I Launched Peter Matheson and Heinke Somer Matheson’s book ,
Love and Terror in the Third Reich:A Tale of broken Integrity
2019 Cascade Books Oregon
on Friday the 24th May .
Its a disarming book that documents the love, faith ,national socialism and war of two ordinary Germans during the 1930s. This is what I said about it at the launch.
Launch of Peter Matheson and Heinke Sommer-Matheson’s book
Love and terror in the Third Reich : A Tale of Broken Integrity.2019
Cascade Books, Eugene Oregon.
Kevin P Clements
• After the lovely cello music I am inclined to suggest that we stay silent. The world is in greater need of music and silence at this time than text and words. But I have been asked to say a few words about the evolution of this book and its meaning to me.
• In the first place, it is a book that has been a long time in gestation and there were many anguished conversations between Peter and Heinke about whether or not it was appropriate for them to publish such intimate letters which were never intended for public consumption. I am and you should all be deeply relieved that, in the end, they did decide to publish so my first task is to give thanks to Heinke and Peter for their labour of Love which revealed a deep love between Lilo and Ernst (Heinke’s parents) as well as insights into the meaning of life for an ordinary German family caught up in the global struggle between fascism, communism, and the western democratic project.
• Second, this box, which held Lilo and Ernst’s letters accompanied Lilo for her entire life. It was a material reminder of and the repository for her love, her marriage, and the war. The letters were the outward and visible reminder of a lively , sensual, spiritual and political relationship that gave birth to Heinke and Hartmut who were the living results of this union.
• I wish that my father had been as attentive to memory and history as Lilo. When my mother died and my father was about to remarry he went into our garden to our incinerator and burned all my mothers letters to him and his letters to her. This was a record of their war and their separation but it was also a window into their relationship and how each endured the pain of separation and death. My mother had a breakdown when her favourite brother was killed in Libya. These letters would have given me and my siblings insight into their relationship just as Lilo and Ernst’s enabled Heinke and Hartmut to understand the father that neither of them new. My father’s destruction of these letters meant that neither I nor any of my siblings would ever know anything about our parents love and care for one another, what they felt about or how they survived the war, their separation, traumas, breakdowns and eventual reunification.
• We are very fortunate that Lilo Sommer, Heinke’s mother chose differently. She preserved this extraordinary treasure trove of letters that form the basis of this book. They not only document the deep love between Lilo and her husband Ernst they help all of us understand a tumultuous moment in time from 1935-1942 .
• They do this not through the eyes of political leaders or military commanders but through the eyes of ordinary middle class well educated Germans who managed to combine their love for each other with deep religious faith and an enthusiastic and willing embrace of Hitler and Nazi ideology. Lilo saw Hitler Face to Face when dressed in the uniform of the Landjahr. Ernst was thrilled to be an infantry flag bearer at a Nuremburg rally.
• In Ernst’s case his religious faith and belief in National Socialism were mutually reinforcing. This is as it has been for millennia. God is always invoked by one side against the other in war .God, in the form of military chaplains and bishops blessed British tanks and on the other side the very same God gave succor and support to German soldiers as they occupied most of Europe. Lilo’s was also in a swoon to all that National Socialism had given them and initially had a strong belief in Hitler’s ability to ensure that past German humiliations would be redeemed in German dominance of Europe and the world. Quote from Lilo on page 16.
• But the war itself tested their love, their political commitment and their sense of all that made life decent and worthwhile. This was particularly so for Lilo but Ernst too had moments of doubt even as he declared his willingness to sacrifice himself for the country to defeat Bolshevism and the British. Ernst’s quote p44
• Heinke and Peter have blended these love letters into a political and military narrative that enables us to contextiualise the mundane , the ordinary and the everyday with the architechtonic themes of the mid 20th century. They weave discussions of fascism, and war with deep mutual concern on the part of both Lilo and Ernst for their beloved Heinke and her brother Hartmut.
• It’s a book that proceeds swiftly to its inevitable conclusion, the death of Ernst, his brother Hans and Lilo’s brother Dieter It is a book that also addresses the death of all the lofty ideals of 1930s fascism; the death of a marriage –the post death continuity of love- the survival and flourishing of two lovely children who carve out their own identities in a post war world with only the dimmest understanding of their father under the care of a mother whose life was challenged by the war that she had initially believed in.
• So what are some of the deeper themes that come through this volume.?
