The Pope and Hitler Youth: An Interview with Michael H. Kater

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Mr. Kater is Distinguished Research Professor of History, York University, Toronto and author of the book, Hitler Youth (Harvard University Press, 2004). The following interview was conducted by email.

After Cardinal Ratzinger was selected as Pope the media reported that he had been a member of the Hitler Youth (Hitler Jugend). Is it significant that he was a member?

Not as such, because after March 1939 every child above ten up to eighteen was forced to join. If they did not, parents could be held responsible (fines, arrest). Often there were loopholes, though, because somehow children cheated -- on the Hitler Jugend (HJ) elders -- or parents moved somewhere else with them or they just did not join and after repeated inquiries by HJ authorities which were not answered by parent or child the HJ gave up. Claimed "conscientious objector" status held no sway, was not legal and not accepted. Most kids at ten wanted to join anyway because of peer pressure (telling example: former German Chancellor Helmut Schmidt, who was even a quarter Jewish -- but still qualified as "Aryan").

One British tabloid headlined a story: "From Hitler Youth to ... Papa Ratzi." How did you respond to such headlines?

I did not see that headline. I read an intelligent article in the New York Times while in Santa Barbara doing research on my next book (a biography of singer Lotte Lehmann, 1888-1976), discussing the whole issue and basically saying that he joined like everybody else, which made sense to me.

Were German youths required during the war to join the Hitler Youth?

There was a strong directive in December 1936, in which Baldur von Schirach, Leader of the Hitler Youth (incidentally, he was, by blood, three-quarters American, as I report in my book) said: "every German above ten has joined the Hitler Youth." Historians before me have interpreted this to say that they actually did join or were forced to. But this was only wishful thinking on Schirach's part. The actual order to join came in 1939, see above, and then it became serious.

Did anybody refuse to join the Hitler Youth? What happened to them?

That's a long story. See my chapter 4 on resistance. In severe cases, when they did not join and actually went in for physical attacks on the Hitler Youth (Edelweisspiraten) they could be arrested and put in a special youth concentration camp. At least five of those Edelweisspiraten were publicly hanged because they had collaborated with foreign workers in some kind of local insurrection-cum-sabotage (in one case killing a Cologne Gestapo official in the process). The most important case is that of the Scholl siblings (Hans and Sophie, core of the White Rose resistance group), who had become estranged from their Hitler Youth beginnings and as university students and soldiers at the front (1942/43) decided to oppose Hitler actively. They posted massive anti-Hitler slogans in Munich and surroundings and were caught and beheaded. There were about ten of them, all told. Most had been active HJ members before, some even as leaders, Sophie and Hans in particular.

Why did Hitler create the Hitler Youth?

He was persuaded by his cronies before 1933 (when he took power) that in order for the Party and the National Socialist movement to continue and survive, they needed recruits. Those had to be reared in good time and systematically. This is why Schirach was commissioned to do this work early on.

What did it mean to be a member of the Hitler Youth? Did members have to undertake any operations which we would regard as barbaric? What did members do? Did they have to promise to kill Jews?

Too many questions at once: read my book. As HJ, they did not have to do anything particularly barbaric. But the hazing within the peer groups was severe (character-steeling), some of this resulting in injury and death. It was all geared to the principle of the survival of the fittest, Social Darwinism, which is a perversion to begin with, but the bedrock of National Socialist ideology and practice. Extreme example: you were told to jump blindfolded into a swimming pool where there was no water, or only shallow water. Then of course, when you actually jumped, the water was all there. Members did Boy Scout-like drills and games, only much more severe. They never had to promise to kill anybody. That might have annoyed parents and teachers, let alone the HJ members themselves. But they knew that in a war (they were conditioned for war from the start) they had to fight like good Germans. And this they actually did. Read my 5th chapter. As far as Jews were concerned, the HJ were indoctrinated that those were racial scum and had to be fought (but not physically, at first). Some were co opted to participate in Crystal Night, Nov. 1938. Others were asked (or forced by strong suasion) to join the SS and as such had their share of participation in the Holocaust, which I do not have to go into here. Irma Grese, the beautiful SS (helper) guard of Auschwitz and Mengele's lover, was a product of the HJ. After the war, she was hanged by the British at 22.

Did membership in the Hitler Youth prevent anybody in postwar Germany from having a successful political career?

