Thursday, December 31, 2009

#036: Anna Elizabeth Rosmus

That Terrible Girl: Anna Elizabeth Rosmus

Anna Rosmus with a US WW2 veteran.


It's a German word, appropriately enough.

Like "schadenfreude" (the mischevious delight taken in another's troubles), "Schrechlichkeit" is famous for being largely untranslatable.

It means "frightfulness" or "terror" in German, although the Germans have taken to borrowing the English word "terror" in modern context--It is "terror" that Al Qaida commits, not "schrechlichkeit."

It's well that the Germans avoid that word.

Schrechlichkeit has an ugly history. A fascinating discussion on the history of the word on Wikipedia seems to show that it's not a "real" German word at all, i.e., not a natural part of the language. The word is derived from "Schrechlich," or "Terrible". However, the grammatically correct word one would use in German is "Scheußlichkeit": "dreadfulness, awfulness, terribleness, hideousness, exceptional ugliness, horridness, nastiness." In short, schrechlichkeit is a coined word.

And it was coined for an ugly reason.

In the early days of the First World War--when Adolf Hitler was a twentysomething Bavarian Army private and the Nazi Party was but a gleam in his maniacal eye--the German Army adopted something they called "schrechlichkeit" as offical policy. When they invaded France and Belgium in their initial lunge toward Paris, the German Army encountered, or claimed to have encountered, civilian snipers firing at their forces in areas that they had conquered. They named these snipers "Franc-Terreurs," French Terrorists, after irregular forces who took up guerilla resistance in Germany's previous concert tour of northern France in 1870.

So the Germans struck back. Hard. Barbara W. Tuchman's classic The Guns of August, at page 351-352, tells the following story in her discussion of German schrechlichkeit:
At Tamines, [Belgium], captured on August 21 [1914], sack of the town began that evening after the battle and continued all night and next day. The usual orgy of permitted looting accompanied by drinking released inhibitions and brought the soldiers to the desired state of raw excitement which was intended to add to the fearful effect. On the second day at Tamines some 400 citizens were herded together under guard in front of the church in the main square and a firing squad began systematically shooting into the group. Those not dead when the firing ended were bayoneted. In the cemetery at Tamines there are 384 gravestones inscribed: "1914: Fusille' par les Allemands." ["1914: Shot by the Germans."]

This the Germans termed Schrechlichkeit. 'Frightfulness.' They used indiscriminate violence against civilians in order to terrify the local populace into compliance with the demands of the German government and the German Army operating in the area. And very effective it was, too; so effective that other powers in later wars have drawn a lesson from what the Germans did and didest themselves likewise.

Of course, the atrocities of 1914 were as nothing compared to those of 1944 and thereabouts, but the crop of horrors of the Holocaust had their seeds in the terrors of the First World War. Not for nothing were the vast majority of German death camp commanders former 'trench comrades,' who'd lost their sense of the worth of human life among the barbed wire of World War One. And terror unconfronted in 1914 became monstrosities unparalleled only thirty years later.

Which brings us to The Terrible Girl.

At first glance she was not terrible at all. Anna Rosmus, born in 1960, was, in fact, one of those frighteningly intelligent schoolgirls one might remember from elementary school: the kind of girl who sat in the front row, quiet, studious, a wall full of gold stars on their reading reports, straight A's, butter wouldn't melt in her mouth. The kind of girl who grows up to be a doctor or a lawyer or something important, and who is always remembered kindly by her teachers as the 'star of her school.'

When Anna Rosmus was a teenager, a high school junior, her father--himself a schoolteacher--urged her to enter into a writing contest. This she did, writing about her home town of Passau, Germany, and its history during the Middle Ages. She won a national prize.

Her primary interest, however, was contemporary history. When she was 20, she turned her interest to writing a history of her home town of Passau in more recent times, particularly during the Second World War.

The city's history had been skimmed over in her high school education. The history of Passau during the war was summed up in the punchline to the old joke of the egg robber in the henhouse, "Nobody here but us chickens!" There was only one open Nazi in the city, the former mayor. The city leaders had congratulated themselves as anti-Nazis, and there was no sign that anything untoward had happened to the place.

Nobody here but us chickens, indeed.

As she looked into her city's past, she was stonewalled: documents became unavailable, public officials became unavailable, and those she planned to interview told her, in essence, "don't go there." She sought truth and found...nothing.

But she didn't give up. She waited.

So she went away, studied history in university, then came back home.

It wasn't until after years of litigation (modern Germany, thank goodness, now has its own 'Freedom of Information Act') she finally gained unlimited access to the records of her city.

And what she found was... terrible.

Bavarian Passau had been a Nazi hotbed. The city leaders who had publicized themselves as anti-Nazi had been, themselves, passionate Nazis; the mayor scapegoated as the "city's only Nazi" had hidden some of Passau's Jews from the Nazi persecutions. A memorial built to the dead Jews of Passau in 1950 was plastered over within a year. And the city, as it turned out, was home to no less than eight contentration camps, slave labor camps, and prisoner of war camps.

