How the '60s Changed Ratzinger
The events of 1968 had a strong bearing on his shift to a more conservative outlook.
BY: John L. Allen, Jr.
Joseph Ratzinger arrived at Tübingen [University] in 1966, still enthusiastic about the promise of Vatican II and ready to take his place alongside the other budding superstars of German theology, especially Hans Küng on the Catholic side and Jürgen Moltmann on the Evangelical. Küng was serving as dean of the Catholic theology faculty when the chair in dogmatics came open, and he took the unusual step of not forming aterna
, or list of three possibilities, to fill the position. He made Ratzinger his only suggestion, after phoning him in Münster to be sure he would accept. The faculty consented.
Küng and Ratzinger by all accounts got on very well during the Tübingen years. They had a standing dinner engagement every Thursday night to discuss a journal they edited together, making Küng the only colleague with whom Ratzinger socialized on a regular basis. They were a study in contrasts, Küng zooming around town in his Alfa-Romeo while Ratzinger peddled his bicycle wearing his professor's beret; but they seemed to connect.
Küng's increasingly progressive theological instincts, however, did not sit well with Ratzinger. By 1969, when Ratzinger departed Tübingen for Regensburg, the essentials of his more pessimistic, conservative outlook were in place. The events of 1968 had a strong bearing on this shift, and thus to understand Ratzinger's development it is important to take a deeper look at those fateful few months.
Several larger forces left the "baby boom" generation in Germany especially disposed to social protest in the late 1960s. First was the legacy of National Socialism. In the drive for reconstruction after the war, uncomfortable questions about who did what under the Nazis were largely shunted aside. Two decades later, however, children of university age began to ask their parents what they did under Hitler. Often they found the answers unsatisfactory. This indictment was crystallized in 1968, when Nazi hunter Beate Klarsfeld slapped West German Chancellor Kurt Georg Kiesinger across the face in a public protest of Kiesinger's Nazi past. Kiesinger had been a go-between during the war for Joseph Göbbels, Hitler's propaganda chief, and army head Joachim von Ribbentrop.
In addition, in Germany as in the United States, the boomer generation was enormous, adding millions of adolescents and young adults to the national population. The educational system was unequipped to handle the surge. The student-teacher ratio in German universities in the late 1960s was three times as high as in the United States, and four times as high as in England. At the same time, German youth were demanding that the universities become less exclusive. As late as 1968, only seven percent of German youth qualified for a university-level education, and only three percent actually enrolled. Thus at the same time that the numbers of the traditionally college-bound were growing, there was also pressure to expand the student pool. Under the strain, university services broke down in many places, creating a general mood of frustration. The student-teacher relationship was also a contentious issue. Student activists described the relationship in Germany as resembling that of a feudal lord to his serfs; there was an almost unbridgeable gap between the lordly professor and the lowly students. This, too, sparked outrage in a generation already disposed to question the integrity of its elders.
The question of violence hung in the air during these days of protest, though the student leadership in Germany never embraced it. In fact, most of the actual violence that occurred was instigated by the police. Nevertheless, the theory and language of violent revolution was tossed around a great deal among the students and their leftist sympathizers, enough to seriously alarm a large cross-section of Germans who lived only a few miles from an actual Communist state. As bombing and terrorist actions accelerated, this climate of alarm deepened.
Although the nerve center of the student movement in Germany was the Free University in Berlin, it gripped Tübingen as well. In a 1996 essay in theSudddeutsche Zeitung
, a 1960s student radical named Klaus Podak reflected on the spirit at Tübingen in the days after a student named Benno Ohnesorg was shot in Berlin during a protest over a visit by the Shah of Iran, triggering a massive wave of uprisings on campuses across the country: "The revolution was approaching. Its wild, hot air reached Tübingen like a breeze. Our cheeks turned red. Our hearts beat faster. Our eyes shone. Our bodies trembled. We were excited, day and night." At around the same time, another radical named Günther Maschke became editor of a student magazine in Tübingen and turned it into a leading organ of the protest movement.
Tübingen became the intellectual Mecca of the radicals, however, mostly because Ernst Bloch was there. Widely seen as the father of the 1968 student movement, Bloch's Marxist analysis of Christianity and social change provided much of the intellectual architecture for the radicals, and he personally offered support for their protests. At one point, radicals spray-painted "Ernst Bloch University" over the Tübingen sign on the campus's old assembly hall. InMilestones
, Ratzinger testily acknowledges Bloch's influence, saying in passing that Bloch "made Heidegger contemptible for being petty bourgeois."
Bloch was echoed by Moltmann, who developed the idea of Christian support for social revolution in his "theology of hope" (Moltmann's language reflects the influence of Bloch's masterwork,
Principle of Hope
). The Tübingen New Testament exegete Ernst Käsemann likewise lent his support to students who charged that the church had too often participated in the capitalist exploitation of the poor; and traditional theology frequently served the purpose of propping up the system. Käsemann, though no radical, had a keen sense of political responsibility; his daughter Elisabeth had been murdered on account of her political activity by the military junta in Argentina.
For Ratzinger, all this was simply too much. Frustrated that the theology faculties were emerging as the ideological center of the protest movement, Ratzinger joined forces with two Protestant colleagues, Ulrich Wickert and Wolfgang Beyerhaus, to "bear witness to our common faith in the living God and in Christ, the incarnate word," which the three men believed was under threat. Ratzinger found himself in conflict with many of his colleagues. "I did not want to be always forced into the contra position," he said, and thus he abandoned Tübingen, a height that most theologians can only dream of attaining, after only three years.