This German New Guinea passport is a rare type, and every collector would be happy to have such a treasure in a collection. I almost grabbed it, but unfortunately, due to a technical issue, my bid did not go through. I admit it, I am sad. Such documents you see only once in a decade.
However, this article also tells the story of the very last German soldier in the First World War captured in German New Guinea.
The imperial soldiers who march through the Brandenburg Gate in Berlin on December 10, 1918, are celebrated as victors. Standing on a grandstand decorated with fir branches, the chairman of the Council of People’s Representatives, Friedrich Ebert, shouts to the field greys: “No enemy has overcome you. Only when the enemy’s superiority of men and material became more and more oppressive, did we give up the fight.” And wave his hat.
“It was a seemingly cheerful picture. Hurrah and waving of the scarfs”, the entrepreneur and art historian Oskar Münsterberg later recalls this warm, rainy day and the parade of the war homecoming soldiers. “But grey mist lingered like a shadow over the atmosphere.” German New Guinea Passport
The German Reich did not merely give up. After more than four years of war, it burned out, overcome, defeated. On November 11, the Germans sign the requested armistice. Two weeks later, General Paul von Lettow-Vorbeck and the last soldiers of the Schutztruppe also lay down their arms in East Africa.
But there is one place on earth where Germany is not yet ultimately defeated at this point: in Papua New Guinea. There, then German New Guinea, Captain Hermann Detzner, did not go into captivity until mid-December 1918. He is the very last German soldier in the First World War to lay down his arms.
Detzner is a small, wiry man, career officer, born in Speyer. Back then, the colonial administration liked to send men from the Kurpfalz to the tropics – they supposedly tolerate the wet climate better than men from East Prussia or Kurhessen. Detzner served in Cameroon for a few years, but in early 1914 he was transferred to German New Guinea and landed in Rabaul on the island of Neu Pommern in the Bismarck Archipelago, then the seat of the German governor. On December 13, 1918, Detzner was again on an Australian ship on his way to Rabaul, where he will make his last voyage as a German officer in the North Pacific protectorate of the Reich.
Only a few days earlier, Detzner had learned in the interior of the country, Kaiser-Wilhelmsland, that the war was over – and lost what the captain can hardly believe. Didn’t the latest reports, which were leaked to Deutsch-Neuguinea months later, say that Russia had been defeated? Didn’t the year 1918 begin with great victories in France?
In December, messengers from the Allies finally got through to him, asking him to come from the jungle to the coast. “I wish to see you in Finschhafen this afternoon,” writes the Australian captain M. J. Dillane. Detzner comes and finds “a corpulent, constantly sweating officer with a captain’s badge,” as he writes in his book “Four years among cannibals,” published in 1921: “Formal greeting! German New Guinea Passport
The British commander-in-chief wants to meet the German captain in Rabaul, the former Simpson harbor. They embark in Finschhafen, drive south past Hänisch-Hafen and Preußen-Reede. Detzner stands on deck and looks out over the coast and the growing hinterland, the Deiznerhöhe, and the Sattelberg. “Then Captain Dillane rose from his seat, pulled his fat figure together, and spoke to me: “I beg you to consider yourself a prisoner of war officer,” Detzner wrote. “Then he dropped back clumsily into his seat.”
The only thing the German wants to say about it is: “Your behavior is unworthy of a gentleman.” Detzner is surprised by his capture, or at least he pretends to be. But what did he expect? That his opponents would only want to meet him for tea? Anyway, with that scene off the coast of New Guinea, World War I is finally over. Days before, the Australians had threatened a blockade of the sanctuary and reprisals against the German planters, should the recalcitrant captain not eventually come out of the bush and surrender.
This and the date of capture are secured. Whether the scene took place in this way and whether Detzner’s account of his years of resistance against the British and Australians in northeastern Guinea is valid, however, remains doubtful. The book “Four Years Among Cannibals” is, on the one hand, a veritable cornucopia of knowledge – but on the other hand, a fantasy novel. The descriptions of nature and people in the northeast of the island of New Guinea are astonishingly good. Detzner’s ethnological, botanical and zoological studies are the first ever written about this part of the world. German New Guinea Passport
The adventures of Captain Detzner, however, turn out to be often invented or greatly exaggerated, as German missionaries credibly assure us after the end of the war. The “last upright man,” the fighter until five past twelve, who became immensely popular in Germany in the 1920s, did not primarily wrestle with Allied superiority. Anyone who reads his book attentively and with muse recognizes: Detzner fought for four years in the highland forests of Kaiser-Wilhelmsland, mainly for his survival, which is an astonishing achievement in itself without the accomplishments of Western civilization, without medicines and technical aids, and on an island that is rich in many mineral resources but poor in salt.
