When Joseph Ratzinger (Pope Benedict XVI) turned 14 in 1941 in Germany, he was legally required to join the Hitler Youth.
Hitler Youth was an organization set up by Adolf Hitler in 1933 for educating and training male youths in Nazi principles. Pope Benedict XVI, born Joseph Aloisius Ratzinger in 1927 in Marktl am Inn, Germany, was head of the Catholic Church from 2005 until his resignation in February 2013. According to various sources, he was part of the Hitler Youth between 1941 and 1943. A Benedict biography note on Encyclopedia Britannica read:
Ratzinger's father was a policeman and his mother a hotel cook. The youngest of three children, Ratzinger was six years old when the Nazis took power in Germany in 1933; his parents, who were staunch Catholics, were hostile to the regime. Ratzinger entered the seminary in 1939. In 1941 he was compelled to join the Hitler Youth, and in 1943 he was drafted into the German military, serving in an antiaircraft unit in Bavaria before being sent to Hungary to set tank traps in 1945. He deserted in April of that year and was captured by American forces and held prisoner for a brief period.
The official Vatican website said:
Joseph's days of youth were far from easy.
His faith and family upbringing prepared him for the harsh experience of the problems connected with the Nazi regime; he even remembers seeing his parish priest being beaten by Nazis before celebrating Holy Mass, and was well aware of the fiercely hostile atmosphere to the Catholic Church that existed in Germany at the time.
Towards the end of World War II, Joseph was enrolled in the auxiliary anti-aircraft service.
Benedict's biography by Peter Seewald "Benedict XVI: A Life Volume 1" underscored the fact that the pope did not join the regular Hitler Youth, but the compulsory one.
At the same time a distinction was introduced between the Compulsory Hitler Youth and the Regular Hitler Youth. The latter category was reserved for boys who had been members of the Hitler Youth before April 1938. Non-compliance would be punished by fines and imprisonment for the parents or legal guardians. As a result, the number of members of the Hitler Youth and the League of German Girls shot up from 7 to 8.7 million young people. That did not alter the seminary's resistance. It was not until October 1939 that all the seminarians of 14 years old and over were enrolled in the Hitler Youth.
Moreover, in the book "Salt of the Earth," then-Cardinal Ratzinger gave a full-length interview to secular journalist Peter Seewald in which he acknowledged he was registered in the Hitler Youth, but convinced his mathematics teacher to arrange for him to not attend the meetings:
[...] 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. And that was difficult, because the tuition reduction, which I really needed, was tied to proof of attendance at the HY. Thank goodness, there was a very understanding mathematics teacher. He himself was a Nazi but an honest man, who said to me, "Just go once and get the document so that we have it. . ." When he saw that I simply didn't want to, he said, "I understand, I'll take care of it", and so I was able to stay free of it.
In the interview, he also commented on his compulsory enrollment in the German army:
Did you have to join the army at the end of the war?
Yes. From 1943 on, the seminarians in Traunstein were all conscripted into antiaircraft work at Munich, I was sixteen years old, and for a whole year, from August '43 to September '44, we did our service. In Munich we were attached to the Max Gymnasium, so we also got lessons on the side. The subjects were reduced, but still we got a useful amount of instruction. On the one hand, this was naturally not pleasant, but, on the other hand, the camaraderie of the time also had its excitement.
So what did you do in antiaircraft?
A battery was divided into two main elements, the artillery and the range- finding section, I was in the range-finding section. We already had the first electronic and optical instruments to locate the approaching aircraft and to give the readings to the artillery. Besides the regular drills we had to be at the instrument at every alarm. What then became increasingly unpleasant was that there were more and more night alarms, and many nights were pretty much ruined.
The issue of the future pope's Hitler Youth membership went viral on social media in 2023 with an image allegedly depicting him right after joining the group (called Hitlerjugend in German). The caption of one social media post read, "Pope Benedict XVI as a member of the Hitler Youth, c. 1941."
However, he was not in the Hitler Youth at the time that photograph was taken. We found more information about it by locating the oldest version of the picture online via a reverse-image search. It dated to 2005 and was shared by ACI Prensa, the Catholic News Agency's sister agency. We translated its caption from Spanish and it read, "In 1943 as a member of the anti-aircraft squad of the German militia." The picture was reposted hundreds of times by various websites such as the Washington Post, BBC, and Time. Moreover, we found this picture on stock image websites such as Alamy and Getty Images, with captions indicating that the picture was taken in 1943 and depicted Joseph Ratzinger as a German Air Force assistant:
1943, Munchen, Bayern, Germany: JOSEPH RATZINGER (born 16 april 1927, Marktl am Inn), 16 year old, at this time young soldier in NAZIST military service [..]
[...] Joseph Ratzinger is shown as a German Air Force assistant in this 1943 photo. Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger was elected Pope April 19, 2005 and has taken the name Benedict XVI. (Photo by German Catholic News Agency KNA via Getty Images)
The picture in question was also included in the Benedict's biography by Peter Seewald, captioned "The future Pope in uniform, Munich, 1943."
(Reddit user @imll99)