Pope Benedict: His role in the Nazi years

Pope Benedict XVI has sought to allay fears of a rigid, authoritarian papacy by promising, in his first broadcast Mass, to reach out to Catholics and other faiths.

Pope Benedict XVI has sought to allay fears of a rigid, authoritarian papacy by promising, in his first broadcast Mass, to reach out to Catholics and other faiths.

As questions continued to be asked about his wartime past, he also announced that his first papal visit abroad would be to his native Germany.

But in the Bavarian town of Traunstein, where Joseph Ratzinger studied during his early years, his past resurfaced in the form of a large black German eagle and swastika, stamped in black ink on a document dating from his school days. The document is proof of the new Pope's qualification as an anti-aircraft "helper" in the Second World War. It is still kept in his file at Traunstein's Chiemgau school.

"I would like to show you more of the file, but much of it is protected under Germany's data-protection law. So I'm afraid I'm not allowed to," Klaus Kiesel, the school's director, said yesterday.

Little is known of the Pope's role during the Nazi era. Documents show that he served in an anti-aircraft unit near Munich and he also seems, briefly, to have been a member of the Hitler Youth movement.

In a pre-recorded interview with Bavarian state radio yesterday, Ratzinger was keen to play down this aspect of his past. "My brother was forced to join the Hitler Youth, but fortunately I was too young to have to do so," he told his interviewer.

Yet in interviews with school teachers, Traunstein residents and Catholic churchmen yesterday, evidence emerged to show that the Pope was indeed a participant in the Nazi war effort - albeit a very reluctant one.

The son of a rural Bavarian police officer, Ratzinger was six when Hitler came to power in 1933. His father, also called Joseph, was a staunch Catholic and an anti-Nazi.

Ratzinger was born in the Bavarian town of Marktl am Inn, close to the Czech border. But in 1937, his father retired and the family moved to Traunstein, a staunchly Catholic town of 23,000 close to Hitler's Bavarian mountain retreat on the nearby Obersalzburg. He was sent to the town's St Michael's Catholic seminary and attended Traunstein's humanistic gymnasium, a grammar school now renamed the Chiemgau School. During this time, the young Ratzinger acquired, among other passions, a taste for the literature of Hermann Hesse, in particular the seminal novel, Steppenwolf.

Father Thomas Frauenlob, who runs the Traunstein seminary which Ratzinger still regularly visits, said that the young man was fortunate to have been admitted: "In the 1930s the seminary in many ways shielded the boys from Nazi ideology," he said. "His family knew right from wrong and they could cope."

Yet while attending Traunstein school, the young Ratzinger was clearly exposed to Nazi influences. Several of the teachers were party members. "There was clearly an attraction in the party's emphasis on sport and athletics. I was young and I was tempted," Ratzinger said in his interview. "It was when the Nazis made it clear to me that they condemned Christianity because it had its roots in the despised Jewish faith that I realised their creed was nothing for me," he said.

In1941 Ratzinger was nevertheless forced to join the Hitler Youth because, in that year, the Nazis made membership of the organisation compulsory. He was 14 at the time. However, he quickly won a dispensation on account of his training at the seminary.

Yet two years later, at the age of 16, he was unable to dodge compulsory military service. He was sent to Munich to undergo training as a "flak helper", and became one of the thousands of young men drafted into the army during the closing stages of the war. Soon afterwards, he was dispatched to the fringes of the Bavarian capital to join a unit protecting a BMW factory producing aircraft engines.

Ratzinger insists he never took part in combat or fired a shot, because of a badly infected finger. He was later sent to Hungary where he set tank traps. In early 1944, he suddenly decided to leave his unit, knowing full well that SS units had orders to shoot deserters on sight. He recorded his terror when, after deserting his unit, he was stopped by other soldiers: "Thank God they were the ones who had enough of war and did not want to become murderers," he wrote in his memoirs.

Yet, in Traunstein, some of the town's older residents feel that questions about the Pope's early years remain unanswered. Herta Kaiser, an 83-year-old pensioner recalled that several people in the town hid Jews from the Nazis and helped them to escape to neutral Switzerland. "Traunstein was not all Nazi, it was also a Catholic stronghold," she said.

There is no evidence that the Ratzinger family felt inclined to help the town's few remaining Jews, or the smattering of anti-Nazi resistance fighters who dared to oppose the regime.

Elizabeth Lohner, 84, whose brother-in-law was sent to Dachau concentration camp for being a conscientious objector, recalled: "It was possible to resist and those people set an example for others." She added: "The Ratzingers were young and made different choices."

In 1937, another Traunstein family hid a local anti-Nazi resistance fighter, named Hans Braxenthaler. He had been tortured in Dachau for his opposition to the regime. Frieda Meyer, 82, one of the Ratzinger family's neighbours at the time, said: "When Braxenthaler was betrayed and the Nazis came for him, he shot himself rather than give himself up."

Ratzinger's election will also raise questions about the dubious role played by the Catholic Church during the Nazi era. The extent to which leading Catholics felt obliged to reach compromises with the regime is outlined by the stance taken by Ratzinger's mentor, Cardinal Michael von Faulhaber, one of the Pope's most important early influences.

