In 1935 Hitler and his Nazi thugs were masters of all they surveyed in Germany. The Führer had completed his rise to power, and members of the German military now had to swear a personal oath of loyalty to him by name. The opposition had essentially been crushed, and it would have taken a brave man to defy the Nazi leader.
Born in 1870, into the lower echelons of the Germany aristocracy, Paul Emil von Lettow-Vorbeck was a national hero. In fact, he had earned the nickname “The Lion of Africa” thanks to his exploits during World War I. And although he wasn’t a Nazi, he was certainly a right-winger. Consequently, he must have seemed like just the sort of man whom Hitler could use to re-shape Germany. Indeed, the Führer actually offered von Lettow-Vorbeck the prestigious position of ambassador to the U.K. in 1935.
Von Lettow-Vorbeck’s father was a military man, so it was only natural that the son should follow in his footsteps. Therefore, after boarding school, von Lettow-Vorbeck enlisted with the cadet corps. And later, in 1890, he gained his first military commission in the Imperial German Army as a lieutenant.
But von Lettow-Vorbeck’s first foreign posting wouldn’t come until 1900, when he went to China as part of an international coalition. Their mission was to suppress the Boxer Rebellion, an anti-imperialist uprising that had sprung up in the region. And this essentially involved fighting Chinese guerrillas, a task that von Lettow-Vorbeck far from relished. However, his experience of guerrilla warfare certainly became useful later in his military career.
Now, after his Chinese service, von Lettow-Vorbeck’s next overseas campaign was in German South-West Africa – today’s Namibia. After that, in 1909, he returned to serve in Germany, where he commanded a battalion in Lower Saxony. And in 1913, not long before the outbreak of World War I, von Lettow-Vorbeck attained the rank of Lieutenant Colonel.
However, after hostilities broke out in 1914, von Lettow-Vorbeck went to serve in German East Africa, a colonial territory which comprised most of modern-day Tanzania. Initially, the Lieutenant-Colonel’s political masters wanted to maintain neutrality with the British colonialists in the region. But von Lettow-Vorbeck had other ideas.
Indeed, in defiance of the politicians, von Lettow-Vorbeck formulated his own plan. He decided to engage the British in East Africa, with the aim of tying down as many enemy troops as he could. This, he believed, would aid his counterparts on the Western Front in Europe by diverting British manpower.
In August 1914, moreover, von Lettow-Vorbeck was head of a force of 2,600 Germans and 2,472 African troops, who were known as Askaris. And their baptism under fire came in November 1914, when the British launched a determined attack on the coastal city of Tanga. However, this would be von Lettow-Vorbeck’s first major victory, as his garrison repelled a considerably larger British force over the course of a four-day battle.
A further victory over the British came in January 1915 at the Battle of Jassin, which took place near the border between German East Africa and British East Africa. After these two victories, however, von Lettow-Vorbeck’s troops were perilously short of ammunition and senior personnel. Consequently, he decided that from then on his force would wage a guerrilla campaign against the British.
Von Lettow-Vorbeck now recruited more Askaris, swelling his force to a strength of 14,000. These troops were largely Africans, and the commander’s fluent Swahili was certainly a factor in getting the colonial troops on side. Indeed, he was much respected by the Askaris, some of whom he promoted to officers’ ranks. Consequently, as a white man who appreciated the value of the Askaris, he was likely a rarity in Africa. In fact, his attitude was summed up in his own words when he asserted, “We are all Africans here.”
Von Lettow-Vorbeck’s force also acquired supplies, men and munitions from a German Navy ship named the S.M.S. Königsberg. However, the British increased their forces and in 1916 launched a 45,000-man attack against the Germans. Von Lettow-Vorbeck’s men were subsequently forced into retreat and suffered 519 casualties at the Battle of Mahiwa in 1917. Still, the British came off far worse, incurring a toll of 2,700 casualties.
Hence, as the British pursued his army, von Lettow-Vorbeck still fought on, attacking a Portuguese garrison and capturing a steamboat. And through these successful attacks, the Germans were able to seize more supplies, including new rifles, machine guns and mortars. British forces continued to chase von Lettow-Vorbeck’s itinerant force, but they simply could not lay their hands on them.
Eventually, however, military and political events in Europe caught up with von Lettow-Vorbeck and his men. After taking the town of Kasama, the Germans and Askaris marched towards the Chambeshi River. But there, on November 14, 1918, they encountered a British magistrate brandishing a white flag. And he, furthermore, informed von Lettow-Vorbeck that World War I had ended three days earlier.
So, although he was undefeated in the field, von Lettow-Vorbeck now had no choice but to concede. He immediately agreed a ceasefire and marched his men to surrender formally at the town of Abercorn – now Mbala in modern Zambia. And it was there that the British ordered von Lettow-Vorbeck’s men to throw their weapons into a nearby lake.
Now a general, von Lettow-Vorbeck eventually returned to his homeland in March 1919. And on arrival, he headed up a parade of 120 of his officers – who were still wearing their now ragged uniforms – through the Brandenburg Gate in Berlin. There, an enthusiastic crowd welcomed him as a hero – which may well have seemed a rare thing in defeated Germany.
After leaving the army in 1920, however, von Lettow-Vorbeck worked as an import-export manager for a period. And in 1928 he went into politics as a member of the German parliament representing the monarchist German National People’s Party. Later, he helped found an alliance, the Vorbeck-Blumenthal Pact, the stated aim of which was to combat the rise of Hitler and the Nazi Party.
So, following Hitler’s ascension to power in 1933, how did the German war hero von Lettow-Vorbeck answer Hitler when he was offered the British ambassadorship in 1935? His reply was, actually, rather to the point. Yes, he reportedly told the Führer to go “f**k himself.” In fact, in the 1960s, when the nephew of one of von Lettow-Vorbeck’s soldiers was asked if this story was true, he replied, “That’s right, except that I don’t think he put it that politely.”
However, von Lettow-Vorbeck’s riposte to Hitler had its cost, and the former general was now under close Nazi surveillance. What’s more, his popularity with the German people was likely his only protection from more dire consequences. Indeed, he actually gained the title of General for Special Purposes in 1938, but he played no military part in World War II.
After the war, moreover, von Lettow-Vorbeck – like so many other Germans – was effectively homeless. In fact, his house had been destroyed by Allied bombs. And still worse, his two sons – who both served in the German army – had lost their lives during the war. Yet as Germany’s fortunes rose in the post-war years, so too did von Lettow-Vorbeck’s. The old warrior died at the ripe age of 93 in 1964, after what can only be described as an extremely eventful life.
Interestingly, in the very year that von Lettow-Vorbeck died, the German parliament voted to give back-pay owed to the East African Askaris from World War I. Indeed, officials set up a payment office in the Tanzanian city of Mwanza for the task. Some 350 surviving Askaris came to claim their pay, too, but few of them had any paperwork. Consequently, they were asked instead to perform the German military manual of arms using broomsticks. And every single one was able to do so.