In 2008, the 110-year-old Lazare Ponticelli died, the last of about 8.4 million French soldiers who fought between 1914 and 1918. His state funeral was held on March 17, 2008. The mass was held at Saint-Louis Cathedral in Les Invalides and was attended by government ministers, soldiers, and members of Ponticelli’s family. French academic Max Gallo delivered the eulogy. French collégien Guillaume Kaleff read a poem written by his class in Ponticelli’s honor at the mass. Flags were ordered to be flown at half-mast while Sarkozy unveiled a plaque dedicated to the veterans of World War I. Legionnaires of the 3rd Foreign Infantry Regiment, heir to the Marching Regiment of the French Foreign Legion, the same regiment that Ponticelli fought in, carried his coffin at the funeral. After the procession, he was buried in his family’s plot at the Ivry-sur-Seine cemetery, located in the Val-de-Marne.
On the other hand, Dr. Erich Kästner died completely unnoticed on January 1, 2008, in a retirement home in Cologne-Pulheim. The 107-year-old was the last German to experience the First World War as an active soldier. He was also the second oldest German and married for 75 years, another record in Germany. When a participant of the First World War dies, it is always worth a story to the media in France, England, USA. Dr. Erich Kästner’s death was not worth a line to any German newspaper.
Unlike the British, the French, the Americans, or the Australians, nobody in Germany keeps a list of the veterans of that time. Neither the Ministry of Defence nor the Bundeswehrverband or the Militärgeschichtliche Forschungsamt in Potsdam can provide any information on who participated in the great massacre between the North Sea and the Alps as a soldier in the armies of the Empire. And so no one in Germany notices when one of these contemporary witnesses dies – how? The veterans of 1914/18 do not appear in the collective memory of the Germans; they are a truly lost generation whose lives, sufferings, and deaths disappeared in the trenches of Marne and Somme in the shadow of the Second World War.
The fact that Kästner’s death – who was born on March 10, 1900, in Leipzig-Schönefeld as the son of a publisher’s employee, lived after 1945 in Hanover and most recently in a retirement home in Pulheim near Cologne – can only be acknowledged as a turning point, as the end of a historical epoch, is due to chance – and the medium of the Internet. The Oberlandesgerichtsrat (Higher Regional Court Council) D. Kästner, not represented in conventional reference books, had his entry in the Internet encyclopedia Wikipedia, created by a user with an IP address in Germany. In a few sentences, Kästner was presented as the second oldest German citizen and oldest German World War soldier. Passport last German veteran
Only in this way did the world learn of the quiet death of the last German soldier of the First World War. The “Neue Zürcher Zeitung” was the first medium to come across the hidden news, and on January 13, 2008, it published a brief note on the death of Kästner. The first significant article appeared three weeks after Kästner’s death, on January 22, 2008, on the English-language page of SPIEGEL ONLINE and the “Hannoversche Allgemeine,” which had indirectly set the ball rolling, researched the case and pays tribute to Kästner in detail in today’s issue. French and British media also took up the case; the “Daily Telegraph” even indirectly demanded a tribute by German Chancellor Angela Merkel.
However, the bearer of the Order of Merit of Lower Saxony, 1st Class, had already achieved particular popularity in the last months of his life from overseas. From distant countries such as England or the USA, the 107-year-old, who was still very active until almost the end, received all kinds of requests for autographs and other requests since summer 2007 – for example from a student from the US state of Iowa who wanted to know on which battlefields Kästner had fought in the war.
But in his just four months as a member of a royal Saxon infantry regiment in Flanders (near the historic Waterloo, in Lessines), the high school graduate Kästner didn’t get into the main battle line at all. At any rate, the anecdotes he occasionally told later about his mission played behind the front line, not in the front line, and turned around horses, not around Frenchmen. Passport last German veteran
However, this could have been slightly different. Inexperienced and poorly trained, young soldiers like Erich Kästner were supposed to fill the gaps in the decimated, demoralized German army, which was standing without further reserves, at least provisionally. Because the half-grown recruits of the year 1900, who were carted into the trenches after a short training as cannon fodder in the summer of 1918, were the emperor’s last posse.
After the failure of the great spring offensive in 1918, which had brought the Germans back to Paris to just a few kilometers, the book of action was finally in the hands of the Entente armies, now reinforced by US troops. The very beginning of the Allied counteroffensive on August 8 became the “Black Day of the German Army” (Ludendorff) when the German front collapsed at Amiens under the onslaught of over 500 Allied tanks. Only days later, the Supreme Army Command was forced to accept that the military situation was hopeless. The defeat of Germany was already sealed at this time.
Kästner was spared from holding out his bones in the battle for the insanity of the emperor’s military. But what exactly he did in Belgium during his four months, even his sons do not know – as in the collective perception of the Germans, in the memories of his father the First World War was superimposed by the Second: Kästner senior first served as a major in the anti-aircraft gun at Anger in France, then as a staff assistant in the Air Force High Command, as Peter Kästner reports.
Kästner liked to tell his family that the climax of his soldier hood in 1918 was a “Kaiserparade” with Wilhelm II, in which he took part – possibly the last. This is not entirely unthinkable. After the capitulation, Kästner and his beaten but redeemed comrades marched back on foot from Flanders to Leipzig, the sons’ Peter and Ralph remember the stories of their father. The 19-year-old studied law entered the legal service, and founded a family in 1928.
In the fierce political conflicts of the early Weimar years, Kästner seems to have stood slightly on the side of the opponents of the republic. In addition to his studies, his son Peter reports that he had fulfilled “guard duties” such as securing the university building in Leipzig “in a loose chain of marksmen.” There is also talk of a visit to the estate of Freikorps leader and Kapp Putsch participant Paul von Lettow-Vorbeck.
How it all was then to serve in Feldgrau in that infernal war that left its mark on the entire 20th century – no German can tell us this first-hand after the death of Erich Kästner. Here is Dr. Kästner’s German passport from 1936.
The last living veteran of World War I was Florence Green, a British citizen who served in the Allied armed forces and died February 4, 2012, aged 110.
The history of the passport, according to the seller.
About 20 years ago, I worked for a roofer in Taucha near Leipzig. It was agreed to clear the attic for a job. The passport with the unique name caught my attention. I suspected famous German writer Erich Kästner as the former bearer with the name. Then I took the passport – it was supposed to go into the garbage. Since then, it has been with me, among other things. I researched the details of Dr. Kästner and was amazed by the exciting story associated with it. I realized a lot in the process. The house, which was renovated, is the Fischer family’s house. The house owner’s family is renowned in the Leipzig area. It has existed for over 180 years (and even survived the GDR regime). (https://www.meinfischer.de/unternehmen/historie.html) Dr. Kästner’s wife was a born Fischer. Probably Kästner spent some time in the house in Taucha. Still very exciting for me – even when writing about it. Thank you, Ralf. You indeed saved a historical piece of significance for German (passport) history! Passport last German veteran