Ratzinger Causing Problems already?
It seems Ratzinger's homeland is wise to him?
MUNICH, Germany -- Pope Benedict XVI's past membership in a Nazi youth organization has sparked a faceoff between British and German newspapers that has highlighted the deep sensitivities that run in Germany about World War II and the role of its now-aging citizens in that war.
"English Insult German Pope," yelled the front-page headline on Germany's largest daily newspaper, Bild, yesterday in response to a slew of uncomplimentary British headlines the day before that referred to Benedict as "God's Rottweiler" and "Hitler Youth."
"The British press should think about themselves and how they're always talking about Nazis and how this influences their own youths and you end up getting Prince Harry with a swastika on his arm," said Winfried Rohmel, spokesman for the archdiocese of Munich, who became then-Archbishop Joseph Ratzinger's spokesman in 1977. Harry, 20, sparked an uproar in January when he was photographed wearing a swastika to a costume party.
This week's controversy seemed more like an airing of lingering resentments between the two wartime foes than an argument based on the facts of Benedict's time in the Hitler Youth movement as a teenager. But it has prompted some examination of the history of Germany -- and Ratzinger -- in that troubled period. Jewish leaders have made only positive public statements about Benedict, who as an aide to Pope John Paul II was instrumental in promoting reconciliation between Jews and the Catholic Church. But some of Ratzinger's past statements about his involvement in the Hitler Youth have raised questions that some people, even in his hometown of Traunstein, feel he should answer.
"Pope Ratzinger should answer these questions himself," Traunstein town archivist and historian Franz Haselbeck said in an interview in his town hall office. "He should be asked. He is the only person who can answer these questions."
In 1997, when asked if he had been in the Hitler Youth, Ratzinger told an interviewer: "At first we weren't, 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 seminarian, I was registered in the Hitler Youth."
In fact, it was on March 25, 1939 -- not in 1941 -- that membership became obligatory for Germans between 10 and 18. Ratzinger's 10th birthday was in April 1937, so he was obliged to join from the day the Nazi decree was passed.
Rohmel said he believed that Ratzinger did not have to join the Hitler Youth because he was at a Catholic boarding school, but he did not know for sure. Ratzinger's use of the passive to describe being "registered" in the movement implies he did not personally sign up to join the group.
On Wednesday, the director of Ratzinger's former school, St. Michael's Seminary, said an archdiocese official had just spoken with Ratzinger's brother, Georg, to seek clarification: "We're getting the information from Georg Ratzinger himself that back then a youth group of the boarding school was just transferred to the Hitler Youth," said Thomas Frauenlob, the director. "It was an order by law."
But according to Volker Dahm, head of research into National Socialism (Nazism) at Munich's Institute for Contemporary History, every individual had to sign his name on a form to join the organization.
"No other could do it for you," Dahm said yesterday. "You had to sign it. But you could be forced."
Dahm read from the original 1936 laws -- updated with a decree in March 1939 -- and said a violation would mean the child's parents would have to pay a fine of at least 150 German marks -- more than a month's salary for a government worker -- or could be imprisoned. Other common punishments for not joining would be social ostracism, bullying and the loss of a parent's job, he said. He said the pressures on most young Germans to join were unbearable, even if they -- like Ratzinger's family -- were anti-Nazi in political orientation.
"There were 12 million members," Dahm said. "People joined it just to show, OK, I'm doing my thing for the national community."
As a member of the Hitler Youth, Ratzinger would have worn the brown-shirted uniform and a red and white swastika armband, Dahm said. He would have been subjected to the Nazi Party's anti-Semitic propaganda and would have had to take part in harmless activities like camping.
There were boys in Traunstein and in the surrounding area who managed to avoid being in the Hitler Youth. Rupert Berger is the same age as Ratzinger and was ordained as a priest in the same class and seminary as Ratzinger in 1951. Berger's father was sent to a concentration camp for a month because of his anti-Nazi activities; his son refused to join the youth organization.
"There were teachers who exerted pressure and also other teachers who were against the Hitler Youth," Berger said, speaking at the door of his Traunstein home on Wednesday. "My father said, 'I give you the freedom to choose.' " But Berger did not blame Ratzinger for joining: "The majority went. That does not make all of them Nazis ... I wouldn't say that Ratzinger made a choice. He rather slipped into the Hitler Youth thing."
Some of the details may be lost to time and the murkiness of old men's memories and recountings, but in spite of the British newspapers there seems to be no one who seriously believes Ratzinger was ever a true Nazi sympathizer.
"It's very easy, very comfortable to live in democratic conditions," Dahm said, "but very difficult to live in a totalitarian state."