[Marxism] Ratzinger and the Nazis

Louis Proyect lnp3 at panix.com
Wed May 11 07:54:13 MDT 2005

Chronicle of Higher Education, May 13, 2005
The Pope's Sins of Omission


Literary tradition holds that Dorothy Parker once aced an Algonquin Round 
Table contest to knock out the most sensational possible snap headline. Her 
winner? "Pope Elopes!"

She'd probably still win for pith. Who but historians familiar with the 
likes of Sergius III (904-11) -- his mistress Marozia the Theophylact bore 
him an illegitimate son whom she later appointed as John XI (931-36) -- 
would question the shock value? But international newspapers, if not the 
usual scaredy-pants American ones when it comes to the Roman Catholic 
Church, gave Parker a run for her money last month.

"White Smoke, Black Past," trumpeted the headline in Israel's Yediot 
Aharonot. "From Hitler Youth to ... Papa Ratzi" roared London's Sun, 
indelicately describing Cardinal Ratzinger as an "ex-World War II enemy 
soldier." German papers proved harshest on his doctrinal present and 
personality. "Ratzinger is the Counter-Reformation personified," asserted 
the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung. Berliner Zeitung described his hold on 
the Vatican as "autocratic, authoritarian," deeming the new pope "as shrewd 
as a serpent." Die Tageszeitung described him as a "reactionary churchman" 
who "will try to seal the bulkheads of the Holy Roman Church from the 
modern world."

To Benedict XVI's post-ascension claim that he sees himself as a "simple 
humble worker in the Lord's vineyard," Die Tageszeitung commented, "Simple 
he is not, humble hardly." A Der Spiegel poll revealed that a plurality of 
Germans didn't want him to be pope -- he's unpopular for blocking German 
priests from counseling pregnant women and keeping German Catholics from 
sharing communion with Lutherans.

Are the invectives fair? Yes or no, they implicate the new pope's 
character, not just his theological beliefs. Ratzinger's elevation to Pope 
Benedict XVI propelled two controversial parts of his life into the 
spotlight. The first was his membership as a young man in the Hitler Youth, 
then in the antiaircraft youth division of the Wehrmacht, later in the 
Wehrmacht infantry itself.

The second was his 24 years as prefect of the Vatican's Congregation for 
the Doctrine of the Faith, or CDF, charged with investigating and sometimes 
punishing Catholic faculty members and priests accused of departing from 
Church teachings. That office directly descends from the Roman Inquisition 
that burned at the stake approximately 160 people, including the 
philosopher Giordano Bruno, between 1542 and 1761.

A former professor at four German universities, Ratzinger might best be 
seen as the theology-department chair who makes it to university president. 
He probably looks on all journalism as unscholarly by definition, however 
happy he may be to see criticism of his beliefs on birth control or 
homosexuality balanced by appreciation for the beauty of Vatican ritual and 
adjectives about his character, such as "shy" and "soft-spoken."

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.

Instead, we hear from Ratzinger that Pope Pius XII -- best known in recent 
years as protagonist of such embarrassing exposés as Hitler's Pope, by John 
Cornwell (Viking, 1999); The Popes Against the Jews by David I. Kertzer 
(Knopf, 2001); and A Moral Reckoning, by Daniel Jonah Goldhagen (Knopf, 
2002) -- was a "great figure." Coming from a theologian who remarked that 
"the Cross recapitulates in advance the horror of Auschwitz" -- raising 
questions about Ratzinger's economies of scale -- such autobiographical 
choices do not permit one-word exonerations, even if they don't implicate 
Ratzinger as an overt Nazi sympathizer. Lack of indignation, rather than 
complicity, is the sin of omission in his reminiscences.

Further scholarly context raises more questions. According to Ratzinger's 
brother, it was Cardinal Michael Faulhaber of Munich who originally stirred 
the future pope's childhood desire to rise in the Church. At age 5, after 
he saw Cardinal Faulhaber getting out of a great big black car in 
Traunstein, young Joseph immediately told his father, "I want to be a 
Cardinal too." After the war, Faulhaber became Ratzinger's mentor and also 
ordained him.

