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.

News
The surrealist comedian at the Q Awards in 2010
people
News
Russell Brand arriving for the book launch in East London
peopleRussell Brand cancels his book launch debate due to concerns about the make-up of the panel
Sport
Christiano Ronaldo enjoys his opening goal
champions leagueLiverpool 0 Real Madrid 3: Ronaldo and Benzema run Reds ragged to avenge thrashing from their last visit to Anfield
Arts and Entertainment
Awesome foursome: Sam Smith shows off his awards
music22-year-old confirms he is 2014’s breakout British music success
PROMOTED VIDEO
News
ebooksAn unforgettable anthology of contemporary reportage
Life and Style
Six of the 76 Goats' cheese samples contained a significant amount of sheep's cheese
food + drink
Arts and Entertainment
Contestants during this summer's Celebrity Big Brother grand finale
tvBroadcaster attempts to change its image following sale to American media group
Extras
indybest
Arts and Entertainment
Sir Nicholas Serota has been a feature in the Power 100 top ten since its 2002 launch
art
Arts and Entertainment
Sarah Dales attempts to sell British Breeze in the luxury scent task
tvReview: 'Apprentice' candidate on the verge of tears as they were ejected from the boardroom
News
Call me Superman: one of many unusual names chosen by Chinese students
newsChinese state TV offers advice for citizens picking a Western moniker
News
Wilko Johnson is currently on his farewell tour
people
Voices
New look: Zellweger at Elle's Women in Hollywood awards on Monday
voicesRenée Zellweger's real crime has been to age in an industry that prizes women's youth over humanity, says Amanda Hess
News
Let’s pretend: KidZania in Tokyo
educationKidZania lets children try their hands at being a firefighter, doctor or factory worker for the day
Life and Style
CHARGE BOOSTER: Aeroplane mode doesn't sound very exciting, but it can be a (phone) hacker's friend. Turning on the option while charging your mobile will increase the speed at which your phone battery charges
techNew book reveals how to rid your inbox of spam, protect your passwords and amplify your iPhone
Arts and Entertainment
Julianne Moore and Ellen Page are starring together in civil rights drama Freeheld
film
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

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

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Solutions Architect - Permanent - London - £70k DOE

£60000 - £70000 Per Annum Excellent benefits: Clearwater People Solutions Ltd:...

General Cover Teacher

£110 - £130 per day: Randstad Education Reading: Great opportunities for Cover...

Maths Teacher

£110 - £130 per day: Randstad Education Reading: QTS Maths Teachers needed for...

Maths Teacher

£110 - £130 per day: Randstad Education Reading: QTS Maths Teachers needed for...

Day In a Page

How could three tourists have been battered within an inch of their lives by a burglar in a plush London hotel?

A crime that reveals London's dark heart

How could three tourists have been battered within an inch of their lives by a burglar in a plush London hotel?
Meet 'Porridge' and 'Vampire': Chinese state TV is offering advice for citizens picking a Western moniker

Lost in translation: Western monikers

Chinese state TV is offering advice for citizens picking a Western moniker. Simon Usborne, who met a 'Porridge' and a 'Vampire' while in China, can see the problem
Handy hacks that make life easier: New book reveals how to rid your inbox of spam, protect your passwords and amplify your iPhone

Handy hacks that make life easier

New book reveals how to rid your email inbox of spam, protect your passwords and amplify your iPhone with a loo-roll
KidZania lets children try their hands at being a firefighter, doctor or factory worker for the day

KidZania: It's a small world

The new 'educational entertainment experience' in London's Shepherd's Bush will allow children to try out the jobs that are usually undertaken by adults, including firefighter, doctor or factory worker
Renée Zellweger's real crime has been to age in an industry that prizes women's youth over humanity

'Renée Zellweger's real crime was to age'

The actress's altered appearance raised eyebrows at Elle's Women in Hollywood awards on Monday
From Cinderella to The Jungle Book, Disney plans live-action remakes of animated classics

Disney plans live-action remakes of animated classics

From Cinderella to The Jungle Book, Patrick Grafton-Green wonders if they can ever recapture the old magic
Thousands of teenagers to visit battlefields of the First World War in new Government scheme

Pupils to visit First World War battlefields

A new Government scheme aims to bring the the horrors of the conflict to life over the next five years
The 10 best smartphone accessories

Make the most of your mobile: 10 best smartphone accessories

Try these add-ons for everything from secret charging to making sure you never lose your keys again
Mario Balotelli substituted at half-time against Real Madrid: Was this shirt swapping the real reason?

Liverpool v Real Madrid

Mario Balotelli substituted at half-time. Was shirt swapping the real reason?
West Indies tour of India: Hurricane set to sweep Windies into the shadows

Hurricane set to sweep Windies into the shadows

Decision to pull out of India tour leaves the WICB fighting for its existence with an off-field storm building
Indiana serial killer? Man arrested for murdering teenage prostitute confesses to six other murders - and police fear there could be many more

A new American serial killer?

Police fear man arrested for murder of teen prostitute could be responsible for killing spree dating back 20 years
Sweetie, the fake 10-year-old girl designed to catch online predators, claims her first scalp

Sting to trap paedophiles may not carry weight in UK courts

Computer image of ‘Sweetie’ represented entrapment, experts say
Fukushima nuclear crisis: Evacuees still stuck in cramped emergency housing three years on - and may never return home

Return to Fukushima – a land they will never call home again

Evacuees still stuck in cramped emergency housing three years on from nuclear disaster
Wildlife Photographer of the Year: Intimate image of resting lions claims top prize

Wildlife Photographer of the Year

Intimate image of resting lions claims top prize
Online petitions: Sign here to change the world

Want to change the world? Just sign here

The proliferation of online petitions allows us to register our protests at the touch of a button. But do they change anything?