New Pope Risked Death by Deserting in WWII
BERLIN -- In May 1945, thousands of German prisoners of war trudged down the highway toward the Bavarian town of Bad Aibling. Among them -- tired but grateful to be alive -- was 18-year-old Joseph Ratzinger, who days before had risked death by deserting the German army.

"In three days of marching, we hiked down the empty highway, in a column that gradually became endless," the new pope recalled years later in his memoirs.

"The American soldiers photographed us, the young ones, most of all, in order to take home souvenirs of the defeated army and its desolate personnel."

Like his predecessor, John Paul II, Ratzinger was marked by the terror-filled years of World War II. Karol Wojtyla was forced to work in a quarry and narrowly escaped arrest in a mass roundup of young men by the Germans in Krakow; Ratzinger's experiences were also harrowing.

In particular, his decision to leave his army unit just after he turned military age could have cost Ratzinger his life.

At the time, he knew that the dreaded SS units would shoot a deserter on the spot -- or hang him from a lamppost as a warning to others. He recalled his terror when he was stopped by other soldiers.

"Thank God they were ones who had had enough of war and did not want to become murderers," he wrote in his book, "Aus meinem Leben," published in English as "Milestones: Memoirs 1927-1977."

"They had to find a reason to let me go. I had my arm in a sling because of an injury."

"Comrade, you are wounded," they told him. "Go on."

Soon he was home with his father, Josef, and his mother, Maria.

For years, he and his family had watched the Nazis strengthen their grip on Germany. His father, a policeman and a convinced anti-Nazi, moved the family at least once after clashing with local followers of the party. A local teacher, he remembered, became an ardent follower of the new movement, and tried to institute a pagan May pole ritual as more fitting of Germanic ways than the traditional, conservative Catholicism.

In 1941, Ratzinger, 14, and his brother, Georg were enrolled in the Hitler Youth when it became mandatory for all boys. Soon after, he writes in his book, "The Salt of the Earth," he was let out because of his intention to study for the priesthood.

In 1943, like many teenage boys, he was drafted as a helper for an anti-aircraft brigade, which defended a BMW plant outside Munich. Later, he dug anti-tank trenches. When he turned 18, on April 16, 1945, he was put through basic training, alongside men in their 30s and 40s, drafted as the Third Reich went through its death agony. He was stationed near his hometown -- he doesn't say where -- but did not see combat with the approaching U.S. troops.

After he returned home, the Americans finally arrived -- and set up their headquarters in his parents 18th century farmhouse on the outskirts of the town.

They identified him as a German soldier, made him put on his uniform, put up his hands, and marched him off to join other prisoners kept in a nearby meadow. Taken to a camp near Ulm, he wound up living outside for several weeks, surrounded by barbed wire.

He was finally released June 19 and hitched a ride on a milk truck back to Traunstein.

His family was happy to see him.

"Of course, for full joy, something was missing. Since the beginning of April, there had been no word from Georg," he remembered. "So there was a quiet worry in our house."

Suddenly, in the middle of July, in walked Georg, tanned and unharmed. He sat at the piano and banged out the hymn, "Grosser Gott, wir Loben Dich," "Mighty God, we Praise You" as his family rejoiced.

The war was truly over.

"The following months of regained freedom, which we now had learned to value so much, belong to the happiest months of my life," he wrote.

Copyright 2005 Newsday Inc.

By DAVID McHUGH Associated Press Writer April 19, 2005, 3:34 PM EDT


Tim said...

Reading this article brings forth mixed emotions for me. I want to have good feelings about the man. I want to believe in his sincerity, and I'm not catholic! I'm not sure why this is. Perhaps because I am filled with so much discouragement towards those in positions of leadership in the world. As one reviews the list of those in position of leadership and authority it lessens one's faith.

duckdaotsu said...

Dear Tim and other readers,

I too wish to have an open mind about the changes in the most powerful church in the world , and as a war resister supporter found this article to be excellent news for those who are resisting the war today. We have many of our children, brothers and sisters, husbands and wifes and fathers and mothers who are in the position today to be called (originally the title of this piece was "deserter") war resisters. It shows that the view of history changes with the passing of time and with the healing of local wounds. I pray that the wounds of 9/11 continue to heal, even if we must re-open that wound to discover more and more about coverups and scandals involving the actual events of that day and the aftermath in handling the disaster.

A newer article is published on the blog for Friday, one that shows the pope had a hand in keeping Kerry out of the election race in the '04 US elections. It is so sad to realize that all the information we were given as children was such a hoax, and that power is simply power, regardless of which pulpit or podium or boardroom we find the power destroying the lives of people who simply wish to feed families and keep them healthy.

We shall continue to hear more news about this Pope, another light skinned deliverer of the word from the Vatican.

I can only take refuge in the knowledge that a dear friend of mine who embraced Catholicism to his last breath on april 15, 2003, will be able to meet with his 'friend" Pope John Paul; if heaven is indeed part of the ways of the world and netherworld.

best to you and all the readers,