A Son's Quest for Truth The Last Battle of a German WWII Veteran

Heinz Otto Fausten, a German soldier who fought in World War II, saw things no one should ever have to see. After that, the high school teacher just concentrated on the future. But then his son started asking questions to find out whether he was a murderer.

Markus Matzel/ DER SPIEGEL


Ottoooo..! That scream, that horrible scream, the scream that has echoed and reverberated in his head for the last 71 years. That scream, shrill and terrible, that only he can hear now, as he sits at his dining table in a small house at the end of a quiet, dead-end street, in a quiet living room with a vase of tulips and a gingerbread heart on the shelf, with the words "Opa is Fantastic" written on it with icing.


The scream transports Heinz Otto Fausten back 71 years to a trench in Kalikino, Russia, 2,240 kilometers (1,400 miles) away. The journey takes him a fraction of a second. Suddenly he is 21 again, and caught in a ruthless, violent world where life is about nothing but survival.

He is crouched on the ground next to his friend Ekkehardt. They are cowering in the trench, the entire company, one man next to the other. The trench is their only protection. Suddenly the company commander in front shouts to the soldiers behind him: "Fausten group to the front." Fausten doesn't move, sensing that whoever heeds the command is a dead man. "Don't say anything, Ekkehardt," he tells his friend, but Ekkehardt calls out: "We're coming."

There are eight men in the group, and their objective is to capture the village. They crawl past dead bodies and the wounded, the ones who have already tried and failed. The Russians are throwing everything they have into the attack: machine guns, antitank guns, hand grenades. Three men, Schreck, Degenhard and Mörscher, are killed immediately. A fourth man, Tritschler tumbles toward Fausten, his left hand dangling from his arm by the tendons. Tritschler rips off the nearly severed hand with his other hand.

Ekkehardt has been hit and is lying on the ground next to him. Fausten tries to get to his friend but runs into a counterattack, fires until his clip is empty and is forced to retreat. There are Russians and Germans everywhere, and everyone is running and shooting and trying to stay alive. Most of them fail, but Fausten runs and survives, carrying a wounded man on his back. Then he hears his friend Ekkehardt screaming: "Ottoooo..!" Again and again. Begging. Hoping. Despairing. Until suddenly the screaming stops. It happened in Kalikino, in October 1941.

The Force of Memory

It's 2013, and Fausten lives in the town of Sinzig, on the Rhine River. His voice trembles and his eyes are moist with tears. On this evening, the sheer force of memory has penetrated the wall he had erected around the past. Whenever Fausten used to talk about the war, like many of those who were part of it, it was with a strange sense of detachment. But even though he is now 92, he remembers what happened with photographic precision, as if the best way to describe the essence of the war is in the form of a military report. Or perhaps this levelheaded approach is the best way for men like Fausten to cope with the horrors of the war and how it affected the people who were in it.

Fausten reported how he, as a Panzergrenadier or mechanised infantryman, had attacked the Red Army in his armored personnel carrier, that the enemy's resistance had been "broken," that they had "raked" the enemy with machine-gun fire, that one of his comrades had fallen and the other one had escaped. The report also described what happened and who shot at whom, complete with ranks, names, places and the number of dead. It was a report written with the cold eyes of his generation, which saw things that would have been better unseen.

But this wasn't the kind of front-line report his son Peter wanted to hear from him. Not as a child, and certainly not as an adolescent, in the post-1968 era, when Germans were asking questions about blame and responsibility. And not now either, at 60, on that evening last week. Peter Fausten had always been interested in why, and not how, it all happened. He wanted to know why his father had participated, and whether he had lost more during those years in Russia than his right leg: whether he had lost his conscience as well.

It was a long road before Fausten, a teacher, was able to talk about it with his father, who always taught him that the Germans' war was the biggest crime of all time.

Praise for Film

Heinz Otto Fausten also saw the three-part miniseries "Unsere Mütter, unsere Väter" ("Our Mothers, Our Fathers") on Germany's ZDF television network. Fausten, who became an art teacher and principal of the Sinzig high school after the war, says he would give the film a B grade. "It's true, it was really like that at the front," he says. There were a few minor errors, he adds. For instance, nurses didn't smoke cigarettes, as portrayed in the film, at least not in the field hospitals where he was treated.

He thinks it's important that the film has triggered something, prompting viewers to ask questions, once again, of a generation in which many said nothing after the war about their experiences because they hoped to silence the demons of their past. The questions are being now asked by the children of the wartime generation, and by the grandchildren. This is their last chance to ask these questions, before the last survivors are dead.

Heinz Otto Fausten hadn't intended to watch the film. He had to force himself to do it. He only watched because ZDF had interviewed him for a documentary, but one that was never aired. But he didn't need the film's images to remember. Fausten has his own, more jarring images in his head, images ZDF would never have shown, images that, to be complete, require the crashing and the exploding, the stench and the taste, the shock and the pain of war.

Heinz Otto Fausten comes from a family of university graduates. His father was an electrical engineer who owned his own business. It couldn't hurt to join the Nazi Party. It was good for business, says the son, who was a flag-bearer for the Jungvolk, a subdivision of the Hitler Youth, but who wasn't a fanatical Nazi. His family was too Catholic for that, says Fausten.

