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Was Pope Benedict XVI (Joseph Ratzinger) A Nazi? Why Join the Hitler Youth?

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Benedictus XVI in St Peter's Basilica, on May 15th, 2005.
Dnalor 01/Wikimedia Commons

Defense of Joseph Ratzinger

Hitler Jugend: Joseph Ratzinger has explained that his membership in the Hitler Youth was mandatory — it wasn’t his personal choice to join and he certainly didn’t join out of any personal conviction that the Nazis were right. Despite being a member, he refused to attend any meetings. Attendance would have reduced the cost of his schooling at the seminary, yet this did not deter him.

Resistance: According to Joseph Ratzinger, it was “impossible” to resist the Nazis. Being so young, it wasn’t plausible for him to do anything against the Nazis and the atrocities they were committing. Nevertheless, the Ratzinger family did object to the Nazis and as a consequence were forced to move four times. It’s not as though they passively and quietly accepted what is going on, as many other families did.

Military: Joseph Ratzinger was a member of an anti-aircraft unit protecting a BMW factory that used slave labor from the Dachau concentration camp to make aircraft engines, but he was drafted into the military and didn’t have any choice in the matter. In fact, Ratzinger also says that he never fired a shot and never participated in any combat. Later he was transferred to a unit in Hungary where he set up tank traps and watched as Jews were rounded up for transport to death camps. Eventually he deserted and became a prisoner of war.

Criticism of Joseph Ratzinger

Hitler Jugend: Joseph Ratzinger’s claims about the Hitler Youth are not true. Compulsory membership was first defined in 1936 and reinforced in 1939, not in 1941 as he says. Ratzinger also says that he was “still too young” at the time, but he was 14 in 1941 and not too young at all: between the ages of 10 and 14, membership in the Deutsche Jungvolk (a group for younger children) was mandatory. Yet there is no mention of Raztinger belonging. If he had managed to avoid the required membership in the Deutsche Jungvolk, why did he suddenly join the Hitler Youth in 1941?

Resistance: Both Joseph Ratzinger and his brother, Georg, have said that “resistance was impossible” at the time and, therefore, it’s not surprising or morally culpable that they also “went along.” This is also not true. First, it’s insulting to the many who risked their lives to resist the Nazi regime, both in organized cells and on an individual basis. Second, there are many examples of those who refused service in the Hitler Youth for a variety of reasons.

Whatever the Ratzinger family did and whatever Joseph Ratzinger’s father did, it wasn’t enough to be arrested or sent to a concentration camp. It doesn’t even appear to have been enough to warrant being detained and questioned by the Gestapo.

Military: Although it is true that Ratzinger deserted the military rather than continue fighting, he didn’t do so until April 1945, when the end of the war was quite close.

Resolution

There is absolutely no reason to think that Joseph Ratzinger, now Pope Benedict XVI, is now or has ever been secretly a Nazi. Nothing he has ever said or done even remotely suggests the slightest sympathy with any of the basic Nazi ideas or goals. Any claim that he is a Nazi is implausible at best. However, that is not the end of the story.

While Ratzinger was not a Nazi in the past and Benedict XVI is not a Nazi now, there is more than enough reason to question his handling of his past. It appears that he hasn’t been honest with others — and probably not honest with himself — about what he did and what he could have done.

It’s simply not true that resistance was impossible at the time. Difficult, yes; dangerous, yes. But not impossible. John Paul II participated in anti-Nazi theater performances in Poland, yet there is no evidence of Joseph Ratzinger even doing this much.

Ratzinger may have done more than many others to resist, but he also did far less that some. It’s certainly understandable that he wouldn’t have had the courage to do more and, were he any average person, that would be the end of the story. But he isn’t an average person, is he? He’s the pope, a person who is supposed to be the successor of Peter, head of the Christian Church, and symbol of unity for all Christendom.

You don’t have to be morally perfect to hold such a position, but it’s not unreasonable to expect such a person to have come to terms with their moral failings, even the moral failings that occurred in youth when we don’t usually expect a great deal. It was an understandable mistake or failing not to do more against the Nazis, but still a failing that he hasn’t come to terms with — it sounds rather like he is in denial. In a sense, he has yet to repent; yet he was still considered the best of all the candidates for the papacy.

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