By 1935, the Nazi Party had consolidated its grip on the Third Reich. The Enabling Act and November 1933’s election made Hitler the supreme power in Germany. The Night of the Long Knives saw the party bear its murderous teeth to opposition but the regime’s brutality had been established from the outset; Dachau was founded immediately following Hitler’s appointment as Chancellor. So it was a very dangerous time for a decorated German war hero to tell Adolf Hitler to go and fuck himself.
General Paul Emil von Lettow-Vorbeck was a hero to many in Germany as the Lion of Africa. At the outbreak of the First World War in 1914, Lettow-Vorbeck was in German East Africa (modern day mainland Tanzania, Rwanda and Burundi), far from the conflict’s European battlefields. Here he commanded the East African Schutztruppe, a mixed force comprising around 200 German and 2,500 African (mainly Askari) soldiers.
Looking at a map of Africa from the turn of the century, you can see how the odds were stacked against Lettow-Vorbeck. Amidst the vast swathes of British pink, French purple and Belgian blue, Germany’s orange possessions are both relatively small and surrounded. With the British Royal Navy and the French Marine nationale dominating the surrounding seas, the possessions were also somewhat beleaguered.
It was therefore somewhat remarkable that Lettow-Vorbeck not only survived until 1918, but did so with his force undefeated and having been the only German commander to invade the territory of the British Empire.
With a force never exceeding 14,000 troops, the German East African campaign was a masterly example of guerilla warfare (described as the greatest single guerrilla operation in history). The Allies were never rid of this African irritant and it tied down over 300,000 British, French, Belgian and Portuguese troops. Lettow-Vorbeck was promoted to Generalmajor (Major General).
There was a huge human cost in the fighting in Africa and the suffering was largely borne by African soldiers, porters and civilians. War ravaged the countryside and the pitiless conditions ensured that hundreds of thousands of Africans died. In her weakened state, the continent was particularly vulnerable to the spreading of Spanish Flu in the immediate aftermath.
But, compared to the blood drenched and largely static battlefields of Europe, the African campaign at least had movement and more decisive battles. As Germany struggled through the final years of the war, the positive and exotic news from East Africa was a particularly welcome respite.
Once Germany had surrendered, Lettow-Vorbeck’s undefeated record ensured he became a hero to many. He was rewarded with a triumphant march through Berlin in 1919, one of the few celebrations in a war weary and defeated nation.
Lettow-Vorbeck was unusual for his time in his respect for Africa and Africans. His capability as a commander of African soldiers was enhanced by his mastery of the Swahili language. He appointed black officers and “said — and believed — [that] ‘we are all Africans here’.”
In his book Battle for the Bundu: The First World War in German East Africa, Charles Miller argues that “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.”
It is therefore unsurprising that Lettow-Vorbeck had no time for the racial ideology of the Nazi Party and its leader Adolf Hitler. His politics were, however, decidedly to the right of centre. He led the forces suppressing a Communist uprising in Hamburg in 1920 and he served as a deputy in the Reichstag for the German National People’s Party between May 1928 and July 1930.
Lettow-Vorbeck’s politics were rooted in his solid and stolid background as a member of the Prussian Junker class. This important section of Germany’s nobility had traditionally dominated the Imperial Army, bringing with them a deeply conservative ideology.
Hitler’s rise to power prompted a split on the traditionalist and monarchist right. Some, such as former Chancellor Franz von Papen, thought they could tame the wild populism of the Nazis to serve their political goals. Many abandoned their traditional party allegiance to join in the energetic national movement . This left a smaller group who seemed to dislike the Nazi Party as much as they hated the left.
By 1935, the Nazi regime had liquidated its most immediate threats with bloody purges and mass arrests. If an opponent wasn’t dead, they were likely to be safely out of the way – incarcerated in one of the country’s new concentration camps.
Lettow-Vorbeck was not yet a victim of the regime’s brutal suppression of opposition. His celebrity and hero status ensured him some protection against arbitrary treatment. Perhaps taking the adage of keeping friends close but enemies closer, the Nazi leadership decided to try and induce Lettow-Vorbeck into joining the regime.
He was not going to be offered tangible power in Germany, but a glitteringly symbolic role safely based overseas. In 1935, Hitler offered him the ambassadorship to the Court of St. James’s, to become Germany’s main man in London.
And this is where accounts of his famous response diverge. The meaning is always the same, but the language is quite different. At the more polite end of history, it was noted that he “declined with frigid hauteur.” So far, so Prussian.
But Lettow-Vorbeck was a military man through and through, so it is well within the realms of possibility that he responded with something decidedly more earthy. Charles Miller interviewed one of Lettow-Vorbeck’s nephews, noting that, “I understand that von Lettow told Hitler to go fuck himself.” The nephew responded, “That’s right, except that I don’t think he put it that politely.”
Lettow-Vorbeck’s fame protected him from instant reprisal, but he was punished with the suspension of his pension, surveillance from the regime and sidelining during the glory days of Nazi military victories. Lettow-Vorbeck would, however, have the last word. He survived the tumultuous years of the Second World War whereas Hitler shot himself in his bunker as Russians overran the streets of Berlin.
In 1953, Paul von Lettow-Vorbeck returned to East Africa at the request of his one time adversary and more recent friend Jan Smuts. Smuts had been an opposing commander during the First World War and went on to become the Prime Minister of South Africa.
On his arrival in Tanganyika (it would become Tanzania on joining with Zanzibar in 1964) Lettow-Vorbeck was greeted by a group of First World War Askari veterans. They sang the song of his regiment, Heia Safari! and threw up a cheer as soon as they saw their commander.
The old Lion of Africa died in 1964 at the age of 93 and was buried with full military honours at Pronstorf. The West German government asked the Bundeswehr to fly in two of his former Askari soldiers as state guests. Minister of Defense Kai-Uwe von Hassel gave a eulogy, saying that the deceased, “was truly undefeated in the field”.