Radical Potentials, Conservative Realities: African Veterans of the German Colonial Army in Post-World War I Tanganyika

Michelle Moyd. First World War Studies. Volume 10, Issue 1. March 2019.

During World War I, African colonial soldiers (askari) of the Schutztruppe für Deutsch Ostafrika fought a difficult campaign in German East Africa. In November 1918, they surrendered to the British alongside their commander, General Paul von Lettow-Vorbeck. Within a few months, their German officers had left East Africa to return to Germany. Most of the ex-askari found it difficult to make new lives for themselves in Tanganyika, as the former Germany colony came to be known in 1920. In British Mandate Tanganyika, the ex-askari had limited options for making a living commensurate with the status they had occupied before the war. Their paths through British colonial rule from 1918 to 1961, when Tanganyika became independent, took different forms. This article charts some of these paths in order to place the African veterans of the Schutztruppe alongside the experiences of other Black veterans of the First World War, whose responses to postwar indignities led them to radicalize. That African Schutztruppe veterans did not become radicals raises intriguing questions about the factors that shaped military veterans’ politics after the First World War, and through the next five decades of the twentieth century.

In March 1964, two elderly African men from Tanganyika, Alfonse Musa and Saleh Mlele, attended the funeral of their former commander, General Paul von Lettow-Vorbeck in Pronstorf, Schleswig-Holstein, Germany. Their presence at the funeral stood out. The vast majority of attendees at the funeral were white German men. Beyond their darker skin colour that marked them as different, their fezzes distinguished their attire from the many others wearing dark suits and military uniforms that day. As the African ex-soldiers paid their respects to their former commander, their presence served to remind German attendees of a not-so-distant German past, when black soldiers had defended Germany’s African empire from enemy encroachment during the East African campaign of World War I.

Musa and Mlele had been soldiers (askari) in the German East African colonial army (Schutztruppe), commanded by Lettow-Vorbeck between 1914 and 1918. The West German Foreign Office had invited them to attend as part of a larger effort to reaffirm Germany’s connections to its former colony, and particularly to the men remembered as Lettow-Vorbeck’s ‘loyal askari.’ The East African campaign of World War I had been long, gruelling, and costly in terms of lives lost and resources expended. It lasted slightly longer than the war in Europe, owing to the length of time it took for news of the armistice to reach commanders in the field. It devastated significant portions of the colonized, occupied space of German East Africa. Ex-Schutztruppe askari were forced to surrender alongside their commanders at Abercorn, Northern Rhodesia, on 25 November 1918, and afterwards, they were interned as prisoners-of-war. For Germany, the East Africa campaign was also foundational to the making of an enduring postwar mythology—that a small army of ‘loyal askari’ followed the Germans to the bitter end of the war. As a consequence of losing the war, Germany also lost its colonies, and never formally regained them despite dogged efforts by colonial activists who argued vehemently for their return in the 1920s and early 1930s. German settlement in Tanganyika resumed during the interwar period, but Germany never again held meaningful political power in Tanganyika.

The askaris’ supposed loyalty to Germany—the place, the nation-state, the empire—was not organic. Most askari fought for their German commanders because they viewed them primarily as their patrons. German officers like Lettow-Vorbeck were the askaris’ conduits to respectability within the colonial socio-economic world of German East Africa. Yet elements of their relationship to Lettow-Vorbeck and the Schutztruppe constituted a more narrowly defined loyalty. It developed out of comradeship forged before and during the campaign, and their view of Lettow-Vorbeck and other German officers as their ultimate patrons. Lettow-Vorbeck embodied the qualities many askari esteemed in their leaders. The German defeat and resultant official departure from their former East African colony left the African Schutztruppe veterans high and dry. They had to find new paths through the new imperial landscape of Tanganyika, as the British Mandate territory was renamed in 1920. In a time of famine, pandemics, postwar economic recovery efforts, and the departure of the German source of their authority, how did they do it? What does Musa’s and Mlele’s attendance at Lettow-Vorbeck’s funeral forty-five years after the surrender reveal about askari veterans’ postwar position in Tanganyika?

This article explores African colonial soldiers’ socio-economic possibilities after World War I through the example of the German East African askari, but with reference to the wider history of African and other veterans of World War 1. Understanding how they fared after the war in terms of their socio-economic standing makes it possible to understand their political possibilities as well. In contexts outside of eastern Africa, veterans of the First World War organized themselves and engaged in radical politics. Confronted with the magnitude of disconnection between their wartime service, promises made to them by politicians and military leaders, and their postwar conditions, they protested.

