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.
"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.
Nazi leaders put such great emphasis on the Hitler Youth that children were let out of school early on certain days to attend meetings. Those who didn't attend meetings--and their parents--could be subject to fines or jail time.
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
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,
"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.