Roots in traumatic German history


Pope's formative years: As Pope Benedict XVI celebrated his first Mass in the Vatican yesterday, his fellow Bavarians recalled young Joseph Ratzinger's first steps in the Catholic Church in the shadow of the Third Reich.

The small village of Traunstein, near Salzburg, is where Pope Benedict went to school, was ordained priest in 1951 and the place he calls home.

"We're tremendously proud of course, but not many people knew the Ratzinger boys, particularly not Joseph," said one elderly woman, in a comment typical of many elderly villagers. "They didn't have a lot of time between school and studies. Joseph was very hard working. I live up beside the old family home outside town and it's an empty ruin now."

Ratzinger appears to have made very little lasting impression on the village of Traunstein, but his upbringing here seems to have moulded the young man in the years leading up to his ordination, when his world revolved around the opposite poles of the Catholic Church and Nazism.

Traunstein was a small, if modest, conservative hold-out against the Nazis. The conservative Bavarian People's Party (BVP) retained a strong base here even after it was banned in 1933. Nevertheless, from 1937 to 1943, Ratzinger attended the local state school, where the curriculum was more or less dictated by the Nazis.

"I don't want to rule out that Nazis taught here or that there was Nazi propaganda," says Klaus Kiesl, principal of what is now the Chiemgau school. "It's too simple to say, however, that it was just Nazism here in the school."

He pulls out Pope Benedict's old school record, a slim collection of yellowing pages. On the cover, his name, Alois Ratzinger, is written in a spidery, old German script. He studied eight subjects: German, Greek, Latin, maths, biology, physics, history and geography.

Inside are his school reports: "top of the class . . . talented . . . eager to get involved . . . industrious . . ." One teacher warns, however, that the young Ratzinger was prone to being a bit "boisterous".

The following pages make for grimmer reading: certificates bearing the official stamp of the swastika and Reich eagle. One stamp records how Ratzinger, like many of his peers, was called up on August 2nd, 1943, aged 16, to become a Luftwaffehelfer, a flak artillery assistant. He was moved to Munich, where he attended the Maximilian School, an elite school that still exists, and completed an "emergency" school leaving certificate.

A counterbalance to the lessons during his state school years in Traunstein were the two years he lived as a boarder at St Michael's, a seminary founded in 1928 and still operating today.

A grim-faced Cardinal Ratzinger stares out from a 1982 portrait into a hallway of the building that looks as if it hasn't changed much since his days here.

"I am a flag in the wind" is the sign over photographs of today's boarders. In the bright chapel, the smell of incense hangs in the air.

A small apartment serves as Ratzinger's base during his visits, the last two years ago when he stepped in at the last minute to officiate at the confirmation ceremony.

"Young Ratzinger was clever enough and the family was pious enough to know what was right or wrong. They were well able to cope with the Nazi propaganda," says Fr Thomas Frauenlob, the school rector. He suggests that the religious atmosphere in the seminary served as an antidote to the Nazi doctrine being taught in school.

A key figure in this was Cardinal Michael Faulhaber, the archbishop of Munich during the Third Reich and founder of St Michael's.

"He was certainly a mentor to Ratzinger," says Mr Kiesl, principal of Chiemgau school. "Everyone here in town knows the story of how as a boy he said he wanted to become a cardinal, and what other cardinal did he know [except Faulhaber]?"

But Faulhaber's influence on Ratzinger is likely to have been influenced in turn by his own experiences, which read like a personal history of the church's ties with the Third Reich.

Faulhaber is remembered as a Nazi resistance figure in Bavaria, but a more complex picture emerges from the archives. Faulhaber's own diaries and notes suggest an uneasy alliance between his diocese and the Nazis, reflected elsewhere in Germany, with neither side openly denouncing the other for fear of a conflict.

In notes of a November 1936 meeting with Adolf Hitler, Faulhaber asked whether "a modus vivendi could be found without one having to speak of a war of the church against the state".

He expressed to Hitler the position held by many Catholic Church leaders at the time: that "Bolshevism was the enemy of both the church and the Nazis . . . Bolshevism is led by the Jews and their roots are atheism".

There appears to be no record of any public protests against the widespread discrimination against Jews. However, Faulhaber did protest against the Nazi-ordered euthanasia of mentally disabled Germans in 1940, part of the church-organised campaign that led to the practice being abandoned.

This grey quid pro quo appears to have extended to St Michael's and the life of the teenage Joseph Ratzinger. The institution was free from state interference but Ratzinger was, for a time, a Hitler Youth member, an obligatory step for all young Germans at the time.