Tuesday, February 19, 2013

Paul Emil von Lettow



I am fascinated by colorful historical characters, especially military or naval figures.  Very few of these people could be considered truly heroic.  One of the rare exceptions is Paul Emil von Lettow-Vorbeck, commander of a small German army – largely composed of black troops – that fought the British Empire in East Africa during World War I.

A master of guerrilla warfare, General von Lettow-Vorbeck lived by a warrior’s code of chivalry embodying honor, respect for one’s enemies, and humanitarian treatment of his men as well as civilians.  During a world war in which the U.S. Army actively discriminated against black soldiers, von Lettow-Vorbeck treated his African Askaris no differently from white Germans under his command.  His fluency in the Swahili language earned the respect and admiration of his African soldiers; he appointed black officers and “said – and believed – [that] ‘we are all Africans here’.”  In one historian’s estimation, “It is probable that no white commander of the era had so keen an appreciation of the African’s worth not only as a fighting man but as a man.”


General von Lettow-Vorbeck was never defeated in battle, and only surrendered after learning about the Armistice in November 1918.  The British repatriated the white German soldiers but confined the Askaris in squalid camps.  General von Lettow-Vorbeck refused to leave until he had won promises of decent treatment and early release for his black troops. 


Returning to Germany as a national hero, von Lettow-Vorbeck became active in politics and tried to establish a conservative opposition to the Nazis.  He was able to bring some of his black officers with him to serve in the German Freikorps.  When Hitler offered him the ambassadorship to the Court of St. James’s in 1935, he “told Hitler to go fuck himself.”  Although repeatedly harassed by the Nazis, he survived their regime due to his popularity as a genuine hero of the old school.

The old general never forgot his Askaris, and he returned to East Africa in 1953 where he was tearfully welcomed by his surviving soldiers.  Upon returning to Europe, he campaigned to provide for their welfare.  When von Lettow-Vorbeck died at the age of 93 in 1964, the West German government and the Bundeswehr flew in two former Askaris as state guests so that they could attend the funeral of “their” general.  A few months later, the old warrior’s fondest wish became reality when the West German Bundestag voted to deliver back pay to the 350 surviving Askaris in Africa.

A fitting way to say “f*ck you” to Hitler and Germany’s racist past.

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