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"Our trail is marked by death, looting and deserted villages"

It is one of the oddities of German military history that two generals, of all people, who had led their campaigns in Africa, rose to become real folk heroes.

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"Our trail is marked by death, looting and deserted villages"

It is one of the oddities of German military history that two generals, of all people, who had led their campaigns in Africa, rose to become real folk heroes. One was Erwin Rommel, commander-in-chief of the German Africa Corps during World War II, the other Paul von Lettow-Vorbeck (1870-1964), commander of the Schutztruppe in German East Africa during World War I.

At the latest when he surrendered on November 25, 1918, Lettow-Vorbeck became a hero in the Weimar Republic. Because he had held out longer at his remote post than the Supreme Army Command on the western front, under whose pressure the German Reich had signed the armistice with the Entente powers on November 11. His talent for self-expression and concealing dark spots on the colonial warrior's khaki uniform did the rest.

The son of a Pomeranian officer family had good chances of a steep career. He graduated from the cadet schools in Potsdam and Groß-Lichterfelde with flying colors and received a position on the General Staff early on. But the office war was probably not his thing. When the German Expeditionary Force embarked in China to put down the Boxer Rebellion in 1900, Lettow-Vorbeck was also there. Because of good performance, he was promoted to captain. He then took part in the suppression of the Herero and Nama in German South West Africa, which was known to have a genocidal character.

Apparently Lettow-Vorbeck drew the conclusion from the two colonial conflicts that a brutal offensive strategy was the best recipe in the "small wars" that were being waged in Africa and Asia. That could have been a reason why the Reich Colonial Office initially treated his application as head of the Schutztruppe in German East Africa in a dilatory manner. But since Lettow-Vorbeck was one of the chosen few who were allowed to accompany Kaiser Wilhelm II on his traditional Nordland journey, there was nothing wrong with his commanding the rank of lieutenant colonel in April 1914.

After the outbreak of the First World War, he was responsible for the defense of the large colony on which today the states of Tanzania (without Zanzibar), Burundi, Rwanda and part of Mozambique are located. He quickly clashed with Governor Heinrich Schnee about the right strategy. While he wanted to keep the colony out of the fighting and therefore declared the ports on the Indik to be "open cities", his commander went on the attack. However, the forces for this were manageable. With 250 white officers and non-commissioned officers in the Schutztruppe and gendarmerie and almost 5,000 native Askaris and without heavy weapons, he was hopelessly inferior to the British, Belgian and Portuguese forces in the vicinity.

Nevertheless, at the beginning of November 1914, Lettow-Vorbeck was able to repel the attempted landing of British troops. This gave him a grace period during which the Entente powers occupied the German colonies of Cameroon, Togo and German South West. The offensive against German East Africa began in 1916 with up to 160,000 soldiers. Lettow-Vorbeck barely had a tenth available, plus up to 30,000 local porters.

However, the extreme climate and geography of the African theater of war suited the small German troops to their advantage. Divided into small combat groups, they could move and resupply in the jungle and savanna much faster than their opponents' armies. Lettow-Vorbeck's men would ambush small garrisons and supply columns and be gone by the time superior pursuers set off. At times, the troops found shelter in the barely secured Portuguese Mozambique.

The war claimed heavy casualties on both sides. About 10,000 soldiers and 100,000 porters died on the British side, German losses were around 11,500, writes the historian Jürgen Zimmerer. The consequences for the civilian population, whose economy was ruined, were appalling. Even his Askaris called Lettow-Vorbeck: "The gentleman who tailors our shroud."

Shortly before the end of the war, the German doctor Ludwig Deppe wrote: “We are leaving behind destroyed fields, completely plundered magazines and, for the time being, famine. We are no longer pacesetters of culture; our trail is marked by death, looting and deserted villages, just like in the Thirty Years' War after the march through of our own and enemy troops."

In doing so, Lettow-Vorbeck misjudged the political possibilities of guerrilla warfare. British historian Hew Strachan believes that the alliance with resistance groups could have had a broad impact in Mozambique and the Belgian Congo, where bitterness about the colonial regime was particularly great. But the German, now promoted to general, remained trapped in the traditional categories according to which armies, not nations, fought wars.

After all, he had the satisfaction of being able to “honorably” surrender to a British general on November 25, 1918 with 155 German officers and non-commissioned officers, 1,168 armed Askaris and around 3,500 porters. The return to Germany in March 1919 turned out to be a triumph. The victims were forgotten, as was the senselessness of the bush war, which had by no means burdened the Entente fronts in Europe.

Even Lettow-Vorbeck's participation in the right-wing extremist Kapp Putsch in March 1920 could hardly diminish his popularity. On the other hand, having received an honorary doctorate from Berlin University, he allowed himself to be celebrated as a symbol of past colonial glory that was undefeated in the field. In this sense, the Nazi regime also employed him.

He even managed to save the aura of the hero in the young Bundeswehr. At his funeral in 1964, six officers formed the wake. And the Federal Defense Minister at the time, Kai-Uwe von Hassel, praised Lettow-Vorbeck as "one of the great figures who can claim the right to be called a model". It took a long time to realize the grim truth behind this image.

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