Such was not the case, however, for most veterans of African colonial armies. They experienced many frustrations as they demobilized and returned home, or found new places to live if ‘home’ no longer welcomed them. For the most part, they did not organize or participate in large-scale mutinies or strikes. In contrast to the experiences of veterans in certain other contexts, such as Europe, they did not become radicals, revolutionaries, or ‘internationalists’. Colonial veterans in Tanganyika were part of this wider continental pattern of conservatism among ex-combatants, which Gregory Mann, Richard Fogarty, and David Killingray have explored. Ex-askari seemed most interested in preserving the status they had gained as Schutztruppe soldiers, perhaps also aspiring to enhance their status in the postwar political landscape. It may be tempting to dismiss them as apolitical. But as Julia Eichenberg puts it, ‘Simply because veterans claimed they were apolitical does not mean they were.’ This view of veterans—that they eschewed politics-ignores less grandiose forms of politics that operated below the level of the state. Even if it is not always easy to discern their politics, many African veterans were nonetheless ‘fully political.’ The scale of their politics was delimited by local, often narrowly defined, interests that we might think of as a politics of survival.

The Schutztruppe veterans’ paths through the postwar world took different forms. The disparateness of their stories and the sources that reveal them create challenges in bringing them into wider narratives about other veterans of WWI, whether on the African continent or globally. Sources for reconstructing this kind of history, as historians of Africa well know, are scarce. Finding sources that provide access to African soldiers’ perspectives in their own words is challenging. They are scant and dispersed, a situation exacerbated by the transition in authority from German to British occupation and proto-governance in Tanganyika beginning in 1916, in the midst of the campaign. The Schutztruppe destroyed, hid, or lost significant archival materials during the East African campaign. Allied bombing campaigns over Germany in World War II destroyed many more.

Yet existing sources, when pieced together, suggest that productive exploration of veterans’ histories is still possible. By assembling traces from archival and published materials, this article presents some sample trajectories of askari lives after 1918, indicating the range of possibilities available to ex-Schutztruppe askari. These materials offer glimpses of ex-askaris’ circumstances and choices after the demise of the Schutztruppe and the departure of its leadership from Tanganyika in 1919. Very few memoirs by African veterans exist for this period. Unpublished papers, published memoirs, and campaign histories written by colonial officers and administrators offer perspectives on the transition period from German to British rule in German East Africa. Evidence of the askaris’ journey from the Schutztruppe into an uncertain future in British-controlled Tanganyika is scant, but officers’ recollections of the period help illuminate this period to some degree. Archival records in Germany and Great Britain provide evidence of long-term struggles over pay for the ex-Schutztruppe veterans, some of which lasted until 1964, the year of Lettow-Vorbeck’s death. Another set of sources that helps with reconstructing individual veterans’ postwar paths are life histories collected in the late 1960s and early 1970s as part of nationalist historiographical work in newly independent in Tanzania. These biographies were not intended to foreground soldiering, but in some cases, their subjects’ wartime soldiering allow glimpses of how military service fit into longer life courses in Tanganyika. In addition, painstaking scholarly research conducted on the extraordinary life history of Mahjub Bin Adam Mohamed, a former child soldier in the Schutztruppe, offers a poignant example of one man’s path through a postwar period that offered some opportunities, but which was also fraught with dangers.

Photography and other visual culture also aids in reconstructing some of this history. As the opening story about Musa and Mlele indicates, veterans (albeit usually frozen in time as active Schutztruppe soldiers) have featured in German visual culture in particular ways, even up to the present. Numerous photographs, sketches, and paintings of askari appeared in German publications in the interwar period. They bolstered German narratives that celebrated a heroic colonial and imperial past. Iconic images of stalwart askari served as visual cues to promote the idea of German mastery over their former colonial empire. These images circulated largely untethered from the contexts that produced them for over a century. They operated as stand-ins for a history of colonial violence indicative of what Britta Schilling (following Ann Laura Stoler) terms a ‘colonial aphasia’ that shaped German memory of the long twentieth century. Yet these images are also historical evidence that provide glimpses of askari self-presentation.

Charting veterans’ paths through Mandate Tanganyika and into their old age at the dawn of Tanzanian independence offers a starting point for further exploration of their histories. This step allows for bringing them into a global historiography of colonial veterans, as well as the aftermath of the First World War. The article proceeds in three sections. First, how did African soldiers of the Schutztruppe become veterans, and what shaped their politics as ex-soldiers? I offer a brief overview of the Schutztruppe askaris’ history leading up to their commander’s surrender at Abercorn, Northern Rhodesia (now Mbala, Zambia) in late November 1918. I also explain Schutztruppe veterans’ roles prior to 1914, in order to then compare these experiences to their post-1918 experiences. Second, I trace what is known of the former Schutztruppe askari after November 1918 in order to describe their politics. While it is tempting to describe them as apolitical, their politics are best described as narrowly conservative inasmuch as they prioritized basic survival, referencing the German colonial past that had made them powerful men. Some ex-askari participated in and articulated nascent forms of ‘unity’ politics that expressed kernels of some of the ideals that would later inform nationalist thought in Tanganyika. But they were not radicals. The final section reflects briefly on ex-askari experiences alongside those of others after World War I, noting the different paths colonized or ‘Global South’ veterans took in the immediate aftermath of World War I. Despite radical potentials in 1919-1920, by the late 1920 and 1930s, most of these veterans were living conservative realities.

