Photo Gallery: 'I Was a Good Tool For a Criminal Regime'
A Son's Quest for Truth The Last Battle of a German WWII Veteran
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.
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