The wartime past of Pope Benedict XVI threatened to overwhelm his peace mission to the Holy Land as the Vatican issued a denial that the pontiff had served in the Hitler Youth.
“The Pope has said he never, never was a member of the Hitler Youth, which was a movement of fanatical volunteers,” Federico Lombardi, a Vatican spokesman, said — contradicting statements the Pope has himself made about his involvement with the group. The Vatican denial came as Benedict’s trip sank deeper in controversy and recrimination, eclipsing the message of peace and reconciliation he has been pushing during his pilgrimage
Mr Lombardi said the Pope, as Joseph Ratzinger, a 16-year-old seminarian, served in an auxiliary air defence squadron “that had nothing to do with Nazism or Nazi ideology”. Venting frustration with the relentless focus on the Pope’s war years — a highly sensitive subject on a visit to the Jewish state — Mr Lombardi insisted that the Pope “never was in this movement of young people ideologically linked to Nazism”. The spokesman said that he felt compelled to respond “to the lies written by the media here and internationally”.
However, 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, like so many other young Germans.
“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 at the time.