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.
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.
- Part 1: The Last Battle of a German WWII Veteran
- Part 2: For Family and Fatherland