Passport of the last German veteran of WWI

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.

Passport last German veteran
Dr. Fritz Kaestner’s German passport was issued in 1936 in Taucha and was valid until 1941.
Passport last German veteran
Dr. Kaestner was born on March 3, 1900

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). ( 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 


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1. What are the earliest known examples of passports, and how have they evolved?

The word "passport" came up only in the mid 15th Century. Before that, such documents were safe conducts, recommendations or protection letters. On a practical aspect, the earliest passport I have seen was from the mid 16th Century. Read more...

2. Are there any notable historical figures or personalities whose passports are highly sought after by collectors?

Every collector is doing well to define his collection focus, and yes, there are collectors looking for Celebrity passports and travel documents of historical figures like Winston Churchill, Brothers Grimm, Johann Wolfgang von Goethe. Read more...

3. How did passport designs and security features change throughout different periods in history, and what impact did these changes have on forgery prevention?

"Passports" before the 18th Century had a pure functional character. Security features were, in the best case, a watermark and a wax seal. Forgery, back then, was not an issue like it is nowadays. Only from the 1980s on, security features became a thing. A state-of-the-art passport nowadays has dozens of security features - visible and invisible. Some are known only by the security document printer itself. Read more...

4. What are some of the rarest and most valuable historical passports that have ever been sold or auctioned?

Lou Gehrig, Victor Tsoi, Marilyn Monroe, James Joyce, and Albert Einstein when it comes to the most expensive ones. Read more...

5. How do diplomatic passports differ from regular passports, and what makes them significant to collectors?

Such documents were often held by officials in high ranks, like ambassadors, consuls or special envoys. Furthermore, these travel documents are often frequently traveled. Hence, they hold a tapestry of stamps or visas. Partly from unusual places.

6. Can you provide insights into the stories behind specific historical passports that offer unique insights into past travel and migration trends?

A passport tells the story of its bearer and these stories can be everything - surprising, sad, vivid. Isabella Bird and her travels (1831-1904) or Mary Kingsley, a fearless Lady explorer.

7. What role did passports play during significant historical events, such as wartime travel restrictions or international treaties?

During war, a passport could have been a matter of life or death. Especially, when we are looking into WWII and the Holocaust. And yes, during that time, passports and similar documents were often forged to escape and save lives. Example...

8. How has the emergence of digital passports and biometric identification impacted the world of passport collecting?

Current modern passports having now often a sparkling, flashy design. This has mainly two reasons. 1. Improved security and 2. Displaying a countries' heritage, icons, and important figures or achievements. I can fully understand that those modern documents are wanted, especially by younger collectors.

9. Are there any specialized collections of passports, such as those from a specific country, era, or distinguished individuals?

Yes, the University of Western Sidney Library has e.g. a passport collection of the former prime minister Hon Edward Gough Whitlam and his wife Margaret. They are all diplomatic passports and I had the pleasure to apprise them. I hold e.g. a collection of almost all types of the German Empire passports (only 2 types are still missing). Also, my East German passport collection is quite extensive with pretty rare passport types.

10. Where can passport collectors find reliable resources and reputable sellers to expand their collection and learn more about passport history?

A good start is eBay, Delcampe, flea markets, garage or estate sales. The more significant travel documents you probably find at the classic auction houses. Sometimes I also offer documents from my archive/collection. See offers... As you are already here, you surely found a great source on the topic 😉

Other great sources are: Scottish Passports, The Nansen passport, The secret lives of diplomatic couriers

11. Is vintage passport collecting legal? What are the regulations and considerations collectors should know when acquiring historical passports?

First, it's important to stress that each country has its own laws when it comes to passports. Collecting old vintage passports for historical or educational reasons is safe and legal, or at least tolerated. More details on the legal aspects are here...

Does this article spark your curiosity about passport collecting and the history of passports? With this valuable information, you have a good basis to start your own passport collection.

Question? Contact me...