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Papal Help in Overcoming Nazi History

DW staff (sms) / AFP April 20, 2005

As Pope Benedict XVI pledged to continue working toward unity across religions, observers in Germany hope having a countryman on the papal throne will help the country take another step beyond its Nazi past.

Some see a German pope as a sign of confidence in the countryImage: AP

The election of a German pope 60 years after the Nazi defeat in World War II is powerful proof of renewed international confidence in the country, German officials and historians said Wednesday.

"This is an important sign of Germany's definitive return to the international community of nations," the German Bishops' Conference said in a letter addressed to Pope Benedict XVI, who was born in 1927 in the Bavarian town of Marktl am Inn.

"It is fortunate that nearly 60 years after the end of World War II -- particularly in light of the day of the German capitulation (May 8) -- a German cardinal can be elected to the highest office of the Church after such a long time.

"Many did not believe this was possible after the still tangible atrocities unleashed from Germany in the 20th century."

Despite six decades of atonement for the Nazi crimes committed in their name, Germans still often see themselves as pariahs on the world stage.

Horst Köhler in der Knesset
German President Horst KöhlerImage: AP

In a telegram to Pope Benedict XVI, German President Horst Köhler (photo) carefully avoided any hints of nationalism in sending his congratulations. He said the choice of a native son "fills us in Germany with particular joy and a bit of pride."

Chancellor Gerhard Schröder described Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger's election as "a great honor for Germany."

Accepting other religions

Paul Spiegel, the head of Germany's now fast-growing Jewish community, said he believed Pope Benedict XVI would "intensify the efforts begun by his predecessor" for greater understanding among faiths.

Meanwhile the leaders of Europe's Orthodox Churches, which have had a long-strained relationship with the Vatican, called on Benedict XVI to pursue better relations with Eastern Christians after centuries of rivalry and mistrust.

The new pontiff has already responded to those apprehensive of his future policies. In his first Mass as head of the Catholic Church, Benedict declared inter-faith reconciliation to be a focus point.

Galerie: Papst Benedikt Bild 7, 1. Messe von Papst Benedikt
Pope Benedict XVI celebrates Mass in the Sistine ChapelImage: AP

"I will spare no effort and commitment to continue the promising dialogue with other civilizations that was started by my venerable predecessors," he said.

The election of a German as pope, however, inevitably revives uncomfortable historical questions about the Church and its role during the Nazi era.

In fact, much of the impetus for the Vatican to come to terms with its at least tacit support for Adolf Hitler's regime and its silence in the face of the Holocaust initially arose from Germany itself.

German ancestry a benefit

German author Rolf Hochhuth's groundbreaking play "The Deputy," which premiered in 1963, charged that Pope Pius XXII with being complicit in the Nazi extermination campaign against European Jewry and sparked an international debate about the Church's moral authority.

Kinder im Konzentrationslager in Auschwitz, 60 Jahre Gedenktag
Many accuse the church of looking the other way as millions were killed in concentration camps during World War IIImage: dpa

Many Jews voiced the belief that Benedict's German roots, rather than being a cause for concern, would in fact bolster his desire to battle anti-Semitism.

"Given his historical experience, we hope the new pope will be faithful to the commitment of the Catholic church to fight anti-Semitism," said Israeli Foreign Minister Silvan Shalom.

Not necessarily a political decision

However, Rainer Kampling, a professor of Roman Catholic theology at Berlin's Free University, warned against viewing Ratzinger's election as a political decision or historical absolution.

"There is still a difference between political integration and theological importance. Benedict XVI was elected as a cardinal, not as a German," he said.

"Nevertheless, it seems to be apparent that there were no longer any major reservations about Germany" at the conclave that elected the pope, he added.

Kampling said that all eyes would be on Benedict XVI nevertheless to see what overtures he made toward Jews internationally and when he would make his first trip to Israel.

"You cannot overcome the Nazi period," he said. "It remains Europe's open wound."