A soldier always faces the question: “Is killing men still murder if one is in uniform?”
Heinz Otto Fausten was only 21 when he found himself near Kalikino, Russia in October of 1941. He had been ordered to launch an attack against the village; his small eight-man squad was part of an attack that ultimately failed. Three men were killed within seconds of the start of the attack, while a fourth man ended up ripping the tendons of his hand, nearly severing it. A fifth man fell severely wounded; he was Fausten’s best friend Ekkerhardt. After firing all his ammunition, Fausten was forced to escape with these remaining two men of his squad. His dying friend’s screams of panic were cut off as the young man was killed by the vengeful Russians.
That terrible day is seared into Fausten’s memory. Even as late as 2013, the force of the memory of that and many other days during WWII has a way of breaking apart his mental defenses and forcing him to relieve the moments in absolute clarity. For years he was able to repeat the stories with a detachment more befitting a historian or a recording done by an actor with a monotone voice than by one that had been forced to actually live those events. Yet most soldiers of modern wars cope only by the sanguine approach of telling of these brutal life events. The events are so horrific that the only way to barricade the memories is by repeating the stories as if delivering a report to a superior.
Yet not all people are satisfied with this cleaned-up approach to events. Some people want the more brutally honest retelling — the kind that deals with the raw emotions and the decisions that led to them. One such man is Peter Fausten, the sixty-year old teacher who was the son of Heinz. His questions involve two very sensitive and interlocking themes. Why had his father enlisted in a war that ultimately cost him his right leg on the frozen fields of Russia? Did he speak of his experiences in Russia in such a detached way because he had lost connection with the things he had lost during the war?
In 2013, Peter was finally able to get up the courage to ask his father these hard questions. Heinz always said that the German war was a crime, the greatest ever committed in all of history. He had actually never intended to watch the award-winning three-part miniseries called “Unsere Mutter, unsere Vater” which translates as “Our Mothers, Our Fathers”. Yet he forced himself to watch, and was amazed by the accuracy of what he saw (other than the occasional changes made in order to make the film more palatable for modern-day consumers). Why did he watch it then, if he actually never meant to? Because the film was encouraging the children and grandchildren of WWII soldiers to ask the hard questions, and forcing the soldiers to once again reexamine their own decisions to see if what they had done was right in their conviction.
So one must ask, who was Heinz Otto Fausten? He came from a family of intellectuals, all of them striving for and earning diplomas from universities. His father owned his own electrical company. Partly to help out the family business and partly to do his part for God and Country, Heinz joined the subdivision of the Hitler’s Youth called Junvolk, and achieved the status of flag-bearer. As a strict adherent to the precepts of the Catholic faith, Heinz never became a fanatical Nazi. But he did become a part of the Reich Labor Service, and when the war started in 1939 he left university early to volunteer.
Volunteers in the Nazi war-machine got to choose their own branch of service, and Heinz applied to a tank division. He ended up in a tank attached with the infantry and was shipped to Russia on June 21, 1941 for the world’s ultimate war of aggression. Was he scared, did he worry about dying, and did he realize he might very possibly have to kill people? The answers were no to the first, not really to the second, and probably to the third. He was twenty-one after all, and the weightier matters of life did not press themselves upon him even as he rolled into Russia .
Almost immediately Heinz began to encounter death and destruction. Each step proved more grisly then the last. The first man he saw was a motorcycle messenger shot off his bike as he rode with dispatches. Next man he saw dead was a Russian that had been killed in his sleep by trigger-happy Germans. The next thing was a burning tank with its commander draped out of the open hatch, the smell of burning flesh heavy in the air.
Each day Heinz saw worse; however, even as he mowed down a Russian anti-tank gun crew, he was no longer as deeply moved by what he saw. His first images of war had hardened him into being able to perform his job with ruthless efficiency. By the end of the war, he had lost his leg due to shrapnel behind the right knee and he had killed perhaps hundreds of Russians that had been too slow in trying to do the same thing. Every day for years he would see entire tank crews killed by a single shell and guts spilling out from shot-open stomachs, the Spiegel Online reports.
By the time the war was over, Heinz Fausten was relieved to get out of the war alive and in one piece. He fixed his gaze on the future, finished school, got married and began a family. He rarely recounted those dreadful experiences to anyone who hadn’t been in the war, including his own wife. His own brothers Jupp and Theo Fausten were the only ones that he talked to about those days. Theo had been at the massed tank battle at Kursk while Jupp had been in Russia, though not serving with Heinz.
There is a social aftermath of wars. Were these soldiers evil? Were they murderers? Did they share a bit of Hitler’s guilt for his crimes against the world? For many Germans, if you carried a gun you were just as guilty as those who held the Jews in prison camps. In many ways, it’s reminiscent of the way Americans viewed the soldiers who served in Vietnam. Because you were there, you obviously killed babies.
Yet Heinz never murdered anyone in cold-blood, and he executed captured partisans in Greece only after having refused to murder twenty civilians. Peter Fausten, however, will always have his doubts about the validity of his father’s innocence. Most of the millions of German soldiers never participated in the death camps or executed anyone. Yet, Heinz Otto Fausten would be the first to admit that it was good soldiers that were the tools with which the Fuhrer and his Nazi Party built their empire.