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Last German WWI veteran dies at 107

Erich Kaestner, a German 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.
Germany Obit Last Veteran
An undated portrait shows Erich Kaestner, who died quietly in a nursing home in Cologne on Jan. 1, his son said. AP
/ Source: The Associated Press

Erich Kaestner, a German 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.

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.

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

"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 for 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.

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

Following 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," Peter Kaestner said.

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

An accomplished jurist
Following 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. He was also 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 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 both said they had no records on possible other surviving soldiers from the war.

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 U.S. 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 wrote. "We have lost a chance — for ever."