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In a soldier's hindsight

A German-born U.S. Army veteran talks about wars past and likens present-day events to some he's seen before.


© St. Petersburg Times,
published September 26, 2001

ST. PETERSBURG -- He served in the German army. He served in the U.S. Army. He later helped collect evidence used in trials of Nazi war criminals at Nuremberg.

And at 90, Werner Von Rosenstiel has a long lifetime's view of the military, justice in a civilized world, and cruelty bred of intolerance. As war clouds hang heavily over the nation once again, this time in response to the Sept. 11 terrorist attack, he finds himself appraising the climate from the vantage point of a long and accomplished life.

"What I have been in was a different war. Ultimately, we were able to outfight (the enemy), but here, how do you train people against what you don't know they are going to do?" said Von Rosenstiel, a Snell Isle resident who has written a book, Tales of An American Soldier, about his World War II experiences.

The German-born Von Rosenstiel, who escaped from his homeland months before the outbreak of World War II, said he was reminded of Nazi savagery as he watched television accounts of the assault on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon.

"I said this is something that Hitler would have loved to do. I said, here are people who are absolutely ruthless," Rosenstiel recalled.

Current anti-Arab sentiment reminds him of the ostracism faced by German-Americans after the United States entered World War I. Such prejudice is worrisome, said Von Rosenstiel, who faced similar treatment in the U.S. Army after he was inducted in 1943.

Sitting in the spacious home he shares with his second wife, Anne, Von Rosenstiel recently recalled his past with photographic detail and engaging good humor. He made his first trip to America in 1935. He already had earned both law and doctoral degrees, but had accepted a scholarship to attend the University of Cincinnati.

This week, he entrusted priceless records documenting Nazi atrocities and the Allies' subsequent quest for justice to that university. On Monday, Von Rosenstiel officially handed over the documents, which include a copy of the indictment served in 1945 to Nazi leaders by the International Military Tribunal and opening statements from the historic Nuremberg trials that followed.

Von Rosenstiel, who helped to unearth material used to prosecute key Nazis, said he gave the gift to the university to support his "strong feelings that the history of the 20th century in Europe is an important issue that all Americans must reflect on."

He reminisced about his early days in the United States.

"I had a wonderful time in America. I studied political science and found it absolutely fascinating and returned to Germany by way of the Far East," Von Rosenstiel said.

"I hitchhiked through the Orient. I went to Japan, Korea, Manchuria, China, and ultimately ran out of money in Singapore, and got a job with another student as coal shovelers on a German tramp steamer that took us from Singapore, ultimately in about seven weeks, back to Germany."

He was in for a shock when he returned home in January 1937 to complete his law clerkship. Germany was preparing for war.

"It had turned into an armed camp. . . . There were soldiers everywhere on the streets, airfields being built," he said.

"There were tanks on the streets, planes were in the air. You could see they were planning for something awful."

Von Rosenstiel also found a government that had grown more oppressive. His father objected when he said he wanted to leave the country and the elder Von Rosenstiel insisted that his son finish his legal training. That training was interrupted when Von Rosenstiel was drafted into the German army for eight weeks as Hitler threatened to invade Czechoslovakia.

"Hitler drafted about a million and a half men. We were trained in the morning and in the afternoon we marched on the streets and we were visible to foreign correspondents. It was a game. The moment Czechoslovakia collapsed, we were all discharged," he said.

His legal training complete, Von Rosenstiel was offered a job with the Nazi judicial system. He sought a delay of 30 days, ostensibly to study English in the United States. Permission was granted, but it would be almost six years before he returned to Germany -- as a U.S. soldier.

In America, he married Marion Ahrens, a young woman whom he had met while studying at the University of Cincinnati. She died in 1987.

"We were married for 48 years and five days," said Von Rosenstiel, who has four children and four grandchildren.

In the years immediately after his return to the United States, Von Rosenstiel studied English at nights and went on to pursue his second law degree. The bombing of Pearl Harbor, and the subsequent rounding up of potential spies, disrupted his life. One of the results of that act of war was that he was ordered to appear before an Enemy Alien Board.

"They had picked me up after law school and they kept me all night," he recalled without bitterness.

"That was to be expected."

He was questioned by a panel of judges seemingly intent on sending him to prison, but Marion Von Rosenstiel's testimony won his release. She read a letter Von Rosenstiel had written while still living in Germany that expressed his shame and disgust about Kristallnacht, or the Night of Broken Glass, when Nazi supporters smashed, plundered and burned Jewish shops, synagogues and homes. That night numerous members of the Jewish community also were beaten, killed or arrested.

On March 15, 1943, four weeks after passing his bar exam, Von Rosenstiel reported to the U.S. Army in response to his draft order. His history as a German soldier, though, would follow him and he found himself relegated to a unit for undesirables and used for manual labor.

"That time was the most difficult and taxing experience of my three years in the army," Von Rosenstiel says in his book.

"Nothing that I had experienced before or after challenged my faith in America more than those three months."

Though he became a U.S. citizen toward the end of that trying time, hopes that his status in the army would improve were dashed when he was transferred to a quartermaster laundry battalion. Several transfers later, though, his lot began to improve. In 1944, he was shipped to England.

"I was, of course, at all times a mad sightseer," he recalled.

"From the time I left for America for the first time, I could not see enough. I was always curious what was going on."

From England he was sent to France and eventually Belgium, during the Battle of the Bulge. Late in 1944, he was encouraged to fill out an application to become a commissioned officer and was made a lieutenant the next year.

The highlight of his military service came after the war, when he was assigned to find evidence against the Nazis.

"They sent me to see the records of the German Ministry of Justice of which I had been an employee and there my task was to find, to the extent that it was possible, material that would hang one or the other of Hitler's cronies and I found indeed records that hung two of them, namely General (Wilhelm) Keitel and General (Alfred) Jodl," Von Rosenstiel said.

The files contained other revelations, Von Rosenstiel said.

"There were thousands and thousands of cases where people were indicted for having said that Hitler was a jerk and then they were tried and everyone was sentenced to death," he said.

Fast forward more than half a century and Von Rosenstiel is contemplating the punishment of those behind the Sept. 11 massacre. When caught, he said, they should be turned over to the International Court of Justice in The Hague.

"Let Bin Laden say (in court), 'I didn't do it.' If we are going to claim that we ourselves are law-abiding people, we have to abide by the laws we make," he said.

Von Rosenstiel, who retired from his Philadelphia law practice in 1990 and continues as a partner in a German law firm, said his experiences have taught him much.

"What I saw within my life has motivated me to talk about it, because I think it is necessary that people realize that the events that Hitler created can very easily be duplicated by gifted and dangerous people," he said.

Additionally, said Von Rosenstiel: "I've learned to be tolerant, not to make the mistakes I was taught to make. I attempt to treat everybody equally."

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