Lives of love and terror

Heinke Sommer-Matheson and Peter Matheson say their just published book, based on Kenke's parents...
Heinke Sommer-Matheson and Peter Matheson say their just published book, based on Kenke's parents' letters to each other during World War 2, contains important questions for today. Modern photos: Gregor Richardson
Eighty years after the beginning of World War 2, a story has come to light in New Zealand of an ordinary, young German couple who whole-heartedly embraced Hitler's terrible vision. Bruce Munro talks to Dunedin residents Heinke Sommer-Matheson and Peter Matheson about discovering hundreds of Heinke's parents' deeply personal war-time letters and the urgent relevance that correspondence has in today's world of rising nationalist populism.

Death inevitably brings change. But in 2005, Heinke Sommer-Matheson had no inkling just how transformative it would be when she learnt of her mother's death and immediately flew to Germany.

Heinke had been raised with her brother Hartmut by their mother Lilo in northern Germany after the death of their father Ernst, a lieutentant in Hitler's German army, on the Russian front, in 1942.

It was Heinke's third birthday when her father, who she had known through fleeting visits but primarily through the post, was killed. She recalls that for a long time after, every time the postman would bring mail, she would cry out "Papi, Papi", Daddy, Daddy.

Heinke Sommer-Matheson's parents, Ernst and Lilo Sommore, pictured here in 1936, before they...
Heinke Sommer-Matheson's parents, Ernst and Lilo Sommore, pictured here in 1936, before they married, spent most of their time apart because Ernst was fighting for Nazi Germany until he was killed, in Russia, in 1942. Historic photos: Supplied
But that was a lifetime ago. By 2005, Heinke had spent decades away from her homeland after marrying Scottish historian and theologian, Emeritus Professor Peter Matheson. Together they had lived in Scotland, Australia and, since 1981, in New Zealand. Peter pursued an academic career. Heinke taught and worked with those in poverty. Together they raised a family and engaged in peace and justice activism.

There was no forewarning therefore, when, after her mother's funeral in Bonn, western Germany, while clearing out her mother's flat with Hartmut's help, Heinke came across a wooden box.

"We found an ominous, dark brown box at the bottom of the wardrobe," she recalls.

"When we opened it, letters spilled out of it. I was flabbergasted."

She was shocked because it was crammed with many hundreds of letters and postcards, all in the hand of their parents, Lilo and Ernst. One thousand and fifty-nine pieces of handwritten correspondence sent by the two newly-weds to each other during their more than two and a-half-year, war-imposed separation.

Hartmut thought the contents should remain private, perhaps be burnt. Heinke was reluctant. She spoke to the church minister who had buried their mother. He encouraged her view that this box contained an important part of her history. OK, her brother said, take the letters back with you to New Zealand.

It was the start of an unimaginable odyssey that would deeply impact Heinke and would culminate in this month's publication of an internationally significant historical resource with extraordinary resonance in our times.

It wasn't until 2005 that Heinke Sommer-Matheson discovered the hundreds of letters her mother...
It wasn't until 2005 that Heinke Sommer-Matheson discovered the hundreds of letters her mother had kept in a wooden box after the death of her husband, an officer in the German army.
For many months, the letters sat undisturbed in their wooden box at Heinke and Peter's rural home in Waitati, north of Dunedin. An obstacle to dealing with the treasure trove was the obscure Sutterlin script they were written in. Then, once Heinke had begun mastering that, she had to use a magnifying glass to decipher the cursive letters, words and sentences written in ink and pencil well over half a century previous. Next came the need to learn the geography of France and Russia, where her father had fought. Dozens of reference books were read, providing a context that encompassed the world war, Nazism and the Holocaust.

Life and sickness, including a life-threatening disease, interrupted at various intervals. But steadily, during the ensuing decade, a complex, beautiful, troublesome picture emerged: of a young couple deeply in love, of two devout Christians also committed to Adolf Hitler's terrible vision, of a man and wife struggling to maintain their relationship in the face of the strains and horrors of distance and war.

Peter, who has researched and written on the role of the Christian Church in Nazi Germany, describes his wife's letter collection as a special and rich historical resource.

"It is an incredible window on to ordinary life during Hitler's Reich," he says.

"Partly because it was a two-way correspondence, which is most unusual.

"There is plenty of stuff from [Nazi] Generals and from leading theologians like Bonhoffer, but to have a two-way exchange from an ordinary mother with two kids and an ordinary school teacher, it is pretty rare."

Heinke says the letters are a monument to her parents' love for each other.

They wrote to each other most days.

"My beloved Ernst," Lilo wrote to her husband on the cusp of 1940, when he was still at the army training camp.

Now the old year is fading. New Year's Eve always has a quite special memory for me: our engagement! You dear, good Ernst, I had never thought it could be so wonderful to be your wife. I know that there are so few men who are what you are. I am so proud of you, and infinitely grateful for the wealth and the love which have come into my life through you. Everything I have become in the years of our marriage I owe to you. It is a great, infinite happiness to be able to go through life at your side.

