Naziism affected an entire continent. People were swept up in it, and many were powerless to resist it. That is what makes some stories so stirring - that people made moral choices that were contrary to the common sentiment but ultimately proved superior to the mindlessness of the herd.
Individual stories are instructive. Some might prefer that stories such as this one, which can be embarrassing or considered demeaning, should be kept quiet. I take a different view. People are human, and they can evolve over time to transcend their early life choices. Thus, their tales can be inspirational, but they can only be inspiring if they are known and told. Even if you don't find an individual tale inspiring, each one shows what life was like for ordinary people during the war, and the horrible choices that they were forced to make. One individual who (improbably) recovered from early incidents that look bad in hindsight was Joseph Alois Ratzinger (born 16 April 1927).
Ratzinger was born in at 11 Schulstrasse, Marktl am Inn, Bavaria. Bavaria at that time was the center of Adolf Hitler's growing Nazi party, and Ratzinger's father was a police officer, a natural candidate for the party. However, Ratzinger Sr. instead was an anti-Nazi whose career suffered, and ultimately ended, as a result.
|Pope Benedict's birthplace|
Ratzinger enrolled in a seminary briefly before the war. By the middle of the war, however, service in the Hitler Youth was not merely voluntary. Ratzinger was drafted into the Luftwaffenhelfer program in 1943 for guard duty. Ratzinger first was assigned to guard a BMW aircraft engine plant in Ludwigsfeld, then to Unterföhring, then Innsbruck, then Gilching. He was discharged fro the program on 10 September 1944, but the government needed every pair of hands it could find, so Ratzinger was drafted into the Reichsarbeitsdienst. The Wehrmacht was setting up anti-tank defenses all along its frontiers, so Ratzinger helped with that along the Hungarian border for a couple of months. On 20 November, the dreaded draft notice for the army arrived, and Ratzinger entered the Wehrmacht at Traunstein.
|Joseph Ratzinger in his Hitler Youth uniform.|
While serving, Ratzinger was posted basically to guard duty near his home. With the war lost, he deserted in early May and returned home. Some SS men noticed him a couple of times, but fortunately they were not fanatics and let Ratzinger go about his business despite standing orders to execute all deserters. Ratzinger entered a POW camp at Ulm and was released on 19 June 1945.
|Ratzinger in the 1950s.|
Some take a dim view of Ratzinger's path in life. There were people in Ratzinger's situation who absolutely refused any service for the Nazi regime, and suffered for that choice. There were no "conscientious objectors" in the Third Reich - if you "objected" you were likely to be sent to Auschwitz or simply executed. In fact, a wartime neighbor of Ratzinger's from Traunstein, Elizabeth Lohner, recalled at the time of Ratzinger's elevation that her own brother-in-law had refused service and indeed wound up in Auschwitz. So, all choices in life are relative, and we all make them and live with them.
Moral issues aside, Ratzinger's is an unexceptional wartime story. Ratzinger was 18 when the war ended, of full service age, and could have been given a panzerfaust, a pat on the back, and sent to a front-line unit. So, in a sense Ratzinger was very lucky. What makes the story extraordinary is that, despite being in the Hitler Youth and his wartime service, Ratzinger quickly resumed his religious studies at a Catholic seminary at Freising. Many years later, in 2005, he became Pope Benedict XVI. It just shows that no matter what your early life, it is always possible to turn things around. Redemption is always possible.