Askari and Ex-Askari

Recruitment of African men to join the forerunner to the Schutztruppe, the Wissmanntruppe, began in 1889-90. Chancellor Bismarck authorized the assembly and mobilization of a small military force to defend the German East Africa Company’s interests on the Swahili coast. Angered by the Company’s increasingly threatening encroachments in local politics, economics, and society, African coastal elites had mobilized their own small armies to try to oust the Company from its coastal strongholds. The German defeat of the coastal elites in 1889-1890 prepared the way for the Wissmanntruppe to press further into the interior, establishing military-administrative footholds across the territory in the 1890s. This phase of military operations was also the formative phase of German colonialism, which ultimately solidified German East Africa as a geopolitical space in the eyes of the European powers. The Wissmanntruppe became the Kaiserliche Schutztruppe für Deutsch-Ostafrika in 1891. African soldiers recruited to the Schutztruppe received training that integrated European styles of weapons familiarity and sharpshooting, drill, and manoeuvre. Their ways of war grew out of the encounters they had with different armed opponents, as well as the martial experiences they brought with them from different parts of the continent. Although postwar narratives about the askari often represented them as invincible, in the first decade and a half of the Schutztruppe’s existence its troops did not always prevail in battles against African opponents, despite obvious technological advantages. Still, they were a formidable army led by German officers and NCOs who had no qualms about bringing disproportionate force to bear against the peoples they encountered as they marched across the territory. Colonial military imperatives of conquest, extraction, and subjugation infused and overshadowed other kinds of efforts to secure the territory, such as negotiated local alliances and intermediaries. The askari played key roles in building the colonial state across a fluid, frequently violent, spectrum of colonial governance methods.

Up to 1914, the Schutztruppe remained a small professional army, an occupying force whose way of war magnified the askaris’ presence. Their training and discipline compensated for their relatively small numbers, as did their use of Maxim guns against indigenous militaries that did not have such equipment, and their use of accompanying auxiliary forces. In contrast to the sanitized, bloodless image of colonial warfare that appeared in countless colonial texts, they carried out devastating violence against subject populations, especially between 1890 and 1907, when they undertook numerous punitive expeditions, pacification campaigns, and small wars against peoples who stood in the way of the objective of consolidating German East Africa. As they undertook the violent conquest of the region, they also increased their wealth by seizing war spoils and incorporating captives into their households. If their officers judged their abilities favourably, they could also expect to advance through the ranks, and to receive accolades and financial incentives from the Schutztruppe.

Once askari finished their active service in the Schutztruppe, many of them transitioned into veteran status. They often remained close to hubs of administration and continued to benefit from the extractive political and economic practices the colonial government routinely used. Colonial records mention that ex-askari continued to exert significant influence around the military stations (in Kiswahili, maboma, sing. boma). Reports of corruption indicated that they used the name of the state to wield authority to the detriment of populations subject to colonial rule. They transitioned into new work roles as police and reservists, called up to supplement active askari units as necessary. Their officer-patrons took care of them by giving them opportunities and connections. In turn, the askari amplified the German colonial presence. For example, in the early years of colonial expansion and conquest of what became German East Africa, veteran askari served as freelancers on ‘scientific’ and other kinds of expeditions because of their seniority, leadership skills, and local knowledge. These expeditions provoked violent confrontations with African peoples who rejected the Schutztruppe’s presence. Ex-askari who participated in such expeditions benefited from being paid wages in cash, as well as from their seizure of war spoils. In some cases, ex-askari also received groves of coconut palms or other agricultural allotments, which gave them some stable income. Some also received funds from the colonial state to help them build homes.

Ex-askari often continued to do the colonizers’ administrative and punitive work in their retirement. Some transitioned into positions of administrative authority. These positions allowed the colonial state to exert pressure on local communities cheaply, simultaneously vesting the veterans with local authority. In these ways, ex-askari continued to exercise colonial power, projecting the colonial state’s claims to authority, and positioning themselves as its beneficiaries. This relationship made them highly visible as potential patrons or ‘fathers’ (in Kiswahili, sing. and pl., baba) to vulnerable people who sought the security of belonging to relatively privileged households. When World War I came to German East Africa in 1914, this was the range of possibilities for ex-askari. These were the possibilities that active askari imagined for themselves in a postwar future.

Before and After Abercorn

On 25 November 1918, General Paul von Lettow-Vorbeck and his remaining force of some 2500 askari, their families and dependents, porters, auxiliaries and 155 Germans surrendered to the British at Abercorn, Northern Rhodesia (present-day Mbala, Zambia). The surrender occurred roughly two weeks after the armistice in Europe because of the time it took for the news to reach Lettow-Vorbeck in the field. The askari took the news of German surrender badly. The shame of defeat was exacerbated by the order to lay down their arms, and the subsequent humiliation of internment in camps. Accustomed to being in positions of privilege, the askari resented being under British control. This moment was a harbinger of their subsequent socio-economic demise.