As a role model for a future pope, though, Faulhaber falls short. He 
lunched with Hitler at Obersalzburg in 1936, voiced support for the Führer, 
and denounced "atheistic" Jews. In his much-praised book, Hitler's Willing 
Executioners (Knopf, 1996), Daniel Jonah Goldhagen, after observing that in 
Nazi Germany "the Catholic Church as an institution remained thoroughly and 
publicly anti-Semitic," immediately adds, "Cardinal Michael Faulhaber of 
Munich expressed this in his Advent sermons at the end of 1933." As late as 
October 1943, Goldhagen writes, Faulhaber asserted that "nobody in his 
heart can possibly wish an unsuccessful outcome of the war."

Beth A. Griech-Polelle, in her critical study, Bishop von Galen: German 
Catholicism and National Socialism (Yale University Press, 2002), helps us 
to understand an attitude of the German Catholic Church during the war that 
strikingly reflects Ratzinger's tone in his memoir: "Religious came to mean 
not supporting the universal values of brotherly love and equality but 
rather keeping Catholic confessional schools, organizations, and 
associations alive."

The image of Ratzinger that emerges from his youth -- insular, fond of 
priestly authority, less moved by the moral core of Jesus' message than by 
liturgy, eschatology, the precise meaning of "revelation," lovely diocesan 
buildings -- helps explain his comfort with that later Vatican day job. 
Here, too, recent scholarship helps. The Modern Inquisition by Paul Collins 
(Overlook Press, 2005), reports on the experiences of seven internationally 
prominent Catholic dissidents -- Hans Kung, Charles Curran, Tissa 
Balasuriya, Lavinia Byrne, Jeannine Gramick, Robert Nugent, and the author 
himself -- investigated and in some cases punished by Cardinal Ratzinger 
and the CDF. Collins, an Australian ordained in Melbourne in 1967, resigned 
from the Church in 2001 after the CDF probed him for supposed "doctrinal 
problems." The Modern Inquisition provides a rare insider's look at a 
jurisprudential process traditionally cloaked in secrecy.

All seven describe the CDF as a kangaroo court or Star Chamber, without 
fairness or due process. Confidence in Ratzinger's sense of justice -- the 
CDF prefect told the Independent of London in 1990 that "Standards of 
conduct appropriate to civil society or the workings of a democracy cannot 
be purely and simply applied to the Church" -- is hardly bolstered by their 

According to Collins, the CDF's "processes are secretive, inquisitorial, 
often blatantly unfair to the accused and lack any application of the basic 
principles of human rights." Procedural features include anonymous 
accusers, prosecutors who also act as judges and investigators, presumption 
of guilt, appointed defense counsels whom the accused can't know or 
communicate with, and no right of appeal. They make the CDF, in Collins's 
words, "a creature of the 16th century," not far removed from courts that 
submerged witnesses underwater to determine if they were telling the truth.

The CDF stripped Curran, a controversial theologian then at the Catholic 
University of America, of his right to teach Catholic theology. His 
offense? Insisting on the right to dissent from authoritative but 
non-infallible papal teaching.

Curran recalls telling Ratzinger at a face-to-face 1986 meeting, "You are a 
respected German theologian, and are on a first-name basis with six German 
moralists whom I could name, and you know as well as I do that they are 
saying the same things as I am saying."

Ratzinger replied, according to Curran: "Well, if you would want to delate 
[denounce to the CDF] these people, we will open a dossier on them."

Curran says he replied, "I'm not here to do your dirty work."

Assessing Pope Benedict XVI in the light of scholarship helps balance the 
American media's reflexive treatment of the Vatican as an alluring 
postage-stamp monarchy, a mini-Monaco with credos rather than chips on the 
gaming tables, a Broadway set outfitted with grandfatherly players and 
splendid regalia.

The character of a new pope matters because the respect he personally 
commands produces life and death differences in whether the faithful obey 
doctrine. The biography of Benedict XVI should trouble any who believe the 
pope ought to be a morally inspiring figure, like Jesus himself.

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.



More information about the Marxism mailing list