When in 2005 the papal conclave elected Joseph Ratzinger, a Bavarian intellectual with a reputation for intransigence, the press had already made up its mind. Across the world, newspapers spewed out references to the Inquisition. Memorably, the Daily Telegraph christened him ‘God’s Rottweiler’. Over the course of his pontificate, Ratzinger, who took the papal name Benedict XVI, would endure much worse.
The roots of Ratzinger’s infamous reputation can be traced back to his upbringing in Nazi Germany. Ratzinger, who was born in Bavaria in 1927, was conscripted into the Hitler Youth at fourteen and the Wehrmacht at seventeen. However, as Peter Seewald described in the first volume of Benedict XVI: A Life, he refused to wear the Hitler Youth’s uniform and deserted from the army. In the early summer of 1945, during a brief internment as a prisoner of war at the age of eighteen, he became convinced of his vocation. He was duly ordained, earned a doctorate in theology and became a professor. Earmarked as a high-flyer, he was an adviser at the Second Vatican Council (1962–65) – the most important ecclesiastical assembly in four hundred years. There, he played a critical role in swaying the council towards reform.
In the second volume, Peter Seewald, a German journalist and longtime collaborator with the emeritus pope, defends his subject’s career. This book begins in the year after the end of the Second Vatican Council, and follows Ratzinger’s path from eminent priest-scholar to retired pontiff. It was a journey