And as Anna uncovered the truth, she named names, gave dates, exposed family secrets. She told the truth of the past.

The people of her hometown didn't like that, not one bit. She turned from local celebrity to scapegoat, and became "The Witch of Passau." People Magazine (of all sources!) profiled her in 1991:
Rosmus's investigations won her the undying enmity of the people of the town. The local paper began editorializing against her, calling her "the nest soiler" and subjecting her to a series of persecutions. "For a long while," recalls Rosmus. "I received threatening and obscene phone calls virtually day and night. I was spat upon. Children, but also grown-ups, used to scream, 'Judenhure!' (Jew's whore)." When Rosmus defiantly continued her research and published a book based on her essay, the threats continued into adulthood. "When I gave birth to my daughter Salome [in 1984]," she says, "the location of my hospital room was kept secret because of threats that my baby would be killed."

She paid a high personal price as well. Her husband--a former math teacher she had fallen in love with in high school--left her, scornfully deriding her as one who would "do anything who would get in the news." And her siblings keep a respectful distance from her, as they deem that "one is enough to hold up the flag" in her family.

German filmmaker Michael Verhoeven took her story and turned it into fiction, making a well known movie that told Anna Rosmus's story... in a way.

In the film, Lena Stolze, a very pretty German actress, portrays a fictionalized Anna: winsome, attractive, mischevious. The real life Anna was none of those things; she was a bit plainer than Lena Stolze, a bit more awkward, and, of necessity given her life work, much more stolid and dark. No cute pixie was she. Rather, she is a truthteller: and a teller of truths to the unwilling must by nature be a bit of a panzer by nature.

But it is in the title of the movie that, oddly enough, we find the nature of Anna best summed up. Not in the English title of "The Nasty Girl," however. The movie plays off of the winsomness of Lena Stolze and judging from the cover art would lead the unwary to believe that she was a "Nasty Girl" because she did something "nasty," probably sexually. (Gotta sell those DVDs!) The picture on the cover doesn't help things:

But "The Nasty Girl" is not the true title of the movie: the title is "Das Schrechliche Maedchen" --"The Terrible Girl."

She who spoke of her nation's schrechlichkeit (Terror) became, herself, schrechliche (terrible): the bearer of truth became the bearer of bad news. By speaking the truth of her home town she became a scapegoat for all their bigotries and hatred. She became terrible because she inspired fear in those who had been terrible in the past. She became as one holding up a picture of a victim of violence who is herself derided for the violence in question.

So she became a true scapegoat: The sins of the city were projected on her and she was cast forth.

Her city regarded her with the heart of Grima Wormtongue: "Lathspell I name you: Ill news is an ill guest!"

But that is the fate of the teller of unwanted truth. As one writer put it,
In The Journal of the Historical Society II, Professor Robert E. Herztein called Rosmus’ work “remarkable” and illuminates the distinction between the impersonal historical accounts of World War II and Rosmus’ steadfast examination of real people and their secrets. “Despite the opposition of her teachers and of the people who ran Bavaria’s educational establishment in the late 1970s, Rosmus decided to examine the history of the town of Passau during the years of the Third Reich. She has never stopped, and in the process has found the bodies and identified living culprits,” Herztein says.

And she paid a price for her endeavours.

She was driven from her home, from her husband, from her city, from her nation. She now lives in Maryland, and writes history here, where she now writes without let or hinderance, in this far land beneath the trees.

But if Passau calls her a nest-soiler, her histories have become memorable and noted for their excellence, in particular, her first book, Resistance and Persecution - The Case of Passau 1933-1939, won singular recognition, for it was honored with The Geschwestern-Scholl-Preiz: The Scholl Sibling Prize, given to those who best hold up the spirit of Hans and Sophie Scholl, executed by the Nazis in 1943.

--"The Line"

One might justly call her the daughter that Sophie Scholl never had.


  1. Thank you for the very informative piece on Anja Rosmus. My husband and I just viewed "The Terrible Girl." I appreciate your article very much.

  2. I appreciate this and I applaud Anja Rosmus for her courage.

  3. I lived in Germany during this time and never heard of Anna. However, my husband and I encountered several times the remnants of the Third Reich. He went to the Amerikahaus for a series of discussions on American fiction and met two older German men. He liked them, and they began to go out for a beer after. One night he came home in pieces. The men had gotten drunk and begun to talk about Jews, saying things like "next time we'll get them." My dear husband actually cried, he was so disillusioned. I was in a therapy group with young Germans. I learned that none of them knew what their parents did, nor would their parents discuss it. It cast a heavy pall over my friends' lives. I applaud Anna for her courage. I hope she is happy in the US. As for me, I still miss Germany, with all its contradictions.

  4. in DDR they did de-nazification, in west not done, birds of a feather?

  5. I'd answer that with a heart felt 'fuck you' but your ignorance does not rate it. The DDR didn't denazify until 1989. (All they did in the mean time was change the paint job on the party headquarters.)