Not in the least. Political or otherwise. Konrad Adenauer knew he had to rely on capable men and most, in fact all of those he worked with had been in the army, HJ or SS. It was generally known that between 95 and 99 percent joined voluntarily or because of peer pressure or what and that was the accepted standard. Nobody in Germany even talked about this, it was a given and a waste of time to mention it. THEY had not been at fault (they said). I would say the effect of the HJ on post-1945 success in Germany is totally neutral. It neither hindered nor helped. It had been a necessary nuisance (to a majority a joy, to a minority a great burden) and those who survived (army or SS combat) were lucky to be alive and started afresh. Remember, these guys were young and still thought they had a future. Even SS leaders were not impeded insofar as they were not tripped up by trials, Allied ones or later the internal German ones. Many SS leaders became successful business men (e.g. Martin Schleyer, who was murdered by the Baader-Meinhof Gang); many (re-)entered universities as influential professors. Those people, before they had joined the SS and if they had had the right age, had all been in the HJ. Consult age parameters for HJ membership in my first chapter. I trust you have at least bought the book!

The Pope left the German army reportedly in April or May of 1945, depending on which account one consults. Was this an act of courage on his part at that time, as some media accounts have implied?

Anybody who left the army in May 1945 was hardly deserting. Remember that surrender was declared on May 8. April could have been dangerous, depending on where you were, or who commanded you, and from what distance. Often commanders just told their young soldier: Go home to Mamma. If you tried to desert in April it could have been hazardous, depending on the circumstances. Berlin for instance: totally impossible. HJ defended Berlin against the Russians. If German military police were around and caught you deserting, they could string you up on the nearest street lantern pole, depending on where you were found (Berlin: a given). In large cities, this happened all the time, also to HJ. So we have to know exactly where and under what circumstances Ratzinger "deserted," and also when.


I want to add the answer to a question which you never asked: should Ratzinger have resisted as a young believing Catholic, wanting to be a priest?

He might have done so, because members of several Catholic youth groups were still surreptitiously around (in my book I explain that Catholic youth groups were the ones most viciously fought by the consolidating HJ after 1933, and some were STILL around) and reorganizing under different names, until Sept. 1939 (beginning of the war, when controls were too strict). Most of these were caught, some came around in time -- a few were harmed or killed by the Nazis. During he war, Himmler kept a colony of priests (mostly Polish) who tended a special herb garden for him in Dachau. But there were also many German priests in concentration camps, though none were systematically killed (as were Jews and Gypsies), especially not in the liquidation camps of the (Polish) East -- Belzec, Maidanek, Auschwitz, Treblinka.

To claim that Ratzinger should have been in their number is like writing history in hindsight. He could not have told himself: I have to be in this militant Catholic youth group opposing the Nazis and survive this too, because eventually I might be Pope. This is totally unrealistic. Of course if he had been and had survived and had capitalized on that record as a priest and bishop until now, he would have been a hero in human life. But nobody decides to become a hero and survive and reap the mortal benefits of this.

In a way, as far as that is concerned, he has become the victim of the legacy of his predecessor who happens to have been an active Polish resistance fighter against the Nazis, who survived. That was his "good luck."

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More Comments:

andy lynch - 10/26/2008

It may not have been Ratzinger's fault he joined a group whose purpose was so foul, but if God was with the Catholic church someone like that would never have become pope. He must have been indoctrinated to the point that he can never be straight in my opinion

Amin Ali Golmohamad - 5/28/2005

Is it important to make such hair-splitting analysis of the childhood of the Pope? He didn't do anything wrong as a person. I think what he did was wise. A chinese proverb states:

"The reed bends with the wind of a storm, it survives. The large oak stands and resist, but then is blown over by its force." I think it would be better to be the reed. It is senseless to resist. This is in addition to what Tony mentioned about the Pope being pre-adolescent at the time.

If we want to carry this moral argument so far, then every single christian soldier in the war, on both sides of the battle, should be vilified for doing anything in having helped it continue. Every christian soldier who took up arms to kill his fellow man should be condemned as failing a christian duty in this pointless debate you are carrying out. Let us have one standard here. The Pope is still human after all!

Yehuda Cohn - 5/23/2005

Well put, and I'll concede the point on Ratzinger in its entirety. And, my agreement doesn't end there.

