As he frequently does, Fr. Robert Imbelli had an admiring post last week about something Pope Benedict had recently said. Titled “Images of Gratitude,” the post linked to Benedict’s remarks on the occasion of his being made an honorary citizen of Freising, Germany, where he had attended seminary in the years immediately after World War II. With a few exceptions, most of the comments on Fr. Imbelli’s post were positive reactions to the pope’s sentiments and his intensely parochial piety.
I eventually read Benedict’s address to the townspeople of Freising. I thought it unexceptional and thereby perfectly suited to the blandness of this particular civic ritual. Popes and other public figures have to say such things all the time. What I found surprising was the adulation the pope’s remarks elicited. His appreciative recollections concerned family, neighbors, Catholic feast days, walks in the countryside, the numinous aura of Freising’s medieval cathedral, and cherished memories of his ordination. “At the seminary we were one family,” the pope recalls, and Freising “became a real homeland to us, and as a homeland it lives on in my heart.” The war and the crimes of Nazi Germany are mentioned, but seem vague and distant shadows in Benedict’s telling of the hardships and joys, the cold dormitories, study halls, “and so forth” of his seminary training. Tellingly, he concludes by praising the “real Bavarian culture” of his youth.
It was curious, at least to me, that Benedict spoke nostalgically of what was in fact a desperate and nightmarish time. One explanation for this, of course, must have been his relief that the war was over and the Nazis vanquished. Still, most of Germany lay in utter ruins, tens of millions of Germans were dead, and millions more forcibly displaced or imprisoned. Hundreds of thousands of German women had been raped. The Jews of Germany had been almost entirely exterminated. Yet the pope hints at little of this in his recollections of a somehow still pristine postwar Bavaria. Instead, and in familiar Ratzinger fashion, we get a paean to an idealized version of German village life–“of being part of a whole”–before the disruptions and depredations of our modern, technological age. Benedict’s admirers cast him as forward-looking, but that is hard to square with his ardent longing for the “old rite[s]” and venerable “homeland” of his German youth, and his determination to leave unmentioned the poisonous ethnic, cultural, and political hatreds that destroyed the world he idealizes. (Freising is but a stone’s throw from Dachau.) Benedict is a formidable theologian from whom all of us have a great deal to learn. Yet as a cultural critic, he has his blind spots.
Perplexed by Benedict’s remarks, I asked a friend who lived in Germany for many years to explain to me what Benedict meant when he praised “real Bavarian culture.” His response follows.
The interesting and to me key moment, rhetorically and symbolically, is Benedict’s evocation of the Munich airport, which he acknowledges is impressive, modern, and specifically cosmopolitan (“global and open to the world”)–then goes on in effect to dismiss these qualities over against the abiding loftiness of faith and the immensity and beauty of the Bavarian alpine landscape. This trope is the key to the values underlying “Bavarian culture.” It is profoundly rural, village-based, anti-urban and anti-cosmopolitan. Thus is Munich referred to by its residents–proudly–as “not a city, but the world’s biggest village.” The Bavarian culture he refers to culminates annually in Christmas, which draws together the religious with the all-important village rituals, lavish festive cooking and baking, and handcrafts. The wood carvings. The endless elaborated crèches. The caroling. Those immense horns they play. The festive garb. It’s one of those cultural places where Christianity sits most happily and comfortably atop the prior pagan seasonal rituals.
A fathomless sentimentality draws together these recollections for older Germans, and especially for Bavarians–a virtual cult of Heimat (one’s home place) expressed through effusive feelings of Heimweh (longing for home). The walks through fields and along river banks are standard props of these pastoral Heimat nostalgia narratives. That they are a bit foggy and overly generic coming from Benedict may indicate either the brevity of that time in his life, or the competing clang and clamor of the wartime reality he seems intent on excluding…or even perhaps something perfunctory in his rendering of them for this audience. It would be exactly what they expect and want to hear, after all; he’s singing their song.
What he needs, as antidote to this sentimentality, is a viewing of Austrian director Michael Haneke’s new film The White Ribbon. Heimat and Heimweh are the reason such films are made.
As pope, Benedict has expended much of his energy promoting traditional markers of European Catholic identity. Unfortunately, there are some very dark threads running through the Bavarian culture Benedict remembers so partially. Few of us are reliable historians when it comes to understanding the world that surrounded us in our youth. Popes are no exception.