The veterans of World War I, all well over 100 years old, are dying, and there are only an estimated 15 sur- vivors left in the world today. Their passing marks a historical milestone as the conflict that shaped the 20th century recedes from living human memory.
But as the 90th anniversary of the armistice approaches in November, the “war to end all wars” remains painfully alive in Europe’s collective consciousness, as the very different reactions to the deaths of a French and a German veteran in the past few weeks have shown.
When French veteran Louis de Cazenave died on Jan. 20 at age 110, the news made front pages in France and Britain.
French President Nicolas Sarkozy called Mr. de Cazenave’s passing “an occasion for all of us to think of the 1.4 million French who sacrificed their lives during this conflict.”
Mr. de Cazenave fought in the Battle of the Somme in 1916, one of the bloodiest battles in history in which more than 1 million men were killed.
Only one known French survivor remains, Lazare Ponticelli, also 110, who has accepted a government request to give him a state burial when he passes away.
By contrast, the death of the last known surviving soldier of the German Imperial Army, Erich Kastner, in a retirement home in Cologne on Jan. 1, went largely unnoticed and elicited no response from the German government.
The Defense Ministry in Berlin, the army’s Military Research Institute and the Federation of German Soldiers’ Associations all said they had no information on Mr. Kastner because Germany doesn’t keep archives on surviving war veterans.
Commentators abroad said the lack of any public recognition for Mr. Kastner showed that Germany has not come to terms with its past.
One British newspaper called on Chancellor Angela Merkel to issue a statement honoring Mr. Kastner.
But the stigma of defeat and the conflict’s historical link with World War II and the Holocaust has made it impossible for Germany to mark the deaths of its veterans, even the very last one.
Honoring old soldiers from either war would still be construed by many in Germany and abroad as an affront to the millions of victims of German aggression.
“We lost both wars, and everyone just preferred to forget about it and ignore it,” Peter Kastner, 70, the son of Erich Kastner, told The Washington Times.
Military historian Lt. Col. Gerhard Gross said German politicians and people have little interest in the 1914-18 conflict in which about 20 million soldiers and civilians perished.
“In France, it’s called La Grande Guerre; in Britain, it’s the Great War. For us, it’s the First World War which stands in the shadow of the Second World War. It’s not interesting for politicians or the general public,” said Col. Gross, who works at the German army’s Military Research Institute.
“Defeat in two world wars and the Holocaust means that everything to do with the military in Germany has deeply negative connotations,” he said. “The Germans have been too preoccupied atoning for the Holocaust and the crimes of the Nazis to deal with their veterans.”
German war veterans take part in public ceremonies only when they are invited abroad to join commemorative events with old soldiers from other countries.
The German version of Veterans Day is called “National Day of Mourning.”
There is no pride mixed in with the sorrow, and there are no parades of old soldiers. Instead, politicians lay wreaths to commemorate those of all nations killed in all wars.
The bloody, mud-soaked, rat-infested stalemate of trench warfare along the Western Front in France and Belgium was broken only after the United States entered the war in 1917.
More than 100,000 U.S. troops perished in the conflict, which marked the U.S. emergence as a global superpower.
The crippling reparations imposed by the victorious Entente Powers on Germany in 1919 are widely seen as having partly caused the turmoil that aided Adolf Hitler’s rise to power.
German newspapers started reporting about Mr. Kastner’s death only after international press had noticed it.
“An unwritten law states that the victors have justice on their side,” wrote conservative German newspaper Die Welt. “That includes dictating reparations and the form of remembrance. The losers escape into a feeling of self-pity and self-denial which they like to alleviate by forgetting.”
Mr. Kastner didn’t talk much about his experiences during the war, said his son Peter.
Erich Kastner was born in the city of Leipzig on March 10, 1900, and joined the army in July 1918, just four months before the end of the war, after he had finished his high school exams.
He served in an infantry regiment on the Western Front in Belgium at a time when the German line was starting to collapse.
“He said he wasn’t involved in any fighting,” said the younger Mr. Kastner. “But he used to tell us that he took part in the last military parade to be held in front of Emperor Wilhelm.”
Erich Kastner embodied the link between the two wars. He was called up again at the start of World War II and served in the ground staff of the Luftwaffe air force in Czechoslovakia and later in France, his son said.
After the war, he became a high court judge in northern Germany and won the Order of Merit from the state of Lower Saxony.
There are an estimated three World War I veterans left in the United States, one in Canada, three in Britain, three in Australia, one in France, one in Turkey and two in Italy.
One lives in Germany, Fritz Kunstler, 107, who fought not for the German army but for the allied Austro-Hungarian army.
Erich Kastner had started receiving letters and requests for autographs from people in Britain and the United States last year, when the Wikipedia online encyclopedia listed him as the last surviving German army veteran of the conflict, his son said.
“But my father didn’t really want to deal with all that,” said Peter Kastner. “He was mentally alert until his death, but he had trouble with his eyesight and he couldn’t walk very well. Only the day before his death, he had a chat with a former colleague on the telephone. But after that he didn’t seem to want to go on. He died the next day.”