What Joseph Ratzinger Did During the War

Like many teenagers in wartime Germany, Ratzinger was involved in the Hitler Youth--but Jewish leaders aren't worried.

As speculation grew in recent days that Joseph Ratzinger might be elected pope, an episode from deep in the German cardinal's past sparked discussion in the media and blogosphere: his membership in the Hitler Youth movement and service in the Nazi army as a teen.

Ratzinger, now Pope Benedict XVI, freely admits that he was, out of obligation, briefly part of those institutions of Nazi Germany. But Jews and Catholics involved in interfaith dialogue are not worrying. Far from it.

"His background gives him special sensitivity in understanding the terror and evil of the Holocaust," said Rabbi A. James Rudin, senior interreligious affairs advisor at the American Jewish Committee.

Joseph Ratzinger was six years old when the Nazis came to power in Germany. His father was an opponent of the Nazis, and the family moved several times because of his outspoken views.

All German teens were obligated to participate in the Hitler Youth. Ratzinger joined when he was 14 and remained in the group about a year, leaving as soon as he was permitted. He was later drafted into an anti-aircraft unit of the German army, though he deserted two years later without having fired a shot.

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"He fled the whole thing," said Donald Dietrich, a Boston College professor of theology, referring to Ratzinger's association with Nazism.

When the Nazi government mandated that all children join the Hitler Youth, the law met heavy resistance, especially from the Catholic Church, said Gerhard Rempel, author of Hitler's Children: The Hitler Youth and the SS. When the rule began to be enforced in earnest, he said, "the great, overwhelming majority simply went along."

"It would have been nothing unusual or out of the ordinary for the time" for Ratzinger to be in the movement, Rempel said. Other prominent Germans not associated with Nazism were likewise members, he added, including former chancellors Helmut Kohl and Helmut Schmidt.

The movement was the youth wing of the Nazi party, which combined sports with indoctrination into Nazi beliefs, Rempel said. Children age 10-14 were in one division, which was "much milder in terms of indoctrination" than the division for older children, whose participation "took up a lot of their time," Rempel said.

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