• In the first place, the letters which start out so hopefully are contradicted and challenged by the ultimate futility of the Second World War, or for that matter any war, to solve political, economic and social problems . War is organized slaughter.These letters are a testimony to the foolishness and destructiveness of state sponsored and legitimated , organized murder. The scars and pain that Lilo had to live with after the war were reproduced in the families of millions of others. There were 20 million Russians who suffered pain, loss, and death and more than 60 million people overall lost their lives in this conflict. The grief and anxiety so poignantly reflected in these letters and book were reproduced millions of times across the world. They weren’t often talked about but they created the traumatic base for the post war world.
• The second theme that came through was that of displacement. War displaces people, Lilo returned to her parents, Ernst was frog marched through Poland to the Russian front. But the displacement is more than physical, it is mental, emotional, familial, religious and existential. These dislocations create profound existential angst . It is displacement that enables military commanders and dictators to control the population by promising order to a totally chaotic world. These letters, therefore wer an effort to grapple with displacement by reminding Ernst and Lilo of their home and its safety and security.While there was much chaos, however, we have to pay a huge compliment to the efficiency of the German Military postal system which miraculously preserved all these letters which enable us to understand what dislocation and chaos meant to all those who were dislocated.
• The third theme which flows from the first is the way in which war displacement and separation generates an aching loneliness on the part of those who are left behind and by those who are fighting . Or in my father and mother’s case a loneliness generated by conscientious objection to war, separation, and the loneliness of dissent in patriotic environments. Whether the separation was at home ( as in my parent’s case) or abroad as in Lilo and Ernst’s the separated have to endure the tedium, alienation, estrangement, and constant danger of war alone. Lilo’s displacement to her parent’s home and anxiety about Ernst ,meant that she felt that she was “hanging between the tree and the bark” she was anxious,depressed, and felt completely incapacitated by forces beyond her control. Like some worrying illness, war confronts us all with our own mortality and reminds us that we are born into the world alone and will leave it alone. What makes this aloneness, loneliness bearable are those who assuage it by their love, presence, care and compassion. For Lilo and Ernst as for all who fight it was the love of spouses, lovers, families, comrades in arms that enabled them to deal with their loneliness. But essentially war reminds us of the fact that we are all inexorably marching to our deaths with a variety of religious and political banners ( of greater or lesser value) to sustain us.
• The fourth theme that came through the book was the power of belief (whether religious or political) to overcome rational comprehension of the parlous state that both found themselves in. It was religious faith and belief in the fatherland that sustained Ernst. I’m not so sure that this was totally sustaining to Lilo but she believed in the healing power of love, family, duty, and work. They both yearned for Christmas, for music, for walking in nature, for each other and these beliefs nurtured them through good times and bad. Their beliefs, however, are a reminder to all of us that what we believe, what we imagine, what we hope for enable us to BE in the face of all the forces challenging our being. Heinke and Hartmun’s return to the Russian battleground of their father and their search for his grave ( which was unsuccessful) gave them both a material sense of where he spent his last days. They brought back soil and apples from this place to Lilo so that she too had some material reminder of where her dreams were extinguished.
• The fifth theme that came through was the way in which ideology can blind us to what is happening around us . In the end Lilo was more skeptical of Nazi ideology than Ernst , but both were wiling to suspend their critical consciousness in pursuit of a “noble” cause which retrospectively turned out to be quite ignoble. The surprising element of the letters, however, is that both Ernst and Lilo were in their own ways decent, loving, caring and compassionate human beings trapped in a war and in a system that was exactly the opposite.
• The final theme that comes through has to do with whether or not we are currently living ( in 2019) in a world that is the equivalent of 1935 in Germany. We are confronted by some huge problems that will require the imagination of the whole world to address and resolve them. Yet people are scared and are looking for simplistic and utopian solutions. These forces of autocratic populism are generating a willingness to cede personal responsibility to leaders on metaphorical white horses. The challenge of the letters and this book is whether those of us who seek to preserve our own kith and kin in the face of life threatening forces are also willing to stand against the tide and not defer to the neo fascist equivalents of those who reigned supreme in 1935. If we remain passive by standers to autocratic impulse, hate speech, intolerance we will undoubtedly find ourselves supporting the 21st century equivalent of the Reich with all that this will mean in terms of nightmares instead of dreams , truncated love instead of love fulfilled and a disposition to violence that has even less place in the 21st century than it did in the middle of the 20th. So this is a love story for the 20th century that is also a morality tale for the 21st.
• I thank Lilo and Ernst for writing these letters and for Lilo preserving them. I want to reiterate my thanks to Heinke and Peter being “stubborn” enough to translate them and to weave them into a meaningful narrative. I hereby launch the book and urge you all to buy a copy.