Given the hardships that accompanied the end of the conflict in Tanganyika, the askari should not have expected their internment experiences to be anything but difficult. Lettow-Vorbeck described the conditions they experienced after the surrender, and the tensions that arose because of them:

The camp for the Askari was surrounded by a thick thorn hedge, and was much too small. This led to a good deal of bad feeling among our Askari, which vented itself in frequent demonstrations against the English Askari. But at length our people resigned themselves to the uncomfortable conditions […].”

From the surrender site at Abercorn, the askari were marched to Bismarckburg on the southeast shore of Lake Tanganyika, where they boarded a Belgian steamer, which transported them to the central railway line. There, they boarded trains for Tabora in the central steppe region of German East Africa. At Tabora, they were separated from their officers, apparently with great sadness on all sides. The Germans then proceeded to Dar es Salaam by train, while the askari remained interned at Tabora.

In the two weeks leading up to the surrender, British officers on campaign in East Africa and officials back in London had worried about what to do with the Schutztruppe, and especially the askari, once they were disarmed. As they debated how to handle Lettow-Vorbeck, his askari, and the labour contingent accompanying him, a flurry of telegrams between British officers in the field and the Colonial and War Offices back in London revealed anxiety about what the German askari might do once their connections to the Schutztruppe organization were cut. ‘Should we release Askari prisoners to their homes?’ asked the author of a secret telegram between the General Officer Commanding East Africa (GOC EA) and the War Office on November 14th, 1918. Two days later, on Nov 16th, the GOC EA received instructions from the Colonial Office to allow the German commander and officers to ‘retain their swords, which will be handed back to them on a ceremonial parade, in recognition of their gallant efforts in the field,’ after which they would be ‘evacuated to Europe.’ On the other hand, ‘the native troops and carriers employed with Lettow’s force will be disarmed; it will be impressed on them that they have been defeated by the power of British arms, and they will then be dismissed to their homes’.

But this solution, of sending the askari back to their homes, would have to wait. Concerned that ‘repatriating nearly 3000 veteran Askari and Carriers practically penniless we should probably have very serious trouble in German East Africa,’ General van de Venter wrote to the War Office on 20 November asking for permission to disburse 3-6 months of pay to the troops and porters. Back in London, internal discussion over what to do about the askari continued, with some noting the ‘considerable difficulty’ of trying to pay these men from British coffers. On 11 December the War Office advised the GOC EA to prepare to face the ‘possibility of unrest consequent on the disbandment of the German Askaris and carriers to whom this pay is owing[…].’ They were not overly worried given the relatively small numbers of former German troops, their lack of firearms, and the presence of ‘ample British troops and police in the occupied territory […]’. Still, the War Office considered them a threat, as British officials began transitioning from occupation and campaigning to establishing a new colonial state.

In the end, the War Office decided to treat the askari as prisoners of war. ‘As such,’ a telegram explained, ‘they should be transported to internment camps at TABORA or other centres in proximity to their homes, receiving subsistence only.’ They were then to be released in ‘successive batches’ and, if necessary, to be ‘escorted by armed parties to their destinations,’ receiving only subsistence along the way. According to one British NCO, King’s African Rifles (KAR) soldiers who guarded the Schutztruppe askari took whatever viable currency they still retained and spent it themselves. British suspicions about the former German askari, and disregard for their well-being, manifested early. This treatment signalled what was to come in the ex-servicemen’s socio-economic demise as a group under British rule.

The conditions of privation caused by war continued well into the postwar period, locally, regionally, and globally. Millions became ill and died during the global influenza pandemic. Demobilization of troops played a key role in the disease’s transmission, as did the concentration of people in internment camps like those that housed the former askari in late 1918 and early 1919. The Schutztruppe askari were not spared this misery. During their internment at Tabora, 162 askari and 117 porters died of influenza, probably contracted during their extended transit by boat and rail to Tabora. No one was exempt from the lethal path of disease as it swept across eastern Africa. Famine also raged through much of the region due to failed harvests, wartime depredations against non-combatant populations, and disrupted supply lines. Provisions were scarce for everyone, and the ex-Schutztruppe askaris’ position as potential disruptors likely affected their treatment in terms of food and access to medical care. Those who survived experienced a massive humanitarian crisis, alongside the many eastern African peoples who had suffered from the soldiers’ depredations during the East African campaign.

