BERLIN — The man chosen as pope Tuesday grew up in the foothills of southern Germany during the rise of Nazism and as a young man supported theological reform. But he later embraced a rigid conservatism to battle what he saw as threats from secularism and leftist politics.
The son of a Bavarian police officer, Joseph Ratzinger, 78, is known as a gifted yet polarizing intellectual. For nearly 25 years, he served as the Vatican's chief enforcer of doctrine, articulating the church's opposition to abortion, homosexuality, religious pluralism and Latin America's "liberation theology" movement.
Though he is known to some in Germany as "Der Panzerkardinal" for his attacks on dissent, theologians and religion analysts say Ratzinger's life can be parsed into three phases: his devout youth; his university days and participation in the Second Vatican Council; and his determination in his later years, with the support of Pope John Paul II, to reinvigorate conservative Catholic thought amid rising secularism, materialism and globalization.
"You can say there is the young Ratzinger, the middle Ratzinger and the old Ratzinger," said Rainer Kampling, a Catholic theologian at Berlin's Free University. "The older Ratzinger has a great fear that the Catholicism of his youth is under threat by Marxist and secular forces. I think he's rooted too much in the 20th century and not enough in the 21st."
Like John Paul II, Ratzinger grew up in the caldron of World War II and came of age as the Cold War reached across Europe.
Born in April 1927 in the town of Marktl am Inn, Ratzinger spent his adolescent years in the Bavarian city of Traunstein. His family opposed the rise of the Nazi Party in the 1930s, but Ratzinger did not join resistance movements, and like most German teenagers in the early 1940s, he became a member of a Hitler Youth group. At the age of 17, he was assigned to assist an antiaircraft unit, interrupting his seminary studies.
John L. Allen Jr.'s biography, "Cardinal Ratzinger: The Vatican's Enforcer of Faith," describes how the war and Hitler's campaign against Jews pervaded his hometown.
"The horrors of the Reich were right there in Traunstein, staring Ratzinger in the face, just outside the door of the gymnasium or across the seminary playing field," Allen wrote. "After the Nazi rise to power in 1933, a sign hung over the entrance to the Traunstein Stadplatz, the central square in the city, reading: 'Do not buy from the Jew. He buys you, farmers, out of house and home.' On the night of Nov. 9, 1938, Kristallnacht, brownshirt members and other Nazis attacked the homes of Traunstein's few Jewish citizens."
Many of the region's Jewish citizens were either sent to the Dachau concentration camp or fled Germany. Their homes were seized and auctioned off. A few non-Jewish residents sheltered Jews or helped them escape, according to the book.
In a recent interview with German media, Ratzinger's brother, Georg, also a priest, said it was impossible to resist Nazism. But Allen said the would-be pontiff viewed the church as a buttress against Nazi evils, adding that Ratzinger's father and the local pastor criticized the Reich.
Rabbi Marvin Hier of the Simon Wiesenthal Center in Los Angeles agreed that Ratzinger's father was anti-Nazi and said Ratzinger's membership in the Hitler Youth should not be taken as an indication of Nazi sympathies because membership was mandatory. Hier said his group likes Ratzinger and expects him to continue John Paul II's outreach to Jews.
In his 1998 memoir, "Milestones," Ratzinger wrote: "No one doubted that the church was the locus of all our hopes. Despite many human failings, the church was the alternative to the destructive ideology of the [Nazi] rulers; in the inferno that had swallowed up the powerful, she had stood firm with a force coming to her from eternity. It had been demonstrated: The gates of hell will not overpower her."
Ratzinger was released from the antiaircraft unit in September 1944, according to Allen's account, and almost immediately was drafted into the German army. He deserted in April or May 1945 and was briefly held as a prisoner of war by U.S. forces near his home in Traunstein.
After Ratzinger was freed by the Americans, he studied at St. Michael's Seminary in Traunstein, and he and his brother were ordained on the same day in 1951.
Ratzinger went on to study philosophy at the University of Munich and received a doctorate in theology from Freising. An accomplished pianist who enjoys taking long walks in the German mountains, Ratzinger was groomed early as a Catholic intellect.
Even critics call him urbane and cultured, and according to the Vatican, he speaks eight languages, including German, English, French, Italian, Portuguese and Spanish.