The echo of the Vatican City bells heralding Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger of Germany’s election as Pope Benedict XVI had barely faded when critics asserted that the Bavaria-born Ratzinger had, as a teenager, served in the Hitler Youth and was conscripted as a non-soldier “helper” in the German Army during World War II.
That the young Ratzinger’s time in such involuntary service somehow reflected some love of totalitarianism is a gross mischaracterization of the new pope’s beliefs and his life of service to his faith.
What we have clearly learned about Germany during World War II is that some Germans were cruel and ruthless killers and torturers, responsible for ordering or carrying out horrendous crimes against people of other races while keeping those at home in line with campaigns of terror and intimidation. Young men and even boys were those given little choice but to be conscripted into service.
This is absolutely no justification for the defense, “We were merely following orders,” that many who committed atrocities tried to assert in an attempt to evade responsibility. Perhaps for many who lived through that period or knew those who did not live through it, there is no understanding or justification for anyone who joined any part of the Nazis’ vicious regime under any circumstances, even those of tender age, as in Ratzinger’s case.
But there remains a difference between those who willingly obeyed orders to kill, maim, torture and rape and those whose orders were to perform any of millions of non-violent functions, from clerical duties to fortification building. Certainly this is the case when such functions were performed by a teenage boy who was too young to be a soldier.
According to the future pope’s autobiography and accounts recently reported by the Associated Press and others, the young Ratzinger was put into the Hitler Youth at age 14, but was allowed to leave it as he was to enter the seminary. At 16 he was taken from his seminary studies to become an army “helper” and who, after deserting at 18 in May 1945 — certainly not the sign of a dyed-in-the-wool believer in Hitler’s twisted creed — returned to the seminary shortly afterward.
Knight-Ridder News Service reported that in his autobiography, Benedict called Nazis ‘‘fanatical ideologues who tyrannized us without respite.’’
Benedict’s more than 50-year record as an ordained priest and later church administrator, theologian and doctrinaire cardinal is certainly open to wide scrutiny. He had a key role, for example, in the dismantling of the 1970s and 1980s-era “liberation theology” among Catholic Church leaders and the subsequent removal from power of many of those who were involved.
The Vatican issued a document in 2000 prepared by the future pope entitled ‘‘Dominus Iesus,” that asserted Roman Catholicism as the one true faith, Knight-Ridder reported. It termed as “deficient” other denominations and beliefs.
These beliefs and many others expressed by Benedict have been and are a point of serious contention among many Catholics and other Christians.
But any conclusion that Benedict is or was a totalitarian because between ages 14 and 18 he was pressed into involuntary service by the sick Nazi regime and performing minor functions that directly hurt no one is unfounded and should be given no credence.