confusion was cleared up, we'd settle on the goddamn Nazis. Because fuck those guys, right?
At this point, I'd inject a little more awkwardness into the situation by telling you that one of the most virtuous heroes of World War II was, in fact, a high-ranking Nazi officer.
Erwin Rommel was a Field Marshal and commander of the Afrika Korps, Nazi Germany's colonial occupation of the rest of Europe's colonial occupations of North Africa. Despite belonging to the most comically (and tragically) evil political group of the 21st Century, the Afrika Korps is distinguished by the fact that they were the only division of the Nazi military to not be accused of war crimes.
|Way to not be evil, guys. Seriously, well done.|
That was pretty much Rommel's doing. In addition to being acknowledged by both Axis and Allied leaders as one of the most brilliant strategic minds of the war, Rommel's humanitarianism in the face of brutal, horrific conflict and genocide is legendary. During the capture of France, Rommel received orders directly from goddamn Hitler to deport the Jewish population of the country and execute all Jewish prisoners, and Rommel just straight up ignored him.
If you paid any attention whatsoever in history class, you know that most people couldn't get away with ignoring the Führer. What's more, he wrote letters to high command protesting the treatment of Jews in the Third Reich. You know, the same Reich that gave the whole "Holocaust" thing the green light. He also wrote letters protesting atrocities committed by the German Army, even seeking permission to punish the 2nd SS Panzer division for massacring a French town. Hitler told him it was none of his business, and historians tend to believe Rommel was lucky his head was still attached after that letter reached Berlin. Hitler wasn't exactly known for being reasonable.
|Not pictured: Reason.|
He didn't really change his tone. When he was ordered to beef up the security of the Atlantic Wall, he did so using French labor. That was normal, except the part where he absolutely insisted that the workers get paid.
Rommel was most well known for his steadfast (though ultimately doomed) defense of North Africa, for which he earned the nickname "Desert Fox." In addition to personally leading the charge in the hottest (as in violence, not temperature) parts of the battlefield and receiving multiple wounds as a result, he established his relationship in North Africa as one of the most anachronistically chivalrous military leaders in the world.
|He was also handy to have around in case of a flat|
At one point, he and his staff found themselves suddenly deep behind enemy lines. They came upon a New Zealand Army field hospital, where any rational person would stay out of sight until they could get the hell out of dodge. Instead, he approached the hospital and made light conversation, asking how the soldiers and doctors were faring.
Caught off guard by the surreal nature of the situation, the British and Kiwis told Rommel that things were okay, they guessed, but they could sure use some bandages and medicine. Rommel said he'd see what he could do and drove off unmolested. A few days later, he came back with medical supplies and just gave them away.
|Because otherwise they'd just go to Nazis. Like him.|
Toward the end of his defensive campaign in Africa, Rommel started noticing some disturbing trends in the communications he shared with Hitler. As it turned out, Hitler didn't assign all that much value on human life, so whenever Rommel would suggest a course of action that favored small losses over tactical gains, he would be rebuffed. The relationship between the two would sour pretty severely when Hitler ordered him to hold his ground on numerous occasions in utterly hopeless battles, causing a tremendous loss of life just to stem the inevitable tide for a few extra hours.
Ultimately, Rommel's loss of respect for history's favorite villain would be his undoing. He got involved in a conspiracy that planned to make a very strong case for Hitler's removal. The planned argument was, "We just blew Hitler up with a briefcase bomb, so he's probably not capable of leading this country anymore. Also, we already took control of the military anyway. QED." The subconscious fidgeting of the officer sitting next to Hitler foiled the plot. He kicked the briefcase under the table, which deflected the blast just enough to avoid killing the Führer.
|Personally, I blame Tom Cruise|
In the aftermath, almost 5,000 people were killed by the Gestapo for taking part in the failed coup. Not Rommel, though. Rommel was universally praised as a hero by the German people, to such a great extent that Hitler feared they might rise up in support of the conspiracy just because he was involved. Instead of outing him and executing him, Hitler gave Rommel the option to commit suicide by swallowing a cyanide capsule in exchange for a guarantee that his family would remain unharmed. Rommel agreed, then Hitler gave him an official state funeral, claiming that he died of old war wounds.
|Making someone praise you right after you try to blow them up is really a form of winning.|
During the war, Winston Churchill called Erwin Rommel a "daring and skillful opponent." The British Parliament very nearly censured him for praising the enemy, but after the war it became clear that Erwin Rommel was a man well worth praising. Despite being a high ranking Nazi, he was one of the most effective advocates for human rights throughout the war.
Edit: The guy was still a Nazi. Keep that in mind.