Lilo, Heinke and Ernst, in 1941.
Lilo, Heinke and Ernst, in 1941.
Ernst, writing from Russia, in 1941, was equally expressive.

Sweetie, your last letters from the 26th, 27th and 29th have arrived. Ach, how lovingly you write. You know, of course, how much I look forward to mail from you. Your letter for my birthday also arrived on time. Now and then the post goes so slowly, but this time it was quite quick. Many thanks, my beloved, for your good wishes and your heartfelt hope that we will soon be together again, running our life and bringing up our children. Yes, my Lilo, so far we have been able to draw energy from our memories and dream into our future. You paint so nicely the picture of how the two of us can enjoy that happiness. Thanks to you it is mine; as I settle down to sleep each night I am with you.

In 1941, Heinke, a toddler, runs to her father, a lieutenant in the German army, when he arrives...
In 1941, Heinke, a toddler, runs to her father, a lieutenant in the German army, when he arrives home on leave.
With time, however, their relationship almost inevitably became strained. Lilo was struggling to raise two children on her own, first in a village that suffered numerous British air raids and then in strained conditions with her parents. Ernst was experiencing all the horrors of war but trying to protect his wife from the terrible realities he faced on a daily basis.

In October, 1941, after Ernst had written enthusiastically about building a log cabin with the soldiers under his command, it became too much for Lilo. She wrote:

You yourself write that if you were here you would yearn to be at the Front. You have experienced battle now and stood face-to-face with death. I always endeavoured to understand your wish to go into battle ... But I can't take it anymore ... I would ask you not to proceed with any more requests to return home, which incidentally I don't believe in the least. Just act from now on as if you had no family, volunteer for the Front or the Waffen SS, so that you won't have any complexes later on when you face the local farmers here. Do what you are driven to by your devotion and duty to the Fatherland, and never mind us. Volunteer for England or whatever seems right to you. We have no desire to hold you back ... I am really feeling very low and more abandoned than ever. Husband and wife will no doubt seldom be of one mind about the war. I am neither brave nor heroic and fine words mean nothing to me ... I'm sure you will be aware that it's my love for you that is speaking in all this. I continue to wish you every happiness. Your Lilo.

Ten days later, a horrified Ernst wrote back.

Throughout the bitterest fighting I never forgot the distress of a loving wife, who had to face the possible death of her husband. It was this that forced me to say nothing about the ghastly sides to this war; about the many, many dead and wounded, about the horrendous images of those who had been murdered, about feet and chunks of flesh flying over my head, about the decomposing Russian bodies in a foxhole I leaped into to escape the artillery fire, about the charcoaled corpses at the steering wheel of burnt-out trucks, about sickening images which will pursue me for the rest of my life. I forced myself to put to one side the stress I was under, the primitive living conditions, the pressures of loneliness, and my own longings, in order to spare my loved ones ... If you continue to torture me like this, it will devour me ... You are my last support in this most ghastly of all wars. I can't take any more.

This ceremonial sword, owned by Ernst Sommer, a lieutenant in the German army, is a tangible...
This ceremonial sword, owned by Ernst Sommer, a lieutenant in the German army, is a tangible connection Heinke Sommer-Matheson and her father who was killed when she was 3 years old.
Lilo's letter in response, is full of remorse.

O my dear Ernst, Now the letter has arrived which I have been so anxiously awaiting. It made me quite ill. You made me very ashamed and I ask your forgiveness for the wrong I have done you. But in all your recent letters I had the feeling that you lacked for nothing. And I just could not understand it, especially as I suffer so much from this war and our separation ... Dear Ernst, you know that I can take it better if you say how it is, rather than being silent about it. In the future tell me how things are, is that possible? I worry about you.

If Heinke found her parents' love heart-warming and their suffering heartbreaking, she found their support for Hitler's facist, genocidal, megalomania deeply disturbing. And doubly so because of their Christian faith.

Lilo and Ernst had both been enthusiastic members of the Nazi youth movement and supported Hitler's aggressive foreign policy. Ernst was proud to go to war. They also wrote regularly to each other about their faith in God. On their bookshelf was The Bible, Alfred Rosenberg's influential, racist Myth of the Twentieth Century and Hitler's diabolical manifesto Mein Kampf .

Writing after Germany's invasion of Russia was made public, Lilo penned:

If only my great love could preserve you. Be assured that I am with you night and day and pray God to keep you safe for me and the children ... Your yearning to be part of the action has now been fulfilled, dear Ernst. I wish you every good fortune as a soldier, so that you come back home safely.

A year earlier, the young army officer had written to her:

You know the emotions which always fill my heart. We both recognise the holy necessity for perseverance, determination and Durchbeissen (grit). Let's throw off all anxiety and set our sights on the great coming Reich of a magnificent German nation. My dearest, Forward, with God's help!

