Thursday, December 19, 2013

People: General Paul von Lettow-Vorbeck

“Go fuck yourself.”

- General Paul von Lettow-Vorbeck, 
to Adolf Hitler after being asked to be a German ambassador.

At first glance this should be an item in the Last Words category, one imagines that there would have been few people who would have thus addressed Hitler and not found themselves taken out to the carpark and shot.. Von Lettow did and wasn’t.

Paul Emil von Lettow-Vorbeck (1870 – 1964) was a general in the Imperial German Army and the commander of its forces in the German East Africa campaign. For four years, with a force that never exceeded about 14,000 (3,000 Germans and 11,000 Africans), he held in check a much larger force of 300,000 British, Belgian, and Portuguese troops. Essentially undefeated in the field, von Lettow-Vorbeck was the only German commander to successfully invade imperial British soil during World War 1. His exploits in the campaign have come down "as the greatest single guerrilla operation in history, and the most successful.

Von Lettow-Vorbeck returned home in early March 1919 to a hero's welcome. On a black charger he led 120 officers of theSchutztruppe in their tattered tropical uniforms on a victory parade through the Brandenburg Gate, which was decorated in their honour. Though he ultimately surrendered as ordered; he frequently won against great odds and was the only German commander to invade British territory successfully during World War I.

Von Lettow-Vorbeck at a parade in Berlin, 1919

Between May 1928 and July 1930, the former General served as a Reichstag deputy for the monrachist German national People’s Party. He intensely distrusted Hitler and his movement, so much so that when Hitler offered him the ambassadorship to the Court of St James in 1935, he declined.

During the 1960s, author and biographer Charles Miller asked the nephew of a Schutztruppe officer, "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."

After his blunt refusal, he "was kept under continual surveillance" and his home office was searched. The only rehabilitation due to his legendary standing among the populace came in 1938, when at age 68, he was named a General for Special Purposes, but was never recalled into active service.

In 1953, he visited his other home, East Africa, where he was was received with full military honours by British colonial officials. In 1964, eleven days shy of his 94th birthday, Paul von Lettow-Vorbeck died in Hamburg.

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