Unsurprisingly given the racist structures that reinforced the rank structure of the colonial army, officers and askari received quite different treatment from their former opponents during this transitional period. Although both officers and rank-and-file soldiers became prisoners-of-war immediately following the surrender, conditions for Europeans were considerably better than for the askari. Officers were transported to the coast, where they were ‘well housed in tents in a camp within a barbed-wire fence’. They had plenty of food, and could purchase a wide range of goods at the English canteen. General von Lettow-Vorbeck and Governor Schnee had ‘freedom of movement’ outside of the camp, albeit while escorted by a British officer. Indeed, given their longstanding dislike for each other, the worst aspect for Lettow-Vorbeck and Schnee may have been having to share a house. And although Europeans interned in Dar es Salaam also succumbed to the influenza epidemic, their chances of survival were higher due to better access to medical treatment and care. The gentlemanly arrangement that underwrote relationships between British victors and German vanquished benefited the German officers. White solidarity permitted suspension of their soldierly enmity. They embarked on the journey back to Germany at the end of January 1919.

Lettow-Vorbeck arrived in Berlin in March 1919, hailed as a hero who, in theory, had never been defeated on the battlefield. Germans were hungry for stories like his, given the otherwise humiliating circumstances of the war’s aftermath in which they found themselves. Almost immediately, Lettow-Vorbeck was folded back into German military and political affairs. He became part of a contingent of ex-colonials who actively sought to keep the memory of Germany’s colonies alive, trafficking in the notion that Germany was a ‘model colonizer’, and that its former African subjects eagerly awaited their return. As Lettow-Vorbeck wrote in one of his memoirs, ‘ … we had preserved some part of Germany’s soldierly traditions, had come back home unsullied […] the Teutonic sense of loyalty peculiar to us Germans had kept its head high even under the conditions of war in the tropics.’ His words were representative of interwar German colonial activist rhetoric that appeared repeatedly in memoirs and other publications during the 1920s and 1930s. The askari featured prominently in the burgeoning publishing and visual culture of the postwar era.

The askari, however, faced very different futures from their German commanders. In the midst of widespread regional devastation, British suspicions about their loyalties and potential for violence, and likely suspicions from East African communities, the askari navigated the transition from German to British rule in different ways. Those who survived their internment exited the camps into an uncertain new political environment in which old ties to their German patrons became tenuous. Lettow-Vorbeck and sympathetic organizations continued to advocate for the askari as worthy recipients of German financial support after the war. But Germany’s political and economic challenges after the war meant that the askari were not government priorities. The geographic separation between former Schutztruppe officers and the askari further hampered potential redress. For the most part then, askari could not depend on Germany to support them after 1918.

Survival Strategies and Politics

As the main occupying power, the British began establishing administrative structures within German East Africa even before the war ended. After the surrender in November 1918, British officials continued this work, establishing a new colonial administration on top of the old German one. In 1920, most of what was formerly German East Africa became known as Tanganyika Territory under British Mandate authority. The British demobilized much of the KAR in Tanganyika the early 1920s, using some of its ex-KAR in the police force. Ex-Schutztruppe askari did not play significant roles in this capacity, however. Although small numbers may have transitioned into KAR service, for the most part, they had to find other ways to make a living.

One way in which they did so was by forming enclave communities in or near places where significant garrisons had stood during the German period. These included Iringa, Tanga, Tabora, Arusha, and most notably, Dar es Salaam. Askari in these situations maintained close contact with each other, preserving communal identities. But many of them also experienced poverty and isolation under British rule. In 1926, a pair of German administrators and a ‘representative of the British Mandate authority’ began travelling around Tanganyika distributing back pay for askaris’ wartime work. This outcome was in part due to German officers’ efforts on their behalf within Weimar Germany. But ex-askari themselves also actively claimed restitution, maintaining correspondence with their former commanders in Germany.

The coastal town of Tanga, where one of the first major military engagements of the East African campaign occurred in 1914, took on a special significance as a gathering and remembrance site. In part, this was because of the long-term presence of Margarethe Scheel (or ‘Mama Scheel,’ as ex-askari referred to her). Her husband, Walter Scheel, had served as Consul for the Federal Republic of Germany in Tanganyika/Tanzania, and in that capacity had facilitated the transfer of cash donated by charities and veterans’ groups to former askari. She also facilitated communication between former askari and Schutztruppe veterans. Upon her husband’s death in 1973, Margarethe Scheel became ‘Honorary Consul,’ cementing her position as a conduit between German veterans’ organizations, the Foreign Office, and the many surviving ex-askari who received payments and other care from her.

