How The Seminary Protected Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI Growing Up In Nazi Germany

Upon the 2005 death of Pope John Paul II, Joseph Ratzinger became the newly elected pope under the name Benedict XVI, per ABC News. According to Biography, Ratzinger was born in 1927 in Bavaria, Germany. He became an ordained priest in 1951 and went on to have a long and prosperous theological career. He was previously the archbishop of Munich and a friend to the late Pope John Paul II (via Britannica). However, when Ratzinger took over the papacy, nefarious details emerged from his past regarding his childhood under the Third Reich. This led both the Catholic and Jewish communities to question his new role and his moral fiber.

The New York Times reports that Ratzinger spent much of his early years in Traunstein, Germany. Unlike other towns, the deeply Catholic Traunstein resisted Nazi efforts. According to ABC News, Ratzinger's family, including his father, were anti-Nazi. This was largely due to their Catholic beliefs clashing with Nazi ideology.

With that said, Ratzinger later denied having any involvement with the party. Via the Independent, he stated, "My brother was forced to join the Hitler Youth, but fortunately I was too young to have to do so." This was later proven to be inaccurate and Ratzinger admitted (via ABC News) that World War II was a "dark time" for him.

The future pope was forced to join the Hitler Youth

ABC News reports that in 1939, at the height of the Third Reich's power, Joseph Ratzinger enrolled in seminary school. Per the Independent, this was the best-case scenario for the young boy. Father Thomas Frauenlob, from the Traunstein seminary that Ratzinger attended, told the publication, "In the 1930s the seminary in many ways shielded the boys from Nazi ideology." He added, "His family knew right from wrong and they could cope." But in 1941, when Ratzinger was 14, he was forced to join the Hitler Youth. However, because he was a seminary student, he was temporarily exempt from the organization.

Despite this, Matthew Bunson, author of "We Have a Pope! Benedict XVI," explained to ABC News that Ratzinger held contempt for the Hitler Youth. He stated, "He wrote about the disgust he had — the exercises they had to go through and the expectation placed upon them." The Independent writes that in 1943, at the age of 16, Ratzinger was required to do his compulsory military service. He was subsequently drafted into the army. According to The New York Times, Ratzinger was sent to Munich to help protect a BMW factory.

He was a military deserter

The Independent states that Joseph Ratzinger was also sent to Hungary to set up tank traps. In 1945, he made the decision to leave the military (per ABC News). The Gestapo were ordered to kill deserters but Ratzinger avoided death and recalled that he encountered fellow soldiers that spared him. Per the Independent, Ratzinger said, "Thank God they were the ones who had enough of war and did not want to become murderers." American troops later captured and sent him to an internment camp near Ulm, Germany. Ratzinger was freed on June 19, 1945. The 18-year-old then returned home to Traunstein.

Despite being in the Hitler Youth, there is no evidence to prove that Ratzinger was a Nazi sympathizer. By all accounts, he was against the Nazis and their anti-Semitic doctrine. However, Ratzinger did admit (via the Independent), that as a child, he was "tempted" by what the party had to offer, but ultimately relied on his faith to steer him away.

He noted (via the Independent), "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." After the war, Ratzinger returned to the seminary (per Britannica). He served as Pope Benedict XVI from 2005 until his resignation in 2013.