TRAUNSTEIN, Germany, April 21 -- When Nazi Party leaders in this predominantly Catholic town in southern Germany decreed in 1941 that all crucifixes be removed from the walls of school classrooms, nearly 2,000 women signed a petition in protest. Faced with this high level of resistance, according to the town historian Franz Haselbeck, the Nazis backed down.
That same year, however, the director of the local Catholic seminary made certain that all his students registered as required by law with the Hitler Youth movement. Among those who joined was 14-year-old Joseph Ratzinger, who after World War II went on to become a renowned theologian and, earlier this week, was elected pope, taking the name Benedict XVI.
The two events in 1941 reflect the distaste and resignation with which Traunstein and its most famous son dealt with the Nazis during the years of totalitarian rule. For the most part, residents say, the town did not oppose some of the criminal actions that marked the era, including the exile or murder of its handful of Jews, the arrest and disappearance in concentration camps of political dissidents and the use of forced labor for its farms and factories. But there were times when they -- and young Ratzinger -- drew the line.
"This was not a resistance center," said Gerd Evers, who has written two books about Traunstein's modern history and who, with Haselbeck, is organizing an exhibit to open next week on the town's role during the war. "But there were certain moments when people did resist -- when religious belief was threatened and, at the very end of the war, when it was all about survival."
Located near the Austrian border in Bavaria, Germany's largely rural and most politically conservative region, Traunstein was for years a stronghold of political parties tied to Catholicism. But the Nazi Party did well here in its formative years in the 1920s because of its opposition to the Versailles Treaty that enshrined Germany's humiliating defeat at the end of World War I and its perceived championing of nationalist and rural values. But by the 1930s, Evers said, most residents saw Nazism as an anticlerical and revolutionary movement, and Traunstein was one of the few areas to deny the Nazis a majority in the 1933 election, Germany's last free contest until after the war.
The Nazis generally were careful with Traunstein, which then had about 12,000 residents, cracking down on dissidents and Jews while keeping their hands off the Catholic establishment. The houses of the town's few Jewish residents came under attack on the evening of Nov. 9, 1938, the infamous Kristallnacht, when Jews were attacked throughout the country. Within days, all had either fled or been deported, and a local party leader declared Traunstein "Jew-free."
Small bands of communist and social democrat dissidents were also rooted out, to be killed or dispatched to Dachau, a concentration camp outside Munich. "Everyone knew there was a camp at Dachau -- it was published in the newspapers -- but no one spoke about it," Evers said. "Its purpose was to terrorize."
One of the town's most vocal critics of the Nazis was a local priest, the Rev. Josef Stelzle. According to an account in John L. Allen Jr.'s biography of Ratzinger, Stelzle was arrested in 1934 after preaching an anti-Nazi sermon but was released within days. Despite orders to stay out of Traunstein, he returned within a year and continued to criticize the Nazis, yet survived the war.
The Ratzinger family settled in the Traunstein area in 1937 when Joseph was 10 years old. He has written that his father, a policeman, spoke out privately against National Socialism and was forced to transfer jobs frequently. In 1939, Ratzinger joined his older brother, Georg, at St. Michael's seminary in town.
According to an article in the Bild newspaper, a 1936 law had required all German youth of a certain age to enroll in the Hitler Youth, a decree reiterated in a personal order by Adolf Hitler in March 1939. In the book "Salt of the Earth," Ratzinger says he was forced to enroll in the movement in 1941 by the director of the seminary. According to the historian Haselbeck, the move was an attempt by the director to ensure that the seminary remained open. Georg Zandl, 81, a retired priest who also attended St. Michael's, said he did not recall everyone being forced to sign up, but almost everyone did. "We felt we had to join, but inside ourselves we all rejected it," he said.
Soon after, however, the seminary was closed and converted into a military hospital, and Ratzinger transferred to the local high school. He has said he stopped attending Hitler Youth meetings, which became a problem because without a certificate of attendance, he could not get a reduction in school fees -- "which I really needed badly," he recounted in "Salt of the Earth." But he said a sympathetic math teacher, a Nazi, came to his rescue by faking the certificate. "When he saw that I really didn't want to go, he said, 'I can get it settled,' " Ratzinger recalled.
The city was spared many of the ravages of war until near the very end, when U.S. forces bombed the train station and local warehouses, killing about 100 people. Anna and Maria Spiegelsparger, sisters age 83 and 85, recalled that their home was destroyed in the raids, which left bomb craters bigger than houses. Their father, a farmer, died in the aftermath when he fell into a deep pit while searching for farm animals amid the wreckage.
Ratzinger was one of many young Germans conscripted into the army toward the end of the war in 1945, and he has recalled deserting his post with others who feared they would be forced to make a last stand against the encroaching U.S. troops. Deserters were still being shot, and he has said he felt relief when he was confronted by a small unit of German soldiers who decided they had had enough killing and let him go.
Others were not so fortunate. An elite SS unit herded a last column of prisoners through the village on the edge of Traunstein where the Ratzinger family lived. On May 3, 1945, the SS mowed down the 62 inmates, just a few hours before U.S. troops occupied Traunstein. Only one man, who played dead, survived. A small plaque marks the spot.
Haselbeck said Traunstein responded to Nazism as an ordinary Bavarian town would, and Ratzinger responded like an ordinary resident. "I think it was the normal way for a young man," he said.
Evers said the town's main act of resistance was to reject orders from the Nazi high command that residents resist the Americans at all costs. "In some ways this was a brave thing to do because there were people in nearby villages who were shot for this," he recalled. Still, he added, "You have to say that people here were against National Socialism, but they didn't do anything about it."
Special correspondent Petra Kirschok contributed to this report.