Your analogy of the Victorian British Empire is apt. I'm embarrassingly uninformed on the India case (and I can see that it is compelling), but I am familiar with Ireland’s plight under the British boot of oppression and genocide. -- and, you're right, many good people did bad things.

One example of them said: “The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing.”

Yehuda Cohn - 5/23/2005

Okay, point taken: Children of 13 years shouldn’t be held to the same standard of Christian morality or consentience as that of a twenty year old.

Let me say also that I seriously doubt the Pope was ever a committed Nazi. But, I'm not so convinced he didn't, like most Germans at the time, have a bellicose nationalistic political bend and was the product of deep and virulent intergenerational anti-Semitism.

The argument that his “father hated Nazis” and he was "forced to join" is inconclusive and, perhaps, even spurious. Every WWII Nazi said that – equivalent to “I was just following orders.” The Vatican and Catholic Church perception managers are quite capable of spinning the appropriate revisionist history.

Because the Nazi Youth membership was compulsory (after 1939), doesn't necessarily mean the Pope didn't join enthusiastically – as did most Germans at the time. Nor does his father's purported dislike for Nazis necessarily mean his son was against them. Maybe the Nazi socialist, nationalist or racial political message was appealing to him, as it was to most Germans at the time. I don't know; nobody does. And, whether his actions were the proximate cause of Allied or American deaths, we don't know either.

We do know that his participation helped the Nazi war machine rain death and destruction on the Allies and Americans and perpetrate crimes against humanity on a massive scale.

With such a cloud of doubt surrounding this Pope, perhaps a less controversial choice could have, and should have, been made.

Sunil Kumar - 5/23/2005

I understand where you're coming from Yehuda and the news of the HY association was troubling to me as well, but the problem is that in the imperfect history of the world, many important figures (who are quite decent in their own right) are still associated with bloody regimes, sometimes even willingly. Churchill himself, along with many British human rights authors and protesters in the later 20th century, were associated with bloody and brutal Victorian British Empire in India, Ireland and Australia (or the Boer War, with its concentration camps against the Boers and Africans). In India alone the British massacred enough villages and burned down enough farmland after the 1857 uprising to kill close to 30 million Indians or more before 1900 (and that doesn't include the great Bengal famine of 1940's, which was also an artificial famine). Plus the tragic history of the aborigines in Australia who were hunted down by the British, plus the Irish-- plus Churchill's own hand in the terror bombing of Ireland. For better or worse, this was the regime that was present and many otherwise decent Britons were born into it, and so had no choice but to associate with it.

I'm less forgiving of Churchill, but in Ratzinger's case there are many mitigating factors, chiefly that he was very, very young. I greatly admire the Germans who stood up to Hitler and the Nazis like Stauffenberg, but be realistic, Ratzinger was not even in his teens when HJ membership became compulsory-- especially when he was born into the Nazi-dominated land, his very moral fiber was hardly formed at that point, and in any case he was given little choice. Besides as John Milton wrote, there are many ways to serve a noble cause. Some like Stauffenberg gave their lives, others like Ratzinger protested more quietly so that they'd be alive (not captured by the Gestapo) to bear witness today. We need both kinds.

Tony Luke - 5/23/2005

I think your point is well-intentioned, but let's not forget that the Pope was only about 12 or 13 years of age when he joined the Hitler Youth... he was drafted in the Wehrmacht when he was 16... I don't think it's right to castigate him for failing in his Christian duty in joining the Hitler Youth or to lament that he did not join a resistance movement as a preteen or young adolescent. John Paul II was 7 years older than Benedict XVI and was in his late teens and early 20's. The difference in motivation, spiritual, mental, and ethical development between a 13-year old and a 20-year old is significant.

Yehuda Cohn - 5/23/2005

Many young men chose to resist the Nazi military on moral principles. While most were not executed, they did face concentration camps, terrible physical hardship and the risk of death. Those people who took great risks and suffered mightily did so because they refused to sacrifice their morals and dignity for personal wellbeing or ideology. Ratzinger was not one of them.

He rationally chose to avoid that risk and potential suffering. The Pope decided to join, rather than resist on moral grounds, the most evil regimes in human history. It’s hard to criticize that choice today. As a Christian, however, one has a moral duty to oppose and resist such evil – not participate to save oneself. In the least, it appears Ratzinger failed in that Christian duty.

If given the opportunity to do over again, would the Pope choose the same path?