But Scheel’s role in providing care to ex-askari is only part of the story of care and compensation to ex-askari living in enclaves. At least one African intermediary, Thomas S. Plantan, immersed himself in this work, travelling the country and distributing funds to ex-askari. He was the Chairman of the Tanganyika Association of former German Askaris, founded in 1962. The veterans’ decision to form the organization emerged out of a ‘certain dissatisfaction’ with their conditions, especially vis-à-vis their ‘countrymen’ who had served in the British colonial army, the KAR. The British Legion, an aid organization ‘for former English askari in Tanganyika,’ paid them 50 shillings a month, but Schutztruppe veterans were not included. As a boy during World War I, Plantan had been a Schutztruppe heliograph operator and observer. He had fought at the Battle of Tanga in 1914. His skills earned him a promotion to corporal, and he was later wounded in combat alongside General von Lettow-Vorbeck at the Umba River. He took part in a number of other subsequent battles as well. ‘In short,’ Terence Ranger wrote, ‘Thomas [Plantan] had played as central a role in the fighting as was possible for a young African.’ In the mid-1960s, Plantan travelled around Tanzania distributing German donations to ex-askari, meticulously filing short handwritten notes documenting how much he had disbursed, to whom, and for what purpose. In some cases, he noted askaris’ disabilities. Ex-askaris’ families also passed along information to him about the veterans’ deaths and funeral plans. He submitted lists of expenses he incurred while doing this work, which entailed significant travel around Tanzania. This everyday work of keeping the ties between ex-askari and German patrons alive seems to have occupied quite a bit of his time fairly late in life. Plantan’s short notes about the ex-askari named them as individuals, providing rare glimpses of them beyond the descriptor of ex-askari, as elderly men trying to survive, as men with families who wanted to give them proper burials when they died.

In 1953, At 82 years old, Lettow-Vorbeck had also visited ex-askari as part of a ten-week trip to a number of places in Africa, sponsored by a German illustrated magazine. During his stop in Tanganyika, he met with ‘a few hundred’ former askari, who gave him a ‘heartfelt’ reception. This moment of reconnection with their former commander also served as a moment of validation for the ex-askari, that their time in the Schutztruppe mattered to Germany, even as their position within still colonized Tanganyika had become largely irrelevant. A decade later, following reports of the askaris’ hardships and the formation of the Tanganyika Association of former German Askaris, the German Foreign Office mobilized to begin building a ‘hardship fund’ to support the remaining ex-askari. Thomas Plantan helped bring the ex-askaris’ plight to the attention of German diplomatic officials in Tanganyika. From there, officials in Bonn then took up the cause, coordinating the collection and distribution of funds from organizations like the Kyffhäuser Bund, as well as from private citizens and the Deutsche Afrika-Gesellschaft. Contributions to the fund continued for the next few years, as did disbursements to ex-askari in Tanzania. The askaris’ story of service to the Kaisserreich and their subsequent impoverishment garnered attention in wider German society in the 1960s in part because of two films about the colonial past that aired in Germany in 1964 and 1966. The films provoked lively discussion about the askari and Germany’s colonial past. The first, Reichsadler und Giraffe, provoked a wave of donations from viewers concerned about the African veterans’ well-being. The second, Heia Safari, took a more critical, anti-colonial tone, holding Germany’s colonial past up for scrutiny. Nearly three decades later, scholars too began asking harder questions about Germany’s history of colonialism, and what roles the askari had played therein, beyond the mythologies generated during the post-World War I era.

Colonial Careers

In 1999, Ibrahim Khalil, likely the last of the ex-askari of the Schutztruppe, passed away in Kondoa. He was one of a small number of former Schutztruppe askari to have also served in the KAR, making him a veteran of both world wars. He was an example of another category of former askari who threw in their lot with the British, becoming soldiers, civil servants, and administrators. These men formed part of a new political elite whom British officials viewed as valuable agents of indirect rule in Tanganyika. One of them, Francis Lwamugira, had fought for the Germans during World War I, and became one of the earliest practitioners of indirect rule under the British Mandate. Born in the Bukoba region on Lake Victoria in the early 1870s, and raised with some privilege, he learned to read at a nearby Catholic mission. He spoke a number of regional African languages, German, and later English. His family cultivated an alliance with German colonial administrators, and he was raised to preserve this alliance. He developed diplomatic skills, becoming an interpreter and confidential agent (Geheimrat) to the local German administration. These attributes made him an invaluable administrator and trusted agent to the Germans. He also had a military role in training local traditional military retainers (rugaruga), who supplemented the German colonial force in the region. In this capacity, he was awarded the rank of shaush (sergeant) in the Schutztruppe. When war began in 1914, he was promoted to sergeant-major (Sol), the highest achievable rank for an askari.

His military skills and experience soon brought him into the East African campaign. The Germans evacuated Bukoba in June 1916 to escape the Belgian advance, and Lwamugira joined the German commander on the retreat to Tabora in the central steppe region. On the way to Tabora, he took part in fighting around Biharamulo. Released from service due to an eye injury, he returned to Bukoba in September 1916, where he resumed his role as a local administrator. Lwamugira’s continued authority in Bukoba was undermined, however, by Germany’s defeat in 1918. He initially refused employment with British authorities. In order to restore his authority, he then recast himself as a trusted agent for the British. He participated in a British coffee-growing scheme in the Bukoba region, such that the kind of coffee grown there acquired the name ‘Lwamugira’s coffee’. His successes in supporting British aims gained him additional employment opportunities that resembled his prior work with the Germans. He used his local expertise and privilege to become a land surveyor, making him a central figure in formulating land tenure policy. He took an active role in implementing indirect rule in Bukoba, aligning himself with British interests, often at the expense of the people he was supposed to represent. He helped create a unitary ‘tribal’ administration in Bukoba, despite local opposition. Given the tremendous variety of identities in the region, not everyone wanted to belong to a fictive unitary ‘tribal’ identity. Lwamugira, like other ‘modern Tanzanians’ in this era, prioritized ‘unity’ politics despite dissent among those he whose interests he was charged with representing.

