Amid rising criticism of the Pope’s performance at Israel’s Holocaust memorial, the Vatican made a surprise denial today that the German pontiff had ever been a member of the Hitler Youth.
“The Pope has said he never, never was a member of the Hitler Youth, which was a movement of fanatical volunteers,” Franco Lombardi, a Vatican spokesman said.
Attention on the Catholic leader’s past has threatened to eclipse the message of peace and reconciliation he has been pushing during his pilgrimage to the Holy Land.
Mr Lombardi said that the then Joseph Ratzinger, as a 16-year-old seminarian, had served in an auxiliary air defence squadron “that had nothing to do with Nazism or Nazi ideology.”
However, the Pope has said himself in past interviews that prior to serving as a Wehrmacht anti-aircraft gunner he had been conscripted, along with so many other German boys of his age, into the Hitler Youth, in which he had served reluctantly.
Venting frustration with the relentless focus on the Pope’s war years – a highly sensitive subject in a visit to the Jewish state – Mr Lombardi insisted the Pope “never was in this movement of young people ideologically linked to Nazism.” Mr Lombardi said that he felt compelled to respond “to the lies written by the media here and internationally” about the issue.
But in a series of interviews in the 1996 book Salt of the Earth, the Pope, then still a cardinal, said that he had been drafted into the Hitler Youth. “When the compulsory Hitler Youth was introduced in 1941, my brother was obliged to join. I was still too young, but later, as a seminarian, I was registered in the HY. As soon as I was out of the seminary, I never went back,” he said.
Many people thought that the Pope’s visit to Yad Vashem, the Holocaust memorial commemorating the murder of six million Jews by the Nazis, lacked the necessary remorse from a German with his background.
“All that was asked of you was to say a short, authoritative and moving sentence. All you had to do was to express regret. That’s all we wanted to hear,” the daily Yediot Aharonot said.
“After all, it is claimed that you appointed to your Church a priest who denies the Holocaust and as a boy, you were a member of the Hitler Youth.”
The controversy has been deepened by the Pope’s reinstatement of a British-born bishop who had denied the extent of the Holocaust. The Vatican also asked that the pontiff be allowed to sidestep a Yad Vashem exhibit criticising his war-time predecessor, Pius XII, for ignoring the plight of Europe’s Jews. The Vatican denies that interpretation of history, and is working to declare Pius XII a saint.
Behind the pomp and courtesy of the papal visit, tempers have been clearly fraying on both sides. Reuven Rivlin, the speaker of parliament, weighed in with his own criticism of the Pope’s speech at Yad Vashem, in which he had explicitly condemned the slaughter.
“With all due respect to the Holy See, we cannot ignore the burden he bears, as a young German who joined the Hitler Youth and as a person who joined Hitler’s army, which was an instrument in the extermination,” he said.
“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,” Mr Rivlin added.
Rabbi Yisrael Meir Lau, the chairman of Yad Vashem who himself survived the Holocaust, also complained about the Pope’s speech, criticising his use of the word “millions” rather than “six million” and saying they had been “killed” rather than “murdered.” “There’s a dramatic difference between killed and murdered, especially when a speech has gone through so many hands,” he said.
But Mr Lombardi, the Vatican spokesman, defended the Pope’s emotional speech at the hall of remembrance, saying he had mentioned his personal history on previous occasions. “He can’t mention everything every time he speaks.”