The Pope in Israel: "He Was a Part of Them!"


Drudge is leading today with Israeli criticism of Pope Benedict's Holocaust speech at Yad Vashem, during which, according to one local newspaper, he appeared "restrained, almost cold." Speaker of the Knesset Reuven Rivlin stepped up attacks on Benedict, accusing him of a fascist past: "He came and told us as if he were a historian, someone looking in from the sidelines, about things that should not have happened. And what can you do? He was a part of them." (emphasis added)

According to Rivlin, Benedict was a "German who joined the Hitler Youth and…a person who joined Hitler's army, which was an instrument in the extermination." It is a tired debate at this point, the details of which were pored over after Benedict's ascension to the papacy, but it is also worth quickly pointing out that the Pope-as-Nazi charge is still an enormous stretch.

Rivlin is presumably pointing to this 1996 statement, when the then-Cardinal Ratzinger addressed his membership in the Hitler Youth (HJ) in an interview: "At first we weren't, but when the compulsory Hitler Youth was introduced in 1941 (sic), my brother was obliged to join. I was still too young, but later, as a seminarian, I was registered in the HY (sic). As soon as I was out of the seminary I never went back."

Ratzinger's memory is slightly off here: membership in the Hitler Youth became compulsory in 1939, not 1941, when the number of 10- to 18-year-old Germans enrolled reached an astonishing 98.1 percent. If they weren't first compelled by their parents, school comrades, or teachers, they were then compelled by the state. It is disingenuous to state, without qualification, that Ratzinger "joined the Hitler Youth."

As for the claim that Benedict was "part of them," a "person who joined Hitler's army," Reuters explains that this is likely a reference to having "served on anti-aircraft batteries" as a member of the HJ. In early 1943, Luftwaffe chief Hermann Goering ordered HJ members between the ages of 15 and 17 to serve as anti-aircraft gunners, in order to reroute 120,000 servicemen to more active roles on the front lines. According to historian Michael Kater, author of a history of the Hitler Youth and this terrific book on jazz culture in Nazi Germany, the total number of children conscripted into the anti-aircraft corps between 1943 and 1945 was approximately 200,000. By the end of the war, when the country was relying on a mixture of the elderly and underage, flak crews of HJ members included both boys and girls.

There are plenty of things for which Pope Benedict—and the Catholic Church—deserves criticism (especially the disgraceful Bishop Williamson episode). But his childhood isn't one of them.