Within the spectrum of possibilities for African men in British mandate Tanganyika, Lwamugira became quite powerful. As new political organizations took hold in Buhaya in the 1920s and 1930s, a ‘wide swath’ of those he supposedly represented opposed him and the new style of governance the British implemented through their intermediaries. In 1934, A British District Commissioner remarked,

[Lwamugira] is the most perfect native gentleman it is possible to meet. His knowledge of the District is profound and his memory is such that he can immediately recall to mind any small case which may have been heard during the last 20 years. His acquaintance with all native customs is astonishing. He makes an invaluable advisor to the District Officer and to the chiefs. It will be a sad day in Bukoba when Lwamugira retires from office.

He retired in 1947 and died in 1950. Lwamugira’s biographers summed up his political life this way: ‘Lwamugira was a respected man, but not a popular one. Ultimately, his power depended on the British and no one else.’

This quote captures the essence of Schutztruppe veterans’ lives after WWI. Their relative privilege disappeared along with their German patrons. They charted new paths through a changed colonial political landscape that offered few meaningful opportunities for upward mobility, respectability, or authority. Some ex-askari found their way into work within the British administration, usually because of some previously existing privilege or skills that the British found valuable. Such work, often in the civil service, became a training ground for precursors to nationalist groups that gained traction in Tanganyika and elsewhere on the African continent after World War II. These men were ‘modernizers’ of a sort, but it is difficult to imagine them as radicals or revolutionaries.

Exit Strategies

A small number of ex-askari exited this new colonial environment altogether. Mahjub bin Adam Mohamed was born to an askari family in Dar es Salaam. Like Thomas Plantan, he had served as a heliograph operator during World War I. After the war, he secured work with German companies operating in British Tanganyika. In 1925, he took a job as a waiter on a steamship operated by the Woermann Line, the main shipping company operating between Germany and the rest of the world. In 1929 he made a permanent life for himself in Germany. He married a German woman and had intimate sexual relationships with others, fathering several children. He pieced together a living through hospitality work, language instruction, and as a performer in the German film industry. From 1936 to 1940, he also worked for Die Deutsch-Afrika Schau, a human exhibition that employed a significant number of Africans who otherwise had no employment in the lead up to the Second World War. By 1941, Nazi racial laws had foreclosed all of Mahjub’s employment opportunities. In 1941, the Gestapo arrested him for violating German racial laws due to his relationships with German women. He contested the arrest, but died in Sachsenhausen in 1944. A ‘stumbling stone’ (Stolperstein) memorial was inserted into the pavement in front of his former home in Berlin in 2007.

Mahjub’s story as an ex-askari is unusual in several ways. First, German scholars have painstakingly reconstructed his life history, producing by far the richest life history of a former German askari available. Second, his specific trajectory after World War I suggests a distinctive mindset, or perhaps a distinctive ability to envision and enact a different kind of future, than most other ex-askari. Rather than seeking out new British patrons in Tanganyika, Mahjub sought a way out of Tanganyika entirely. Perhaps he imagined that he was following his former officer-patrons back to Germany, where he would be welcomed as a comrade and compensated for his work during the First World War. Third, his work in the German entertainment industry prompts consideration of veterans as performers-both literal and figurative-acting out scripts demanded of them by the societies in which they live, often while navigating socio-economic precarity. Mahjub’s politics of survival helped him find a way out of the space the colonizers expected him to inhabit, and into unexpected spaces that allowed him to live for a time. His tragic end exposes most poignantly the vexed position of Africans who sought to remain tied to Germany through an appeal to a shared military past. But this connection was not enough to overcome the genocidal politics of Nazi Germany.


This article began with a description of two elderly askari veterans attending Lettow-Vorbeck’s funeral in Germany in March 1964. Throughout the rest of the year, the German Foreign Office handled a great deal of correspondence concerning payments to the askari, which continued to flow in from German veterans’ organizations throughout the rest of 1964. This last phase in the Federal Republic of Germany’s recognition of the askari’s past service to the German empire happened in the midst of a revolutionary year in Tanganyikan politics. First, in January, a bloody revolution in Zanzibar raised the spectre of an “African Cuba’ off the Tanganyikan coast’, which ‘caught the attention of the Cold War superpowers’. In order to stave off ‘superpower pressures’, Tanganyikan President Nyerere and Zanzibari leader Abeid Karume signed a union treaty that created the United Republic of Tanganyika and Zanzibar. Some months later, it became the United Republic of Tanzania. Also in January 1964, inspired in part by the Zanzibar revolution, soldiers of the Tanganyika Rifles mutinied. They protested low pay and the continued presence of British officers in their leadership ranks. In an army that should have reflected the ideals of a newly independent African state, the soldiers demanded that African officers lead them. Nyerere grew concerned about ‘copycat’ mutinies occurring in neighbouring Kenya and Uganda, as well as the prospect that ‘radical labor leaders’ were pushing the soldiers to carry out a coup d’etat. He reluctantly acquiesced to a British military intervention to quash the mutiny. Nyerere subsequently dissolved the Tanganyika Rifles, forming the Tanzania People’s Defence Force (TPDF), which continues to operate as Tanzania’s national army to this day.

