"From the beginning of my life, my brother has always been for me not only a companion, but also a trustworthy guide" -- Pope Benedict XVI, Aug. 21, 2008.
Writer and historian Michael Hesemann spent months interviewing Monsignor Georg Ratzinger, the older brother of Pope Benedict XVI, formerly Joseph Ratzinger, at his home in Regensburg, Germany, to capture the intimate details of his life with the pope, from childhood to papacy, and to "get the facts" about the Ratzinger family's role in the Nazi party.
These interviews became Ratzinger's memoirs in a book entitled, "My Brother, The Pope," due out on March 1.
"Nobody on Earth knows our pope as good as his brother, the person who was a few years older and experienced his birth and childhood and all his way up to priesthood, who was ordained as a priest on the very same day as the Holy Father and who was in contact with him for his life, a most intimate contact, because they're brothers," Hesemann said.
"This book was written not from the perspective of a historian... it is the memoirs of the brother of the pope," he continued. "That's what makes it special. It is the most intimate biography of the pope possible."
Hesemann, 47, is a German Catholic and an expert in church history. He said he was fascinated by the story of the Ratzinger brothers because it was such a "unique phenomenon" to have two "geniuses of his own kind" come from the same family -- Georg Ratzinger was an internationally acclaimed choir leader and musician before his brother Joseph, whom Hesemann called "the greatest theologian of the German language," even became a cardinal.
In writing this book, Hesemann said he was surprised to learn that the pope was an "unambitious" man, "a loner" growing up, who was content to be a theology professor in Germany and never aspired to rise through the Catholic ranks.
"[The pope] never wanted to become a bishop, he never wanted to become cardinal, he never wanted to go to Rome, for three times he resisted the call of pope John Paul II to Rome, but eventually he had to be obedient to the Pope... and certainly never wanted to be pope," Hesemann said. "It was against his plan. It was the plan of God but was not the plan of Joseph Ratzinger."
Having written books about Pope John Paul I and Pope John Paul II, the Vatican granted Hesemann permission to write a biography about Pope Benedict XVI shortly after his election to the papacy in April 2005. It was after that the biographer said he developed a strong interest in interviewing Pope Benedict's older brother, Georg Ratzinger. After waiting almost six years, Hesemann said the Monsignor agreed to have him record his memoirs.
"[Ratzinger] was a little bit hesitant because he is very shy, he doesn't like to be interviewed," Hesemann said. "He doesn't like to be the center of attention and he is 88 years old now, he was 87 at the time, and he wants a quiet life."
One of the most incredible things about the book, "My Brother, the Pope," is the detail Georg Ratzinger recalled about his childhood. For example, although he was just 3 years old at the time, he told Hesemann he could remember being woken up to frantic footsteps the morning Joseph was born.
"I was very impressed by his excellent memory," Hesemann said. "All of the places listed, I visited myself... I found them remarkably correct... so we really have a very authentic testimony."
The Ratzginer Family Did Not Have a Role in the Nazi Party, Writer Says
Hesemann made it clear that this book, "My Brother, the Pope," was not commissioned by the Vatican, and was produced in a publishing house in Germany, not by the Vatican library. However, the writer admitted that the Holy Father's personal secretary, Monsignor Georg Gänswein, did fact check the book with Pope Benedict because Georg Ratzinger is almost completely blind and couldn't proofread it.
"There are many names, and I would sometimes only conclude how they were written," Hesemann said. "But it was important to check it with the Holy Father on how certain names were written."
When asked if any parts of the book had been edited out, Hesemann said the only censorship he received from the papal office was to remove some of Georg Ratzinger's remarks about Nazi sympathizers the brothers knew growing up.
"The Ratzinger family was in opposition of the Nazis but [Georg Ratzinger] mentioned some neighbors and so on who were members of the Nazi party and because they of course have children who live today and who would be compromised, we didn't give the full name, but only the first letter of the persons in question," Hesemann said.
Georg Ratzinger was born in 1924 in Altotting, Bavaria, Germany, to Joseph Ratzinger, a village policeman and Maria Ratzinger, a hotel cook. He was one of three children, with his sister Maria, born in 1922, and the youngest, Joseph, born in 1927, who later became Pope Benedict.