After graduating from high school in 1939, he served in the Reich Labor Service. He doesn't remember being enthusiastic when the war began that fall. He remained at the university for a few more months, studying German and geography, and then he volunteered for the army, knowing that he would be drafted soon, anyway. As a volunteer, he was allowed to choose his branch of the military. He wanted to be in a tank division. And so he ended up on the Russian border, in an infantry fighting vehicle, on June 21, 1941, prepared for the attack and for a war of aggression, one that would devastate both the country before them and their own souls.


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Inglenda2 03/29/2013
1. Free will or duty, when is a killer a murderer?
This is a question which every soldier (not just a member of the Wehrmacht), might find himself faced with. Does the deliberate killing of a human-being, stop being a murder, because it is done in uniform and on the orders of persons in a higher position? The British army was quite clear on this point, “obey orders first and ask questions later” was drilled into every member of the armed forces, whether they were volunteers or just conscripts. One might quite rightly argue, that a person who joins the army of his own freewill, knows he may have to kill somebody in the course of his duty and is therefore fully responsible for what occurs. A conscript however has little choice. To refuse to serve in the armed forces was considered – and possibly still is in many countries – to be a crime. To refuse orders during active service, could result in oneself being executed without trial. It is now generally considered, that the German government, under Adolph Hitler, was little more than a criminal organisation, but at the time of the Second World War it was the official regime with the power to control the German army. Anybody who did not accept this was regarded as a traitor. Most nations have a similar attitude towards citizens who do not do what is required from them, or show the necessary respect for those in power. The conscript soldier cannot therefore be blamed in the same manner as a volunteer for what he has been forced to do. Those who could be rightfully blamed are the governments and political parties, who are responsible for the predicament in which the soldier finds himself. These however are, with few exceptions, are seldom put to trial.
joe 03/29/2013
2. guilt is in the eye of the beholder
I was a very young boy in the USA during WWII. My only immediate view of it was the stories that were later told to me by my uncles and family acquaintances that came back from that war. Although they could not have liked the Nazi regime, they were, in my opinion, respectful of the German soldiers they encountered. They knew that they too were pawns in the same war in spite of their being on the other side. Adolf made no sense to them, but they shared a kindred connection with men like the older gentleman in this article even though they had to shoot at each other. Too bad these 'inquisitive' young Germans didn't get to talk to the enemies of their fathers. They might have discovered their dads were soldiers doing a dirty job that they did not relish. No soldier has to explain shooting at the enemy. Judging by their willingness to inhale the cultural dogmas of today, I'd wager anything that the young contemporary moralists would have been the first to enlist back then. Different times, different problems, different causes, different reactions.
goatfarmer 03/30/2013
3. You should have comments below the article
This forum idea doesn't work well as a substitute for comments. By the time you are logged in and sent to the general forum page you will forget about making a comment. If you persist you will see that no one has commented. Why not do what other publications do? Put comments at the bottom of the page for a limited period.
stevej8 03/30/2013
4. Good article with qualifications
A good article, representative of the experience of millions of soldiers who also "did not pick the time". Regarding the phrase, "a war of aggression", whilst Hitler undoubtedly had his aggressive motivations, there is a serious debate amongst scholars of the degree to which Stalin did too, with even quite a few respected Allied-nation and Israeli historians granting that alongside Hitler's geopolitical and colonial notions, there was also a preventive aspect to the move, after all the Red Army under Stalin was apart from the Wehrmacht the most powerful and attack-oriented force (by doctrine) in the world on land, which was undoubtedly also deploying massive forces forward to the border regions, which the troops encountered and wondered at. But more importantly for the purpose of such a topic as this article addresses, the attack was presented to the public as a necessary preventive assault, eg in Hitler's address to the Reichstag on the day of the launch of Barbarossa. So from the point of view of the ordinary citizen, it was certainly not 'sold' as a war of aggression, an important point. The people were told they were under imminent threat of overwhelming attack, with no way of knowing better as to facts, not engaged in an expansionist war of conquest. Whilst this does not justify actual crimes committed during the war, it helps explain how people were led to believe it was necessary to fight, apart from a general sense of duty, and conformity, as well as from threat of compulsion by an increasingly harsh and ruthless dictatorship.
scottbruneau 04/01/2013
5. Excellent Article!
As an American son of parents that were young during WWII, I was taught the Germans and Japanese were "bad". Later I questioned that and all the US films showing "Germans" as "bad". As an adult I have caught some flak from some people by being empathetic of the thousands of Germans and OTHERS who fought during WWII. So many have tried to paint ALL Germans as bad as being "Nazis". I have seen that so many soldiers were like the one in this article: Men that were given orders and to refuse those orders THEY would be the men dying. IF you refuse orders during that war on ALL sides of it, you were imprisoned or executed. Your average German soldier was simply doing his duty. They HAD to take orders. As did the Americans. At the age of 57 I am a bit TIRED of the Germans being given a blanket guilt trip for generations. Mr. Fausten and his generation are dying out. As my parents died. Same generation. It is time for history to be left AS HISTORY and present and future generations forgiven for what SOME of their parents, grand parents and great grand parents generation did. Mr. Fausten is a great example of of a soldier that was merely a SOLDIER like those he fought against. A man taking orders ... or dying for not obeying those orders. I have talked about this in my factory. My fellow workers agree. Were we in his place at that time WE would have done what so many did: Take orders. Peace and Healing to all Germans of all generations. Peace and healing to ALL veterans of all wars. Amen.
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