The African veterans’ attendance at Lettow-Vorbeck’s funeral in March 1964 thus marked the twilight of one soldierly narrative in Tanzanian history and the dawn of another. The events of 1964 serve as a useful reminder that the category of veteran contains ex-soldiers whose histories unfolded in different periods. Their experiences did not fit a single mould. Their well-being hinged on their proximity to those who employed them, and their former employers’ continuing interest in supporting them once their time as soldiers ended.

As a group, the ex-askari fared poorly in the postwar period. Individual exceptions to this generalization certainly existed, as the lives of Mahjub bin Adam Mohamed, Frances Lwamugira, and others demonstrate. Yet even in these exceptional cases, ex-askari could only avail themselves of a limited range of political possibilities. David Killingray has described the postwar ambitions of KAR veterans after World War II as ‘conservative,’ inasmuch as most men sought to return to the rural lives they had led before the war. Like their counterparts in French West Africa, most African Schutztruppe veterans of World War I also sought the fulfilment of basic goals of sustenance, work, and the ability to care for kin. Cut off from their former sources of power, they had to find ways to survive under British colonialism. For the most part, they did not become revolutionaries or internationalists, though some of them did begin participating in ‘unity’ politics that may have been inspired by contemporary circuits of Pan-Africanist thought. Nor did their politics resemble that of the ‘New Negroes’ who challenged the US racial order after World War I. A subset of ex-askari became leaders of the Tanganyika African Association (TAA), formed in 1929 to push for unity among African peoples, with civil servants and businessmen in the forefront. Among the founders was Kleist Sykes, a former askari raised in the same household as Thomas S. Plantan, the elderly veteran mentioned above who helped to distribute funds to elderly veterans in the 1960s. The TAA was a ‘parent’ to the Tanganyika National Union (TANU), which emerged after World War II to become the dominant nationalist party. But it did not espouse radical politics. Rather, its goals of unity and self-help, its urban roots, and its middle class leadership all reflected modest hopes for educating more Africans so that they too could enter the ranks of the middle class.

The former Schutztruppe askari were part of a new demographic of veterans around the world whose wartime experiences undoubtedly shaped their postwar lives. The ex-askari had much in common with other African veterans of the war in terms of combat experience, disabilities, and disappointment with their postwar circumstances. They also likely shared many of the same postwar aspirations, for jobs to take care of themselves and their families, compensation for their war work, medical care for the wounds they had suffered. While some charted paths to modest social, political, or economic success, many others became destitute. Unlike veterans in other contexts, the Schutztruppe veterans’ military patrons were long gone, leaving them with few viable advocates. The best they could hope for was continued advocacy from afar. Yet even where colonial rulers remained the same after the war, African veterans found that officials and governments were reluctant to honour their obligations. As Melvin Page wrote of Malawian veterans, ‘The promises made to them were largely an empty shell.’ As the case of the Schutztruppe ex-askari illustrates, the Malawian ex-combatants were hardly alone.

In other parts of the world, Black veterans of the First World War ‘expressed their frustrations’ against the white supremacist violence of their societies in radical ways. African-American troops returning from France after the armistice played ‘central’ roles in the New Negro movement, as Chad Williams has argued. Facing a ‘maelstrom of [racist] violence’ in the United States, most notably during the ‘Red Summer’ of 1919, Black veterans embodied anti-racist and anti-colonial practices in the postwar period. They laid claim to a New Negro identity that represented a ‘paradigmatic black manhood’ steeped in militarism. British West Indies Regiment (BWIR) troops went on strike in Taranto, Italy in December 1918, protesting demoralizing work conditions. In 1919, demobilized and ‘politicized’ BWIR troops protested unfair compensation in Palestine, Trinidad, and other the Caribbean locations. Black activists and thinkers in the US and Caribbean after World War I began to express forms of black internationalism that were ‘linked by a profound investment in the ideal of racial sovereignty.’ But in postwar Tanganyika, the ex-askari of the Schutztruppe did not yet view their fates through a lens of racial sovereignty or self-determination. Rather, they continued to view their thin ties to state authority and patronage as their main source of socio-economic security. In a time of radical potentials, the ex-askari lived within the conservative realities of ruptured ties to a past colonial power on the one hand, and the limited opportunities afforded them by the new one, on the other.