Soldier was believed to be Germany’s last WWI vet

From the Associated Press

Erich Kaestner, a soldier believed to have been Germany’s last World War I veteran, died Jan. 1 at a nursing home in Cologne at the age of 107, his son said Friday.

When France’s next-to-last surviving veteran from World War I, Louis de Cazenave, 110, died Jan. 20, the news made international headlines.

But in Germany -- which lost both world wars and has had to cope with the shame of the Nazi genocide for more than six decades -- there is not even an organization keeping track of the remaining veterans.

“That is the way history has developed,” Kaestner’s son, Peter, said in a telephone interview. “In Germany, in this respect, these things are kept quiet -- they’re not a big deal.”


The news did not even trickle out into the German media until this week, and the articles were more about how Germans remember than about Kaestner’s death.

“The losers hide themselves in a state of self-pity and self-denial that they happily try to mitigate by forgetting,” the daily Die Welt wrote Friday in its obituary of Kaestner.

Der Spiegel magazine noted that “the German public was within a hair’s breadth of never learning of the end of an era” until someone who had read Kaestner’s death notice in a newspaper figured out who he was and updated a Wikipedia entry on the Internet.

Kaestner was born in 1900, and had just graduated from high school in 1918 when he entered the army, his son said.


After training, he was sent to the Western Front to fight in France, but was never sent to the front lines, he said.

For Kaestner, his service during the war, in which more than 2 million German soldiers were killed, was only a small part of his long life, his son said.

“He was just a soldier for a quarter to a half a year,” his son said.

Kaestner rejoined the military in 1939 with the outbreak of World War II, serving as a first lieutenant in ground support for the Luftwaffe, primarily in France.

After the end of the war in 1945, Kaestner became a judge in Hanover.

For his work as a jurist, he received Lower Saxony’s Merit Cross, 1st Class. Kaestner also was honored by Germany’s president for his 75-year marriage to his wife, Maria, shortly before her death in 2003 at age 102.

Though Die Welt, Der Spiegel and the local publication Hannoversche Allgemeine Zeitung all said Kaestner was the last German veteran of World War I, it was not possible to confirm that status directly.

The Defense Ministry said the German military, the Bundeswehr, “has no information available concerning World War I veterans.”


The Federal Military Archive and the German War Graves Commission said they had no records on possible other surviving soldiers from the war.

“With the death of Erich Kaestner, no more Germans can talk about firsthand experiences” in the war, Der Spiegel wrote. “We have lost a chance -- forever.”