Magazine article The Spectator

'African Kaiser: General Paul Von Lettow-Vorbeck and the Great War in Africa, 1914-1918', by Robert Gaudi - Review

Magazine article The Spectator

'African Kaiser: General Paul Von Lettow-Vorbeck and the Great War in Africa, 1914-1918', by Robert Gaudi - Review

Article excerpt

What's going on with book reviews? Here is the Pulitizer prizewinning (for 'criticism') Michael Dirda in the Washington Post, on this book's cover:

Let me say straight out that if all military histories were as thrilling and well written as Robert Gaudi's African Kaiser, I might give up reading fiction and literary bio-graphy... Gaudi writes with the flair of a latter-day Macaulay. He sets his scenes carefully and describes naval and military action like a novelist.

Leaving aside the extraordinary comparison with Macaulay for the moment, most naval and military novels that I've read get the historical detail right. Robert Gaudi's book is so error-strewn that it would fail to qualify even as historical fiction.

His subject is a promising one. Oberstleutnant (later Generalmajor) Paul von Lettow-Vorbeck was sent to German East Africa (now part of Tanzania) just before the outbreak of the first world war to take command of the Schutztruppe -- defence forces -- comprising German officers, NCOs and African levies -- 'askaris' ('soldiers', from the Arabic). In November 1914, Lettow and his men gave a bloody nose to a scratch expeditionary force sent from India, and then for the next four years proceeded to lead all comers -- British, South African and Portuguese -- a merry dance until ordered by Berlin to surrender after the Armistice in 1918. Lettow and his 200-odd officers and NCOs, as an 'undefeated army' (which never numbered more than 11,000, including camp-followers), were accorded the privilege of parading along the Unter den Linden the following year.

Without intending to, he therefore served the myth of the 'stab in the back' -- the notion that the German army had not been defeated (specifically in France) but prevented from continuing the war because of unpatriotic, socialist defeatism at home. The myth was a powerful element in the rise of Hitler, though Lettow himself was not seduced by either the myth or by Hitler's blandishments. The story goes that in 1935 he was offered the ambassadorship in London, where he was held in grudging regard, but 'declined with frigid hauteur' and that after his death in 1964, at the age of 93, one of his biographers asked Lettow's nephew if it were true that der Löwe von Afrika had told Hitler 'to go fuck himself'. The nephew said, 'I don't think he put it that politely.' After the war his standing as 'a good German' helped give respectability to the nascent Bundeswehr, which named three barracks after him.

Lettow was never a rising star, however. It was more a case of time and circumstance. His was the usual Junker background, entry into the army almost preordained. Possibly lacking the financial means for a smart regiment at home, he became something of a colonial soldier, taking part in the suppression of the Boxer rebellion in China, where his Prussian military sensibilities were offended by fighting against guerrillas, which he considered corrosive of discipline.

Dealing with the insurrections in German south-west Africa subsequently did nothing to change his opinion. He qualified for the Grosser Generalstab, however, and in 1909 took command of a battalion of marines -- again, not the most prestigious of appointments, even during the time of the 'Dreadnought Race'. Only in retrospect could his appointment to command the rag, tag and bobtail force in German East Africa be seen as a plum one.

His story has often been told, and Gaudi -- an American 'freelance writer and historian' -- appears to have consulted only these secondary sources, so reveals nothing new. …

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