in Nazism for me’
The media have homed in on the new Pope’s activities during the Second World War. Dan Frank tries to separate the truth from the myths Although facts are in short supply, questions have been raised in the British press over Pope Benedict XVI’s role in Nazi Germany, particularly the revelation that he was a member of the Hitler Youth. Several national newspapers reported his membership of the Nazi Party’s youth wing as front-page news; others, including The Independent, carried pictures of him in his Hitler Youth uniform.
But Catholics – and the secular German press – have sharply criticised the tone in which the few facts that there are have been reported. Much of the reporting has implied that Benedict XVI has Nazi skeletons in his closet, despite the fact that all the information has been in the public domain for many years, and that Pope Benedict has spoken candidly about his part in the war years, both in interviews and in his autobiography, Milestones.
Born in 1927, Joseph Ratzinger was just six years old when Hitler came to power. His father – also called Joseph – was a devout Catholic and anti-Nazi sympathiser, who took early retirement from the civil service in 1937, partly out of protest against the encroaching Nazi ideology. “The Third Reich went terribly against my father’s grain, and he tried to get out of service as early as possible,” Cardinal Ratzinger said in Salt of the Earth, a book-length interview with a German journalist, published in 1997.
His father was a strong source of inspiration to the young boy. “His religion and his antagonism toward the regime were convincing to us,” he said. “His simple power to convince came out of his inner honesty. So his attitude became a model for us, even though it stood against what had public currency at the time.” After his father retired from his job in the police force, the family moved from Martl am Inn, near the Czech border, to Traunstein, a small, staunchly Catholic town in rural Bavaria. Though Herr Ratzinger made no public demonstration of opposition – there were plenty of Nazis in the farming community – he made no secret of his anti-Nazi views and, according to his son, “always expressed his indignation vigorously and always spoke freely to people whom he could trust. Above all, he never joined any organisation, even though he was a civil servant.”.
When the Nazis made membership of the Hitler youth compulsory, Joseph, 14 at the time, was forced to join. “At first we weren’t [members], but when the compulsory Hitler Youth was introduced in 1941 my brother was obliged to join. I was still too young, but later, as a semi narian, I was registered in the Hitler Youth. As soon as I was out of the seminary I never went back. And that was difficult, because the tuition reduction, which I really needed, was tied to proof of attendance at the Hitler Youth,” Cardinal Ratzinger explained. Fortunately, he had a friendly mathematics teacher who, though himself a Nazi, helped him to get a dispensation on account of his training at the seminary. Thus, he said, once he had registered he simply ceased attending.
When he turned 16, however, Joseph was unable to escape the draft. According to his autobiography, he served in an anti-aircraft unit near Munich as a “flak helper”, protecting a BMW factory that built aircraft engines. Despite his military posting, he wrote that he never took part in combat, or fired a shot, because of a badly infected finger. Later he was sent to Hungary where he set tank traps.
Sometime near the end of April 1945 Joseph Ratzinger deserted his unit and made his way back home – a dangerous decision, as the SS had orders to execute deserters on sight. He only narrowly avoided being shot when, coming out from a railway underpass, he was spotted by two soldiers. “Thank God that they, too, had had their fill of war and did not want to become murderers,” he wrote. Seeing that his arm was in a sling they took pity on him: “Comrade, you are wounded. Move on!” He made it home unharmed.
Eventually the American army reached Traunstein and the Ratzinger’s house was requisitioned as a military headquarters. Joseph had to put his uniform back on and march for three days along the “empty expressway” to a prisoner of war camp near Bad Aibling military airport.
“We had hopes of being released soon,” Cardinal Ratzinger wrote, “but Father and Mother quickly put together a number of things that could be useful for the road ahead, and I myself slipped a big empty notebook and a pencil into my pocket – which seemed a most impractical choice, but this notebook became a wonderful companion to me, because day by day I could enter into it thoughts and reflections of all kinds. I even tried my hand at Greek hexameters.
“The Americans liked especially to take pictures of us, the youngest ones, and also the oldest, in order to take home with them souvenirs of the defeated army and the woeful condition of its personnel.” After several weeks of sleep ing in the open and living on the scarcest of rations – “one ladleful of soup and a little bread per day” – Joseph Ratzinger was released on June 19, hitching the 75 miles home with a friend on the back of a milk truck.
But although the suggestions of a secret Nazi past appear spurious, Pope Benedict has also been criticised for the lessons he took – or didn’t take – from his experiences in Nazi Germany. Traunstein, the town in which he grew up, was not insulated from the cruelty of Nazism or the horrors of the Second World War. Slave labour was used extensively in the region and there was a concentration camp at nearby Trostberg. Anti-Semitic violence turned into forcible expulsion, such that the Gestapo were able to announce in February 1939 that Traunstein was “Jew free”. But according to Vatican watcher John Allen, Pope Benedict’s autobiography, Milestones, treats these events as if they were “out there”, with little impact on his own world or upbringing.
“Though Ratzinger has offered many details from the war years about army service, about schooling, and so on, it is striking that he leaves out any mention of these upheavals,” Mr Allen wrote.
While Benedict XVI was clearly never a Nazi sympathiser, let alone a party member, the way in which he has expressed his opposition has primarily focused on its ideological threat to Christianity, rather than on the many concrete evils the Nazis inflicted on Jews, homosexuals, the mentally ill and other groups.
Confessing that Nazism had held an initial, though purely superficial, attraction based on its emphasis on sport and athlet ics, the Pope told Bavarian state radio: “It was when the Nazis made it clear to me that they condemned Christianity because it had its roots in the despised Jewish faith that I realised their creed was nothing for me.” A number of prominent Jewish groups, however, welcomed Pope Benedict’s election, and quickly rallied to his defence. Sir Sigmund Sternberg, Papal Knight, patron of the International Council of Christians and Jews, and cofounder of the Three Faiths Forum, stated in a press release that, as a consequence of growing up in Germany during the Second World War, Benedict was particularly sensitive to Jewish concerns.
“Under the leadership of Pope Benedict XVI, there will be a continuity of the legacy of Pope John Paul II, with whom he worked in close harmony. As Cardinal Ratzinger he demonstrated his profound commitment to Catholic-Jewish reconciliation. His personal history has made him acutely aware of the evil and danger of antiSemitism, and he has emphasised repeatedly that the real inter-religious dialogue can only begin at the roots of the values proclaimed by the different religions. I look forward to working with the new Pope,” Sir Sigmund said in a press release.
He went on to praise Pope Benedict for his role in the Vatican’s recognition of Israel in 1993 and in Pope John Paul II’s visit to Jerusalem’s Western Wall in 2000.
Rabbi A James Rudin, senior inter-religious affairs adviser at the American Jewish Committee, agreed. “His background gives him special sensitivity in understanding the terror and evil of the Holocaust,” he said. Rabbi Rudin noted that many Jews expressed concern when John Paul II was elected in 1978. Many were uncertain how a pope who came from a society that historically had often been deeply anti-Semitic – and who had lived through Nazi-occupied Poland – would act toward Jews. But John Paul’s strong emphasis on improving Catholic-Jewish relations came “precisely because he was from Poland”, Rabbi Rudin said. He added that he both hoped and expected that Pope Benedict XVI’s experiences as a youth in Nazi Germany would have the same effect.
Addressing the question of whether the young Joseph Ratzinger should have done more to resist the Nazis, Abraham Foxman, national director of the Jewish AntiDefamation League, was brutally honest. “I don’t know how any of us would have stood up as teenagers,” he said.