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Carlin Romano: What the Media Have Left Out About the Pope's WW II Past

Carlin Romano, in the Chronicle of Higher Education (5-11-05):

Carlin Romano, critic at large for The Chronicle and literary critic of The Philadelphia Inquirer, was a finalist this spring for the 2005 Pulitzer Prize in criticism.

... As the 60th anniversary of the end of World War II arrives in Europe, it's appropriate to bring bookish context to a bookish man. Ratzinger's own autobiographical accounts, in his Salt of the Earth (Ignatius Press, 1997) and Milestones: Memoirs, 1927-77 (Ignatius Press, 1998), throw light on his personality, especially when juxtaposed with other sources.

Almost all information on Ratzinger's wartime experiences comes from his own testimony or that of surviving family and friends from Traunstein, his hometown between Munich and Salzburg.

Ratzinger's own accounts sometimes clash with one another. In Milestones, for instance, the future pope writes of his policeman father that, "Time and again, in public meetings, Father had to take a position against the violence of the Nazis." But in Salt of the Earth, a book-length interview, he says of his father's criticism of Nazism, "He made no public opposition; that wouldn't have been possible." His father, he adds, only "spoke freely to people whom he could trust."

In Salt of the Earth, Ratzinger unpacks his adolescent years. He writes that his brother was "obliged" to join Hitler Youth in 1941, but that he himself was later "registered" in it as a seminarian, though he subsequently escaped regular attendance thanks to that same status. "From 1943 on," Ratzinger recalls further, "the seminarians in Traunstein were all conscripted into antiaircraft work at Munich. I was 16 years old, and for a whole year, from August 43 to September 44, we did our service."

In that role, Ratzinger relayed the positions of attacking Allied planes to gunners trying to shoot them down. He doesn't say whether his actions killed anyone, and has explained that he never learned to fire his weapons because of "an infected finger." His own unit suffered bombing that killed and wounded fellow soldiers. He tells us that he had to "perform the same services" as regular soldiers, a great "unpleasantness" for "so nonmilitary a person." Contrary to some newspaper reports, he was "exempt from all military exercises" in only one of his four assignments near Munich.

Ratzinger the memoirist tends to stress his youthful enchantment with the German Catholic Church. He gushes about local Marian shrines, Catholic ritual and architecture. He observes how, at seminary, "the greatest burden for me was the imposition of a progressive idea of education." During the grim year of 1941-42, Ratzinger remembers that he "discovered literature -- read Goethe with delight, was put off a bit by Schiller's moralism ... returned with renewed joy to the liturgical texts. ... This was a time of interior exaltation, full of hope for the great things that were gradually opening up to me in the boundless realm of the spirit." His main wish, it seems, was to be left alone to exult in Catholic theology.

By September 1944, however, Ratzinger found himself drafted into the Reich's "Work Service" and forced to build "tank traps" near the Austro-Hungarian border. When that ended, his obligation to enter the infantry finally kicked in, but he fortunately found himself assigned to a barracks in Traunstein. There Ratzinger, in a rare emotional admission, expresses how his "heart was deeply moved" by the older German soldiers homesick for their families.

Oddities crop up in his end-of-war account in Milestones. "Hitler's death finally strengthened our hope that things would soon end," he writes. "The unhurried manner of the American advance, however, deferred more and more the day of liberation." That "unhurried" is one of several jabs Ratzinger takes at the Americans, though he never criticizes the German military.

After the Americans came to his village and commandeered his house, he recalls, "it especially cut my good mother's heart" to see her son "under the custody of heavily armed Americans." Further on, he also relates how "the American soldiers liked especially to take pictures of us ... in order to take home with them souvenirs of the defeated army."

Nasty, to be sure, compared to what Nazi soldiers did to their prisoners. But the most peculiar moment comes immediately after the mention of Hitler's suicide, which took place on April 30, 1945. Ratzinger writes: "At the end of April or the beginning of May -- I do not remember precisely -- I decided to go home. I knew that the city was surrounded by soldiers who had orders to shoot deserters on the spot." Some have cited this passage to indicate, in the words of The Economist, that "his desertion in 1944 [sic] is evidence of a distaste for Nazism."

But desertion wasn't evidence of the sort at that juncture. It's strange that Ratzinger can't remember whether he decided to go home in April or May. He admits doing so after learning of Hitler's death, which no one but Hitler's bunkermates and other insiders knew of until May 1 at the earliest. So Ratzinger must have done so in the first week of May. But Nazi General Helmuth Weidling publicly announced Hitler's suicide in Berlin on May 2 and ordered "an immediate halt to all resistance." Even given some time lag, a different light falls on Ratzinger's decision to leave the barracks in one part of Traunstein to go to his house in another. Many German soldiers, after Hitler's suicide, assumed the war would be over within days. The risk of being hanged by the SS for deserting had plainly diminished. By Ratzinger's own account, American troops decided he was a soldier who had taken off his uniform and melted back into his family. They ordered him to put his uniform back on, and interned him in a prisoner-of-war camp near Ulm until June 19, 1945.

Those nuances wouldn't trouble so much if the future pope exhibited empathy for victims of the Nazis (aside from inconvenienced German soldiers) or voiced admiration for Catholic resisters to the Nazis. Instead, Milestones projects little moral indignation.

Recent scholarship shows why quickly sealing the Ratzinger "Hitler Youth" file with a single word like "compulsory" or "mandatory" is too simple. One can start with Hitler Youth (Harvard University Press, 2004) by Michael H. Kater, emeritus professor of history at York University, which presents the most textured account in English of its subject.

Kater makes plain that resistance to Hitler Youth -- particularly by Catholic youth -- was not a statistically minute aberration, though it remained an exception. He devotes a whole chapter, "Dissidents and Rebels," to the many youth groups such as the Edelweisspiraten, the leftist Meuten, and the upper-class Swing types, who mocked or actively opposed Hitler Youth. He writes of the "outraged young Catholics" who gathered around Walter Klingenbeck, a Munich mechanic's apprentice who printed and duplicated "Down With Hitler" flyers. (The SS beheaded Klingenbeck in August 1943.) "Individual withdrawal from the Hitler Youth in peace or war," notes Kater, "constituted an important form of dissidence in the Third Reich."

Yet Ratzinger doesn't mention Catholic student dissidents of his era. He says nothing about the heroic White Rose group led by Hans Scholl and his sister Sophie, which operated in his Bavarian backyard. That group's principled bravery -- it denounced Nazism's slaughter of innocents through fliers distributed at both the University of Munich and towns around Munich -- resulted in the Nazis' beheading both Scholls after a fast trial in the dreaded People's Court. Such silence from a German Catholic turned high Vatican official disturbs.

But perhaps it should not surprise. Despite Ratzinger's reveries in his memoirs about academic Catholic theologians and the merits of Augustine and Bonaventure versus Aquinas, he denies a nod even to the mixed tactics of Bishop Clemens von Galen of Munster, who preached against Hitler's plan to euthanize sick, old, disabled, and mentally retarded Germans while keeping silent about Jews -- a selective dissidence also chosen by other officials of the German Catholic Church. Ratzinger never speaks of the slave-labor camp 12 kilometers outside of Traunstein. He never talks about Dachau, some 100 kilometers away, though contemporaries of Ratzinger have told reporters that townspeople knew of the camp, and even used "Watch out or you'll end up in Dachau" as a warning....