[Marxism] Ratzinger and the Nazis
lnp3 at panix.com
Wed May 11 07:54:13 MDT 2005
Chronicle of Higher Education, May 13, 2005
CRITIC AT LARGE
The Pope's Sins of Omission
By CARLIN ROMANO
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
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
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
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
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
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.
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