Lilo later came to express strong distaste for the war. But the question remained for Heinke and Peter: how did ordinary, decent people become Nazi supporters?

In winter 1942, a fellow soldier took this photo of Ernst, on the Russian front, less than two...
In winter 1942, a fellow soldier took this photo of Ernst, on the Russian front, less than two months before he died.


"Both my parents came from a Christian background. And they were idealistic about the Third Reich, about Hitler. They admired him," Heinke says.

"How is it possible to connect these two strands in your life?"

The book they have just published, Love and Terror in the Third Reich: A tale of broken integrity, draws on Heinke's transcriptions and research and Peter's expertise as an historian of this period, to dig into that vexed question.

"That's where `broken integrity', the subtitle of the book, comes in," Heinke says.

They had a strong personal piety but got little help from the Church to critique Nazism and so were swept up in the call to patriotic duty, Peter explains.

In 1943, Lilo, widowed, poses for this photograph with her two children Heinke and Hartmut.
In 1943, Lilo, widowed, poses for this photograph with her two children Heinke and Hartmut.
In Germany at the time, there were some notable exceptions, such as Dietrich Bonhoeffer, but the majority of church leaders caved in to the demands and threats of Nazism.

"Secondary virtues of loyalty, of punctuality, of decency, and so on, they are not enough. You've got to have a structural critique of what's going on," Peter says.

"Where the hell could ordinary folk like Ernst and Lilo get that? The judiciary, the majority of the churches, the majority of the army, the civil service; they all keeled over."

Heinke and Peter are adamant that the lessons are not simply historical.

There are parallels between then and now, they say.

The Great Depression of the 1930s visited a lot of hardship on Germany and broke the middle class of that country. Lilo and, especially, Ernst grew up in extremely difficult conditions.

"Hitler was the answer to the Depression," Heinke says.

"He was seen as the hope of a new Germany."

Today, Neoliberalism, the Global Financial Crisis and increasing automation of work are also hollowing out the middle class and creating increasing inequality.

"This is very urgent for us today. You look at the populism behind Brexit, behind Trump, behind the resurgence of right-wing views in Poland and Hungary. It's the same thing; ordinary, decent, caring folk being hoodwinked by the smart bastards."

If Ernst was unable to pick the fatal flaws in Nazi ideology, he did realise the war was placing huge strain on his marriage.

Whenever he had a sizeable collection of letters from Lilo, he sent them back to her. His expressed intention, Heinke says, was that after the war he and Lilo would read through all their letters together, using that as a way to rebuild and strengthen their relationship.

It never happened.

On February 11, 1942, Ernst was shot during an assault by his infantry regiment on Soviet troops in the village of Borki, northwestern Russia. He was buried with others in an unmarked grave.

Even when her letters were being returned, Lilo kept writing until she received official notification of his death.

On March 3, she wrote:

My beloved husband! My thoughts are with you nonstop, with you alone ... It's enough to scare you stiff. I lie in bed, unable to sleep, thinking of Hans, of Gerda, of you out there. Ach, my Ernst, stay safe! I am really struggling; all peace of mind is gone.

Lilo's heart was broken. She never remarried. The box of letters was her shrine to what had been and what had been lost.

Heinke and Hartmut grew up without a father.

"We are scarred by war. That will never leave us," she says.

"My father was just a photo on the piano with flowers behind it. I could not connect with him.

"This yearning for a father pushed me all through my life."

And then the letters came to light. With effort, through research, by retracing his steps, with time, Ernst came alive to Heinke - an outgoing, capable, fallible and loving person.

"I got to know my father.

"These letters have given me a father."

The book

Love and Terror in the Third Reich: A tale of broken integrity, by Peter Matheson and Heinke Sommer-Matheson, Cascade Books, published in May, 2019, RRP$21. 


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They're right to be worried, if their own understanding of economics and history is any indication. Far from 'hollowing out' the middle class, 'neo-liberalism' has massively expanded it all over the world.

At the expense of the class below them. The middle class was a bulwark against extremism. It promoted Reason, Arts, Industry and Morality. A neo liberal middle class has no 'class', just a middle class economy.

Your comment is classless.

Wartime Germany was a long time ago. As for Nazis, they know who they are, and we know who they are.

"As for nazis, they know who they are, and we know who they are". WERE! Nazis are long dead; today's conservatives and patriots have nothing to do with WW2's nazis, only in the tiny minds of leftist liberal, etc..

Considering they lived the history, yours is an ignorant comment. It is not an expanded economic middle class that is the issue. It is the middle class that acts as a bulwark against extremes - populism, mob rule, right wing nationalism, unfettered capitalism.

Yours is the ignorant reply; only a left-wing liberal with a tiny mind would equate a conservative patriot with naziism, which died long ago--if there are any nazis around, it is you.

Not the New (Parvenu) Middle Class. The established Middle Class, bulwark against extremism, and the German class that actively resisted Hitler.

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