Last German WWI vet dies at 107, barely noticed

Associated Press
Published January 26, 2008

BERLIN - When France's second-last surviving veteran from World War I, Louis de Cazenave, 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.

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

"That is the way history has developed," Kaestner's son, Peter Kaestner, said. "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 press until this week, and the stories were more about how Germans remember than about Kaestner's death itself.

"The losers flee into a state of self-pity and self-denial that they try to mitigate by forgetting," the daily Die Welt wrote Friday in its obituary for Kaestner.

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.

Two-million German soldiers were killed in WWI.

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 that war, Kaestner became a judge in Hanover.

Peter Kaestner said he had known his father was believed to be the last German veteran of the war, but that his family didn't really think much about it - and were only aware of it from the letters his father had been receiving in recent years from people in the United States asking for autographs.

"He did not answer," Peter Kaestner said. "He didn't want to."

And so, in his nursing home, Erich Kaestner faded away.

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