A Son's Quest for Truth The Last Battle of a German WWII Veteran
Part 2: For Family and Fatherland
When his division set out the next morning, he thought he was doing it for family and fatherland, because it was his duty, because he was obeying orders, and because doing anything else would have been inconceivable. Was he afraid? "No, I wasn't," he says. Did he think about death? "I realized that it was a possibility." Did he expect to be shooting people? "It was obvious," he says, given his position as a machine gunner on his tank. His responses are in keeping with a time when peace was just an opportunity to catch one's breath before the next war, and experiencing at least one war in a lifetime was completely normal.
He saw the first dead man after 500 meters, directly next to the tank: a motorcycle messenger who had been shot from his seat. That same day, he saw the first casualty that got to him: a young Russian killed in a forest by a bullet to his head. He had been sleeping. One of the soldiers in Fausten's group had seen the man and fired immediately.
The next day, says Fausten, he witnessed the scene that still shapes his image of the war to this day. They were driving past a Russian tank that had been shot to pieces. A dead commander was hanging out of the hatch with his head down. The side of another tank was ripped open, exposing the blackened bodies in the driver's seat and manning the gun. Fausten could smell the burnt flesh.
He still didn't realize that he was going to see people die miserable deaths. That he would hold a comrade whose guts were spilling out of his stomach, and who yelled "kill me" before dying in his arms. That he would pull the charred body of a commander out of a tank after a direct hit. That he would stare into an infantry fighting vehicle containing eight men, all of them beheaded by a shell. That he would be standing next to a soldier who was shot in the head that very moment. But the strongest and most lasting images are still those from his first two days in combat. What happened after that couldn't make a deeper impression -- not even the moments when he killed other soldiers.
The first soldiers he mowed down with his machine gun were Russians manning an anti-tank gun, en route to Leningrad. When he went up to the bodies, he saw that they were no older than he was. By the end of the war, by the moment a piece of shrapnel ripped open the back of his knee, costing him his leg, there would be dozens. Perhaps even hundreds. His unit attacked and was attacked many times, and he shot and was shot at just as many times. Nevertheless, Fausten can't see any of the faces of the people he killed. "I experienced so much that you really do get used to the horrors of war," he says.
After the War, No Time for The Past
But then it was all over and life after the war began. Fausten says that he felt an "unbelievable feeling of happiness" for having made it through alive. Now there were so many things to do. He had to finish school, and soon there would be a young family. He looked to the future and did what he could to get ahead. He had no time for the past. And why would he? He now had an everyday life worlds away from torn stomachs, ripped-off arms and severed heads. It was time to make plans that went beyond making it through the next day or even the next minute.
He rarely discussed his experiences with his wife. In the lives of the Faustens, family gatherings were the only occasions when memories of the war were brought up. One of his son's early memories is of his Uncle Jupp and his Uncle Theo sitting with his father: Theo, who had been at the tank battle at Kursk, and Jupp, who was also in Russia. Peter Fausten listened until he couldn't listen anymore, which didn't take very long. It was always the same old stories, the ones that began with the words "Do you remember, back then ?" There were never questions that questioned everything, that questioned themselves and what they had done.
Those were the questions that fascinated the son. He was 16 in 1968, and in the years after that an entire generation of sons and daughters began to ask about their fathers: where they had been in the war, what they had done, and whether they were Nazis, murderers or mass murderers. Many fathers remained silent, so that their last battle became a battle of silence. On the other hand, some postwar children demanded answers, and declared anyone who had been in the war to be a murderer.
But in the Faustens' home, the father did not choose to be silent, and his son didn't want to destroy him. "For some of my friends, it was enough to know that their father had fired a gun," to see him as a perpetrator and a murderer, says Peter Fausten. He, on the other hand, had been able to put himself in his father's shoes, he adds, which enabled him to understand that the father had been thrown into a war and wouldn't have survived without shooting. But was that the extent of it? Or was the father guilty in a way that was ultimately inexcusable? The son couldn't shake this feeling of uncertainty.
So they talked, again and again, for decades. They slowly felt their way around the question of what Heinz Otto Fausten had done, and the question of whether the son, once he knew, would be able to stand his father.
Heinz Otto Fausten says that he did nothing that he would have to regret today. Because mechanized infantrymen were an assault force, they didn't witness the atrocities behind the front lines. But there were moments of horror nonetheless, like one incident 25 kilometers outside Leningrad. Fausten was sitting in his infantry fighting vehicle. There was an old man on the side of the road, a Russian farmer, and standing in front of him was a German soldier of a tank unit, wearing a black uniform. The German pointed to the Russian's felt boots, but the Russian shook his head. The soldier pulled out his pistol, shot the man, put away his pistol and removed the dead farmer's boots. Fausten's vehicle kept going, and no one confronted the murderer.
For Peter Fausten, it was important that his father tell this kind of story instead of keeping it a secret. But even more important to him was what happened in Greece in the summer of 1943, when his father and his unit spent several months expecting the Allied landing, before they were sent back to Russia.
Partisans had killed three Italians in an ambush. As a reprisal, Fausten was ordered to execute 30 Greeks in Sparta, but he refused. Then his commanding officers said they would be satisfied with 10 Greeks, because the dead had not been Germans. He refused again, says Fausten. In the end, three partisans who had been caught with weapons in their hands were placed in front of a firing squad. Fausten says he copied seven other names from fresh graves at the cemetery to bring the number up to 10.
Is all of this true? Or did the father portray his role in a more favorable light than was actually the case? His son also had his doubts. He was afraid of the truth, but he also was also afraid that his father, because of this fear, couldn't tell him the truth. But the son felt reassured when he thought about how many years had passed, how many conversations there had been and how many questions had been asked.
"A Good Tool For An Incredibly Criminal Regime"
He saw that his father had only gone once, and never again after that, to one of those veterans' meetings where the others tried to turn a lost war into a victory for German heroism. He also saw that his father was changing. At the end of the 1970s, he had refused to accept the contention that all Germans bore a share of the blame for Hitler. He sees things differently today. "I was a good soldier," says Heinz Otto Fausten, which seems like the beginning of a sentence that can't possibly turn out well. But then he says: "I see today that because of that, I was merely a good tool for an unbelievably criminal regime."
Peter Fausten also helped his father write a book about his war, mostly for his son, a book that contains passages that the father must have known would be difficult for Peter to read. But the father didn't want to leave anything out. They also talked about a title: "We Didn't Pick the Time," which could sound like an excuse but wasn't meant to. After all their talks, the son is confident in having a good idea of what his father did and did not do. "I'm not sitting next to a saint here, but I have the impression that my father got through the war with his moral integrity intact."
And if that hadn't been the case? It was the risk he had taken from the start in his desire for the truth. "I don't know what I would have done then," he says. Peter Fausten has friends who have encountered different fathers, fathers they would rather not have discovered. But the Faustens were fortunate in two respects. The father survived the war, and the son can live with that. With the how and the why.
Translated from the German by Christopher Sultan
- Part 1: The Last Battle of a German WWII Veteran
- Part 2: For Family and Fatherland