So the pope, Joseph Ratzinger, is paying us a visit, which is nice. (For those of you who missed it, Dara O'Briain's impromptu pope-versus-popemobile skit on the Mock the Week last night was pretty funny - I hope Joe had time to catch it.)
I'm not really interested in the pope, viewing him as a sort of superannuated Harry Potter for people who still believe in fairies, but I am interested in his past. Pope John Paul II was apparently a pretty handy goalkeeper before he took up poping. Joe Ratzinger was a member of the Hitler Youth.
Now, I know what you're going to say. It was compulsory from 1939 to belong to the Hitler Youth. Fair point. He was too young to make a meaningful moral stand against the forces of Nazism. Right again. In the prevailing climate of fear, everyone just kept their heads down and tried to keep out of trouble. Correctomundo.
What I do have a problem with is the revisionist version of Ratzinger's past that paints him and his family as 'conscientious objectors' who openly opposed the Nazi regime and 'did what they could'. For this, my friends, is bollocks.
Ratzinger's old man was a copper and, sure, he didn't like the Nazis. He was properly old school Catholic and didn't have any truck with this Austrian upstart and his turbo-charged, homicidal prejudices. Ratzinger Senior had his gentler, more well-worn prejudices, and those were good enough for him, thank you very much.
Now the official hagiography has it that the Ratzinger family had to move four times due to Ratzinger Senior's opposition to the Nazis. OK, so he was clearly not 'on message' - he gets demoted a couple of times, a pretty common occurence - but he was never ejected from the police, he was never interviewed by the Gestapo and he was never imprisoned, or his family reduced to penury. They all survived the war living as comfortably as any middle class German family of the day could expect to. And he clearly still had influence enough right through the war to pull a few strings and ensure that his boys never got in the way of any Russky bullets.
So what about this Hitler Youth membership? Records suggest that Joe successfully avoided joining the Deutsche Jungvolk, another organisation with compulsory membership for kids too young to be in the Hitler Youth. But in 1941, the minute he turns 14, Joe signs up to the big boys' club. Why?
Easy. Tuition fees. Membership of the Hitler Youth ensured a sizeable discount. It's not like you couldn't go to school if you didn't belong, but it certainly made it a whole lot pricier. Like Putney parents who find God on the way to the cashpoint, Ratzinger Senior clearly put his principles on hold to make sure Joe got into the right school.
What about the rest of Joe's war? Well, he was conscripted and served on a gun battery protecting the BMW aircraft works (where slave labour from Dachau was the primary constituent of the workforce) and then went to Hungary to work on tank traps (and watch Jews being rounded up for the 'holocaust within the holocaust'). Then in April 1945 he deserted. Hurrah, the moral stand at last. Errr, no. Everyone was deserting by then. Even so, he was nearly rumbled when his father gave shelter to two SS officers. Yeah. You heard right.
Fair to say, nonetheless, that Ratzinger clearly wasn't a Nazi and he and his family didn't do anything during the Hitler years to suggest that they held Nazi views - quite the opposite. That said, they also didn't do anything in particular to resist the Nazis, and to claim, as Ratzinger does, that it was 'impossible' is to do a huge disservice to those who did actively resist Hitler at the risk - and forfeit - of their lives.
So if Ratzinger is guilty of anything, it's dishonesty. The honest thing would be to admit that his family muddled through the war like everyone else and that their opposition to Hitler lasted only up to the point they had to dip into the college fund. Instead, he persistently shades his past and tries to dress up in clothing more virtuous than his record shows he deserves. But then popes of the past ran whorehouses, dabbled in money lending and had people killed, so I guess he represents some sort of progress.
Taking a slash
4 days ago