In 1885, the German Empire had also quickly secured a place in the sun in the northern Pacific. For the British, it was clear that the eastern part of New Guinea was naturally part of their sphere of interest. The administration in Australia was already about to take possession of the vast area east of Dutch Guinea, but the government in London put the brakes on. They were busy there with the annexation of Egypt. And who would be interested in New Guinea, believed the then colonial minister of the Empire, Edward Stanley, Earl of Derby? German New Guinea Passport
The Germans had it because planters from the Reich were already active there. They took advantage of the favorable moment, raised the Reich flag, and negotiated so-called protection contracts with the native tribes. London finally grudgingly accepted the German occupation. And within a short time, the Germans in the North Pacific gathered a colonial empire that was gigantic in area. Besides parts of New Guinea, the Kaiser-Wilhelmsland, this included New Pomerania, the Bismarck Archipelago, the northern Solomon Islands, the Caroline Islands, the Northern Mariana Islands, Palau, Nauru, the Marshall Islands and many more.
It took weeks to travel by ship from one end of this protected area to the other. But most of this colonial empire consisted of – water. And on most of the many islands, no German was ever seen until 1914, or the administration reached from a few places on the coast at most a few kilometers into the interior. The only complete census in 1912 revealed 478,843 indigenous people – and 772 German inhabitants.
Such a territory could not be defended in case of war. The “army” on-site consisted of 16 Europeans and 597 indigenous people, as well as 61 German civilians capable of military service. When the Australians landed south of Rabaul in mid-August 1914 with a mighty battle fleet and an army, the only battle lasted barely four hours. Most of the Germans were already worn down and ill by then. “They were trembling with fear, crying or stealing away,” stated Reserve Lieutenant Emil Kempf disapprovingly. German New Guinea Passport
Hermann Detzner did not hear about any of this, he only learned about the war in November 1914, when he returned from an exploratory tour in the interior of New Guinea. He hurries to the coast, but either the Australians are already there, or the European settlements are no longer usable.
Detzner decides to offer “resistance in the mountains,” as he writes. It becomes a resistance against the forces of nature. For four years, he roams the country in search of food and protection from rain and heat. He describes endless marches, impenetrable forests, and tribes in the high valleys that have never seen people of other peoples, let alone a European. The Australians don’t bother to follow the German captain and his few faithful.
Hermann Detzner is the first white man to explore this part of Guinea. He tells of warriors in grass skirts and with bow and arrow, the constant lack of salt, feasts with human flesh, shy and hostile tribes, and hospitable people. And again and again, he finds villages decorated with the imperial flag – or so he claims.
Detzner reports with much pathos and the feeling of superiority of the Germans, but also with passion, almost affection, about this harsh country and its people, which is hostile to Europeans. Sometimes it would be like Karl May if only Detzner’s prose were a little more fluent and the plot more densely told.
What is fiction and what is real can never be clarified. Three times Hermann Detzner allegedly sets off on big marches and tries to escape with a handful of Papuans to Dutch New Guinea, i.e., to neutral territory. Three times he fails – because of the endless distances, heat and even snow, hunger, and illness.
At the beginning of December 1918, the Schutztruppenoffizier is finally tired. Hermann Detzner celebrates a last feast with the Papua. “Dressed in a dazzling white hanging dress, with a black-white-red sash, a girl from the tribe of the Kate walked through the festival square and stepped before us Europeans. She recited a poem in German,” Detzner wrote about his departure. Then the girl handed over a “grass bag full of silver coins” for a war memorial in Germany.
Hermann Detzner does not write what happens with the money. But in 1932, he must admit that large parts of the story of his book are exaggerated or even freely invented. He falls out of favor with his so far enthusiastic audience. Not even the Nazis want to adorn themselves with him anymore. They are also less interested in a return to the former colonies. Although the colonial warrior Detzner, who died in Heidelberg in 1970 at the age of 88, at the end of his book, the Papuans were promised: “We will come back.” German New Guinea Passport