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

Markus Matzel/ DER SPIEGEL

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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.

Burning Questions

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

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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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