Did the Media Accurately Report on the New Pope's Membership in the Hitler Youth?

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Mr. Bowden is a junior at the University of Iowa studying history and secondary education and an HNN intern.

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Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger’s recent elevation to Pope Benedict XVI has sparked a firestorm of controversy regarding his membership in the Hitler Youth and later the Germany military as a young man during World War II. Indeed, the day following his selection, one British tabloid ran a headline stating, “From Hitler Youth to…Papa Ratzi,” while another remarked that “God’s Rottweiler is Pope.” 1 A third British publication referred to him as “Panzerkardinal” and “a Nazi sympathizer.”2 The Israeli media expressed concern as well. In an article entitled, “White Smoke, Black Past,” the Yediot Ahronot newspaper wrote that Benedict XVI had gone “From the Nazi youth movement to the Vatican.”3 Some Americans have expressed concern as well. One citizen criticized the College of Cardinals for electing “an ex-Nazi.”4 Another called him a “Nazi pope” who is “a clear and present danger to the civilized world.”5 A third commented that, “I bet this neo-Nazi pope will have the Swiss guards goose-stepping on St. Peter’s Square in no time.”6 One blogger asked, “What can you expect from a filthy Nazi?”7

Benedict XVI himself has gone to great lengths to deny allegations that he supported Hitler. He states in his autobiography, Milestones: Memoirs, 1927 – 1977, that he was anything but loyal to the German government. “There was a great trust in the Western powers,” he writes about the end of World War II, “and a hope that their sense of justice would also help Germany to begin a new and peaceful existence.”8 Nazism had “disfigured” Germany “by ideology and hatred.”9 Benedict XVI further comments in Milestones and another autobiography, Salt of the Earth, that he only enlisted in the Hitler Youth because membership was compulsory for all teenage males and that he would have not joined the German military had he not been drafted into the labor corps in September 1944. He writes extensively about his distaste for his experience as a worker and for his initial commanding officers, calling them “fanatical ideologues who tyrannized us without respite.”10 Benedict XVI recalls that despite his fear of being caught and subsequently executed by the diminishing German army, he fled from his military labor camp somewhere between the end of April and the beginning of May.

Benedict XVI’s biographer, John Allen, Jr., seems to echo his sentiments. In his book, Cardinal Ratzinger: The Vatican’s Enforcer of the Faith, he writes that “In 1941, membership in the Hitler Youth was made compulsory…Later Joseph…was registered as a member, though after he left the seminary he did not go to any meetings.”11 Allen further writes that during his brief membership in the Hitler Youth the future pope was by no means active in the organization. Like Benedict XVI, Allen also declares that Ratzinger only joined the German army because he was conscripted. Allen additionally notes that Benedict XVI deserted in late April of 1945, although he neglects to make any mention of his reasoning for this action.

When interviewed by HNN, York University historian Michael Kater concurred with Benedict XVI’s claims. Responding to a question about whether or not the pontiffs’ membership in the Hitler Youth is significant, Kater replied, “Not as such, because after March 1939 every child above ten up to eighteen was forced to join.” University of Iowa historian Lisa Heineman agreed, stating, “Initially, membership in the Hitler Youth was voluntary, but two laws (1936 and 1939) made it mandatory for children starting at age 10.” Kater also remarked that it is difficult to tell if someone who deserts in the final months of the war, as Benedict XVI did, might be considered courageous because deserting “could have been dangerous, depending on where you were, or who commanded you, and from what distance.” Heineman further notes that “The number of desertions increased dramatically in those final weeks of the war, right around the time Ratzinger deserted.”

For the most part the media have reported Benedict XVI’s youth as he has recalled it. Indeed, among the thirteen articles from various organizations this author examined, eleven state that he joined the Hitler Youth involuntarily and all thirteen state that he only became a member of the German army because he was conscripted. Eight of these articles, furthermore, concur with then Cardinal Ratzinger’s remarks about deserting near the end of the war shortly after he was to join the army.

That said, there are some inconsistencies and some factual errors with how his early years have been reported. One commentator from the Los Angeles Times implied that he joined the Hitler Youth voluntarily, stating “Coming from an anti-Nazi family, at 14 he nevertheless joined the Hitler Youth, a commonplace occurrence in Nazi Germany.”12 Two other reports, both by the Associated Press, make no mention of his desertion, therefore implying that he stayed in the army until the war’s conclusion in Germany. A fourth by the Catholic World News seems to suggest that he fled from military service immediately after his conscription, declaring that “Assigned to an anti-aircraft unit, he deserted and returned home.”13

In general, however, the press’s coverage of Benedict XVI’s membership in the Hitler Youth and the German military seems to be more factually correct than flawed. Indeed, during a time where it has become increasingly difficult to tell the difference between facts and opinions in the news, this is one story that has largely been reported correctly.

Related Links

Carlin Romano: What the Media Have Left Out About the Pope's WW II Past

1 Matthias, Matussek . “ England in Fumes Over Selection of ‘Papa Ratzi.’” Spiegal Online. 20 April 2005. http://service.spiegel.de/cache/international/0%2C1518%2C352550%2C00.html.

2 Ibid.

3 “Benedict Pledges to Continue John Paul’s Work.” Fox News Online. 20 April 2005. http://www.foxnews.com/story/0,2933,153995,00.html.

4 Chung, Jen. “The ‘Watchdog’ Pope Benedict.” Gothamist. 20 April 2005.


5 Siemon-Netto, Uwe. “Commentary: Benedict Abused as ‘Nazi Pope.’” World Peace Herald. 21 April 2005. http://www.wpherald.com/storyview.php?StoryID=20050421-050120-7643r.

6 Ibid.

7 Ibid.

8 Joseph Ratzinger. Milestones: Memoirs, 1927 – 1977. ( San Francisco, Ignatius, 1977.), p. 32.

9 Ibid., p. 34.

10 Ibid., p. 33.

11 Allen Jr., John L. Cardinal Ratzinger: The Vatican’s Enforcer of the Faith. ( New York, Continuum, 2000.), p. 15.

12 Goldhagen, Daniel Jonah. “A German Lesson: The Fallacy of One True Path.” Los Angeles Times. 22 April 2005. http://www.latimes.com/news/printedition/opinion/la-oe-goldhagen22apr22,1,7373731.story.

13 “Benedict XVI at a Glance.” 19 April 2005. http://www.cwnews.com/news/viewstory.cfm?recnum=36621.


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