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.
BY: Michael Kress
Ratzinger's participation in Hitler Youth and the German army "doesn't really say anything about his commitment to the cause [of Nazism]," said Russell Shaw, the former secretary of public affairs for the National Conference of Catholic Bishops. "He had no commitment to the cause and has since spoken about his abhorrence of Nazism."
While saying Ratzinger was "only briefly a member of the Hitler Youth, and not an enthusiastic one," John L. Allen Jr., author of a 2000 biography of the then-cardinal and Vatican correspondent for the National Catholic Reporter, faults Ratzinger for the lessons he took--or didn't take--from the war years.
Traunstein, the city in which the Ratzingers lived, saw its fair share of World War II and the Holocaust, Allen writes. Anti-Semitic violence, displacement and deportation, death, and resistance turned a quiet city into what one journalist Allen cites called "an over-populated lunatic asylum of hopeless inhabitants."
And yet, Allen continues, Ratzinger's memories of the time make it sound as if this chaos were "out there," not in his world of school, literature, music, and family.
"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," Allen writes.
Allen believes Ratzinger's main lessons from the period involved the Church and the need for fidelity to its teachings as a counter to dangers like Nazism. He came away from the Third Reich believing Catholicism represented the main source of resistance to the Nazis.
However, addressing the question of whether the young Ratzinger should have done more to resist the Nazis, Abraham Foxman, national director of the Anti-Defamation League, said, "I don't know how any of us would have stood up as teenagers."
He compared the new pope's World War II experiences with those of his predecessor, John Paul II, who lived in Nazi-occupied Poland.
"While growing up, both of them experienced what hate can do, what totalitarianism can do, what ant-Semitism can do," Foxman said. "Whatever those years were, they certainly haven't and aren't impacting on him negatively."
The AJC's Rudin remembers many Jews' reactions when John Paul II was introduced in 1978 as pope. Many questioned how a Polish pope who came from a society that historically had often been hostile to Jews--and who experienced Nazi Germany and Communism--would act toward Jews. But John Paul's strong emphasis on improving Catholic-Jewish relations came "precisely because he was from Poland," Rudin said.
Rudin and many others expressed the hope--and expectation--that Pope Benedict XVI's experiences as a youth in Nazi Germany will have the same effect.