Documented evidence shows that the cardinal visited Hitler's mountain retreat during the 1930s and was entertained to lunch by the Führer in person. During their meeting, Von Faulhaber is on record as telling Hitler that the Church saw him as an "authority chosen by God, to whom we owe respect".

Ratzinger was captured by US troops at war's end. He was taken to a field near the Bavarian town of Ulm where prisoners were being held and spent several weeks living in the open behind barbed wire. When he was released on 19 June 1945, he hitched a ride home to Traunstein on the back of a milk truck. "The following months of regained freedom, which we now had learned to value so much, belong to the happiest months of my life," he wrote in his memoirs.

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
election 2015The 10 best quotes of the campaign
A caravan being used as a polling station in Ford near Salisbury, during the 2010 election
election 2015The Independent's guide to get you through polling day
David Blunkett joins the Labour candidate for Redcar Anna Turley on a campaigning visit last month
voicesWhat I learnt from my years in government, by the former Home Secretary David Blunkett
ebooksA celebration of British elections
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Ashdown Group: Marketing Manager (B2B) - Romford - £40,000 + car

£35000 - £40000 per annum + car and benefits: Ashdown Group: Marketing Manager...

Ashdown Group: Helpdesk Analyst - Devon - £20,000

£18000 - £20000 per annum: Ashdown Group: Helpdesk Analyst - Devon - £20,000 ...

Ashdown Group: Data Scientist - London - £50,000 + bonus

£35000 - £50000 per annum + generous bonus: Ashdown Group: Business Analytics ...

Ashdown Group: IT Project Coordinator (Software Development) - Kingston

£45000 - £50000 per annum: Ashdown Group: IT Project Coordinator (Software Dev...

Day In a Page

General Election 2015: ‘We will not sit down with Nicola Sturgeon’, says Ed Balls

'We will not sit down with Nicola Sturgeon'

In an exclusive interview, Ed Balls says he won't negotiate his first Budget with SNP MPs - even if Labour need their votes to secure its passage
VE Day 70th anniversary: How ordinary Britons celebrated the end of war in Europe

How ordinary Britons celebrated VE Day

Our perception of VE Day usually involves crowds of giddy Britons casting off the shackles of war with gay abandon. The truth was more nuanced
They came in with William Caxton's printing press, but typefaces still matter in the digital age

Typefaces still matter in the digital age

A new typeface once took years to create, now thousands are available at the click of a drop-down menu. So why do most of us still rely on the old classics, asks Meg Carter?
Discovery of 'missing link' between the two main life-forms on Earth could explain evolution of animals, say scientists

'Missing link' between Earth's two life-forms found

New microbial species tells us something about our dark past, say scientists
The Pan Am Experience is a 'flight' back to the 1970s that never takes off - at least, not literally

Pan Am Experience: A 'flight' back to the 70s

Tim Walker checks in and checks out a four-hour journey with a difference
Humans aren't alone in indulging in politics - it's everywhere in the animal world

Humans aren't alone in indulging in politics

Voting, mutual back-scratching, coups and charismatic leaders - it's everywhere in the animal world
Crisp sales are in decline - but this tasty trivia might tempt back the turncoats

Crisp sales are in decline

As a nation we're filling up on popcorn and pitta chips and forsaking their potato-based predecessors
Ronald McDonald the muse? Why Banksy, Ron English and Keith Coventry are lovin' Maccy D's

Ronald McDonald the muse

A new wave of artists is taking inspiration from the fast food chain
13 best picnic blankets

13 best picnic blankets

Dine al fresco without the grass stains and damp bottoms with something from our pick of picnic rugs
Barcelona 3 Bayern Munich 0 player ratings: Lionel Messi scores twice - but does he score highest in our ratings?

Barcelona vs Bayern Munich player ratings

Lionel Messi scores twice - but does he score highest in our ratings?
Martin Guptill: Explosive New Zealand batsman who sets the range for Kiwis' big guns

Explosive batsman who sets the range for Kiwis' big guns

Martin Guptill has smashed early runs for Derbyshire and tells Richard Edwards to expect more from the 'freakish' Brendon McCullum and his buoyant team during their tour of England
General Election 2015: Ed Miliband's unlikely journey from hapless geek to heart-throb

Miliband's unlikely journey from hapless geek to heart-throb

He was meant to be Labour's biggest handicap - but has become almost an asset
General Election 2015: A guide to the smaller parties, from the the National Health Action Party to the Church of the Militant Elvis Party

On the margins

From Militant Elvis to Women's Equality: a guide to the underdogs standing in the election
Amr Darrag: Ex-Muslim Brotherhood minister in exile still believes Egypt's military regime can be replaced with 'moderate' Islamic rule

'This is the battle of young Egypt for the future of our country'

Ex-Muslim Brotherhood minister Amr Darrag still believes the opposition can rid Egypt of its military regime and replace it with 'moderate' Islamic rule, he tells Robert Fisk
Why patients must rely less on doctors: Improving our own health is the 'blockbuster drug of the century'

Why patients must rely less on doctors

Improving our own health is the 'blockbuster drug of the century'