Paul von Lettow-Vorbeck, a German officer descending from a Pomeranian noble family with a long military tradition, was born on 20 March 1870 in the town of Saarlouis, in the present-day Saarlouis district.
In 1881, at the age of 11, he entered the cadet school in Potsdam, where he stayed for three years. He obtained his diploma from a second school in Groß-Lichterfelde and, in 1888, joined the 4th Regiment of Foot Guards in Berlin as a cadet officer.
His career soon took him far away from Germany. In 1900, five years after being appointed Lieutenant, he was posted to China, where he served for almost two years as an auxiliary officer with the First East Asia Infantry Brigade. In this role he took part in German Army operations to quell the Boxer Rebellion and was promoted to Captain.
Between 1904 and 1906 he served as first Adjutant to the Staff of Lothar von Trotha, Commander-in-Chief of the colonial forces (Schutztruppe) in German South-West Africa, which corresponded to present-day Namibia. While he was stationed here, he led a company in military operations to quash the Herero uprisings. Von Trotha conducted the war by all means at his disposal, which led in 1985 to the United Nations declaring it one of the earliest attempts at genocide in the 20th century. Lettow-Vorbeck, the tactician responsible for many of the German actions, however strongly opposed the “dirty war” tactics used by his Commander and severely criticised his criminal conduct.
In early 1906, Lettow-Vorbeck suffered serious injury to an eye and was called back to Germany to serve on the General Staff of the Imperial German Army. In 1907, after being promoted to Major, he was assigned to the staff of the 11th Army Corps and served with the 2nd Marine Infantry Battalion at Wilhelmshaven.
His experience in Africa earned him the rank of Lieutenant Colonel and another transfer, as Commander of the German colonial forces in Cameroon, from October 1913. However, before he could officially assume this command, he was sent to replace the commander of the German forces in German East Africa.
This post was to determine Lettow-Vorbeck’s fame and legend. In fact, during the First World War, he managed to hold the Entente forces in check with just a few hundred German soldiers and no more than fifteen thousand local troops, the so-called Askari.
The German East Africa campaign ended when Lettow-Vorbeck’s troops, who were undefeated in the field, surrendered on 25 November 1918, almost two weeks after the war had ended in Europe.
He made a triumphal return to Berlin in March 1919. Together with the 142 surviving German soldiers, the Major General was given a hero’s welcome, and one month later, he took command of the Naval Division of the Guards Cavalry Corps.
In post-war Germany, characterised by political upheaval and attempts at revolution, Lettow-Vorbeck actively engaged in counter-revolutionary fighting and headed a number of Freikorps in the Kapp military coup in March 1920.
Suspended from service by the regular Government after his return to Berlin, he was spared trial for high treason due to his past merits and on recognition of the fact that he had acted in good faith. Unable to resume service, he retired from the army on 20 September 1920. He was however allowed to keep the title of Lieutenant General and wear his uniform as a retired officer.
Throughout the Weimar Republic, he maintained an active role in politics and in the organisation of the Stahlhelm league of veterans. He was a member of the conservative German National People’s Party, and served as deputy from 1928 to 1930. He left the Party along with moderate conservatives in 1930 in open opposition to the radical drift that was now taking hold under the guidance of Alfred Hugenberg.
He played an important and decisive role in publicly spreading the legend of the Askari and in the struggle for their right to receive a war pension.
During the National Socialist period he continued to play a key public role, remaining consistently faithful to his conservative principles and propagating the myth of the Askari troops. For this reason he was disliked by the National Socialist élite, including Josef Goebbels, yet on the other hand he was decorated with the title of Infantry General by Adolf Hitler in 1938. Despite insistence however, he never joined the National Socialist Party.
After the war, in 1953, Lettow-Vorbeck returned to Africa briefly where he met at least four hundred Askari, who organised ceremonies in his honour. His legend remained uncompromised despite his critical opinions on decolonisation, based on the idea that the African peoples were politically immature, and his support for apartheid in South Africa. When he died in 1964, the Federal German Government organised for two ex-servicemen from the colonial forces to be present at his funeral to pay homage, together with the Honour Guard of the Bundeswehr, to the remains of their commander.
Eckard Michels, Der Held von Deutsch-Ostafrika. Paul von Lettow-Vorbeck. Ein preußischer Kolonialoffizier, Paderborn, Schöningh 2008
Edward Paice, Tip and Run. The untold tragedy of the Great War in Africa, London, Weidenfeld & Nicolson 2007
Uwe Schulte-Varendorff, Kolonialheld für Kaiser und Führer. General Lettow-Vorbeck – Mythos und Wirklichkeit, Berlin, Ch. Links Verlag 2006
John C. Stratis, A Case study in leadership. Colonel Paul Emil von Lettow-Vorbeck, Springfield VA, NTIS 2002
Edwin Palmer Hoyt, Guerilla: Colonel Von Lettow-Vorbeck and Germany’s East African Empire, New York, Macmillan 1981