Analysis: The pope and Hitler Youth

The mists of history swirl around Pope Benedict XVI's hometown in the foothills of the Bavarian Alps in Germany.

It was there that he came of age as Joseph Ratzinger and served in Hitler Youth during the rise of the Third Reich.

Shining a light on that history offers a glimpse of the context underpinning the Vatican's current crisis, which results from the pope's decision last month to rescind the excommunication of a renegade, ultra-conservative bishop who actively denies the Holocaust.

The decision unleashed a firestorm of controversy, with the German government weighing in last week, Israel's chief rabbinate severing ties with the Vatican, and Catholics and Jews worldwide feeling that decades of hard work and goodwill in improving relations between the two faiths had been undermined.

So can we draw a line from this oversight by the pope, this inability to see how much his decision would insult so many, back to his German past and a decision as a 14-year-old boy to join the Hitler Youth?

Most thoughtful Catholics and many Jewish historians I know would say, no, that is not a line that can be drawn, nor is it fair. 

But one man who knows some of the hidden truths in the pope's hometown of Traunstein is Father Rupert Berger, and his story deserves telling.

Berger, now 81, was ordained a Catholic priest alongside Joseph Ratzinger and his brother, Georg, in 1951 in the beautiful church in the center of the town where they all grew up together.
But there was something that set their two families apart.

Berger's family sympathized with the Catholic resistance to Nazism in the town. Rupert was the same age as Joseph Ratzinger and at 14 years old he refused to join Hitler Youth. His family suffered as a result. He told me in an interview in 2005 that his father was sent to Dachau. He returned after the war and became the mayor.

Ratzinger's father was a policeman. The family was never affiliated with the Nazi party. But the Ratzingers chose to go with the vast majority of Germany and acquiesce to the regulations requiring 14 year olds to join Hitler Youth. They wanted to survive and allow their two sons to focus on academics in the seminary. So Ratzinger and his brother joined at 14 and went through with the parades and the salutes to the Fuehrer. Ratzinger also served briefly with a German army anti-aircraft unit just before the end of the war.

When I interviewed Berger in April 2005, just after Ratzinger had been elevated to the papacy, he spoke well of Ratzinger's intellect and discipline as a young man. But he said he couldn't understand why Ratzinger had insisted for so long in so many public statements that no one had a choice but to join Hitler Youth.

''It was a hard time to live, and there were hard choices to make," Berger said.

He was too modest or polite, or perhaps uncertain about what to tell a reporter who landed on his doorstep, to state his opinion about the new pope's choices any more clearly.

But what I took away from the interview and my research in the town was that the pope's repeated assertion that he had no choice but to join Hitler Youth was simply not true.

In fact, the statement is an insult to the memory and the lives of those who did resist Nazism and those who did refuse to join the organizations that were formed to perpetuate its power.
The pope's poorly-thought-out edict to reinstate the Holocaust-denying bishop — from which the Vatican is now vigorously back peddling — was also an insult to those who resisted Nazism and to Jews and Catholics alike around the world.

At the end of the day, it shouldn't surprise us that this pope overlooked — or failed to adequately investigate — the dangerous and virulent strains of anti-Semitism that ran through British Bishop Richard Williamson's research that denied the Holocaust.

Nor should it surprise us that the pope failed to give careful enough consideration to what lies behind the traditionalist Society of St. Pius X, which refuses to adhere to the teaching of the Second Vatican Council, including an important theological rejection of the idea of collective guilt on the part of Jews for the crucifixion of Jesus.

Pope John Paul II had excommunicated Williamson and three other bishops from the Society of St. Pius X in 1988. On Jan. 21, Pope Benedict rescinded that excommunication and later claimed he was not aware of Williamson's Holocaust denial.

It shouldn't surprise us that this pope rescinded the excommunication without sufficient attention to how such an act would be received, because it fits in with a lack of transparency and communication that is turning out to be a hallmark of Benedict's papacy.

Even Cardinal Christoph Schonborn of Vienna, who worked closely with Ratzinger and who was a very strong supporter of the conclave that elected Benedict, said: "There must be also a certain criticism of the Vatican's staff practice, which obviously did not examine the matter carefully."

John Allen, a columnist for National Catholic Reporter and the author of a biography of the pope, said that Schonborn's statement was significant because "even papal loyalists are coming to see that the meltdown illustrates a twin failure in transparency: One within the Vatican itself, in the sense that the proper people were not consulted, and the other in communication with the outside world."

To deny the Holocaust is a crime in Germany, and yesterday German Chancelor Angela Merkel discussed the issue with the pope directly.

After the German government demanded on Feb. 3 that the Vatican reconsider its position, the Vatican issued a statement Feb. 4 that Williamson must recant his denial of the Holocaust before he can be admitted into the Roman Catholic Church as a bishop. Williamson has refused to do that and now remains in limbo and leaves the Vatican in a moral twilight on the issue.

Jason Berry, an author of several books on the Catholic church and the producer of the acclaimed documentary Vows of Silence, believes it is unfair to think Ratzinger as a young boy could have resisted joining the Hitler Youth.

He believes the current crisis points more to a lack of leadership, saying, "Ratzinger is not being true to his position as a moral fundamentalist; he should have excommunicated Williamson when this news broke. Instead this lame response of asking him to retract is a day late and a dollar short."

There's wide agreement that this much is true.

But there is still the larger question as to whether this failure of judgment on some level mirrors the way in which this pope as a young man and his family found a way to shut out the enormity of the evil of Nazism and instead focus on his own internal world of intellectual intensity and the passion that he holds for the well being of his church.

When I interviewed Father Berger in 2005, it was just days after the white puff of smoke emanated from the Vatican and confirmed that Ratzinger had been elevated to the papacy.

When he came to the door, he was holding a broom. Father Berger stood in the doorway and occasionally dragged the broom back and forth while we stood there talking. He remembered much of the detail of those early teenage years when he and Joseph Ratzinger were confirmed as Catholics and when he rejected Hitler Youth and he saw his classmate accept membership. 

When I asked him why he thought Ratzinger obeyed the rules and joined the Hitler Youth, Berger replied: ''You could ask the majority of Germans this question. There was such high pressure on everyone. He was too young to do a conscious resistance."

That was certainly true then, but it is certainly not true now.

And for this German pope, a more clear act of "conscious resistance" to denying the Holocaust is now required. He should immediately excommunicate Williamson again and end the ambiguity.

This pope has a unique teaching moment in which he can openly discuss how he feels about his own moral failings as a young man in not challenging the enormity of evil that was Nazism. And he can speak out about the need to remember accurately just how evil Nazism and the Holocaust was, and remind us all of the need to reject anyone who wants to deny the historical record that documents that evil.