Rumors have circulated for years that the Ratzinger family, especially their father, was sympathetic to the Nazi cause when they came to power in Germany in the 1930s. But in writing Georg Ratzinger's recollection of his childhood, Hesemann said there was no truth to that.
"[Their father] was a small-town policeman in Altotting and then he got a reputation for being anti-Nazi," Hesemann said. "Just before Hitler came to power, his superiors advised him to get away from the town because the Nazis complained about him."
In fact, Hesemann said, the brothers decided to follow the priesthood, in part, because of their opposition to the Nazis' anti-Catholic zeitgeist.
"It was a sign of opposition to join a seminary at a time when you really had to suffer through because you were a seminarian, and you were discriminated, you were laughed at, and you had a very hard time," he said.
Even rumors that Pope Benedict was once a member of the Hitler Youth were exaggerated, Hesemann said. The law in Germany at the time, he explained, was that young men were forced to join the organization.
"Joseph Ratzinger, who hated the idea, to go to the Hitler Youth, did everything to avoid it and eventually was successful in avoiding it and didn't have to go," Hesemann said. "Then came the war... and the boys learned to theoretically shoot down enemy planes, but Joseph was too small and too un-sporty to handle weapons and anything like this so he served in a control room."
Hesemann explained that the pope was eventually drafted into the German army but when asked to report to a Nazi military camp in the last month of the war, Joseph Ratzinger fled, and was not prosecuted as a defector. Even their sister Maria, Hesemann said, gave up her dream of becoming a school teacher to avoid being associated with the Nazis.
"She was an intelligent young lady, who became the secretary of a lawyer after the war, but she did not go to university because, at that time, to go to university would have been in the time of the Nazis and she did not want to go become a teacher at a Nazi school and become-- and teach children the Nazi ideology," he said.
Joseph Ratzinger Advised Pope John Paul II
Maria, who never married and never had any children, eventually became a secretary and housekeeper for Joseph Ratzinger as he was promoted to cardinal. She died of a heart attack in 1991 at the age of 69.
Long before he was named pope himself, Jospeh Ratzinger had the ear of Pope John Paul II, and served as his close advisor. Hesemann said Pope John Paul II often sought Ratzaginer's advice and the two would have collaborated on how best to offer the famous grand apologies Pope John Paul II made for the wrongdoings of the Catholic Church.
"In every step John Paul II made, you have one way or the other, an influence of the Ratzinger theology," Hesemann said. "John Paul II was a wonderful communicator but, as they say, he was not a great theological professor, he was not a teacher of theology, he was not a theological genius, and so he needed Ratzinger."
However, having his brother named pope "shocked" Georg Ratzinger at first, not because he was jealous, Hesemann said, but because Georg knew it meant he would not be able to retire and travel with his brother as they both had planned.
"It was a shock for him, it was a shock. He was deeply depressed," Hesemann said. "He did not go to the phone for one day. His brother the pope tried to call him many times and in the end, eventually the housekeeper went to the phone, and picked it up, and there's pope on the other line. He wanted to talk to his brother, and so for him, he said, 'Oh my God, I don't want to talk to anybody, this is the worst thing that could happen because now it's like I don't have a brother anymore, he won't have any time for me.'"
Even now, Hesemann said Georg won't call his brother because he doesn't want to disturb him, but Georg will travel to Rome four times a year to spend time with the pope.
"He's happy to have him be the pope," Hesemann said. "[But] he is missing his brother. He would like to have his brother at his side."
Georg Ratzinger's recollection of his family in the book seems overwhelmingly positive, and Hesemann said it's because the Ratzingers were a tight-knit family who prayed together -- Ratzinger even broke down in tears when talking about the deaths of his parents and his sister, Maria.
Hesemann said he and Georg Ratzinger wrote the book, in part, as a reply to what Hesemann called the "crisis of the church" and the "crisis of family," meaning there are more divorces than ever now and priestly vocations are low.
"In America you have a beautiful saying, 'a family that prays together, stays together,'" Hesemann said. "The Ratzinger family secret was they prayed together... when they had a problem in the family the problem was solved in prayer and that's why it became such a harmonic family."