The journalist and “Zeit” editor Theo Sommer has died.
At the peak of his career, he was one of the most influential German newspaper journalists for the upper German bourgeoisie. Theo Sommer was editor-in-chief of “Zeit”, the most important weekly newspaper in the years of the Bonn Republic, for almost twenty years. Eight years followed, during which he signed alongside Marion Countess Dönhoff and former Chancellor Helmut Schmidt as editors of the paper. Sommer not only shaped the political pages of the paper, but also became one of the decisive voices in turbulent years of upheaval, to which a generation increasingly helpless in the face of the youth revolt and the coming to terms with recent German history reacted not only with outraged resistance.
The shine of success
Sommer was a brilliant analyst, his heart belonged to foreign policy, his specialty remained the organization and development of the Bundeswehr for many years, and the reporter’s focus was always on events in the other German state. After leaving the Hamburger Blatt, Sommer remained active as an author and publisher for various media houses. He wrote books, was a popular guest on radio and television, sat on the advisory board of the Bertelsmann Foundation and on the board of Welthungerhilfe. A fulfilled life as a journalist could be seen there, always accompanied by the glamor of success, enduring many an internal struggle and then finally humiliated by an embarrassing, self-inflicted tax evasion process.
A gentleman from Lake Constance, who was an excellent fit for Hamburg, his central place of work. Slim, tall, always dressed in conspicuous British understatement, his voice in a melodious baritone range. When I sat with him in a bar in Frankfurt, Hamburg or Berlin after a joint television or panel discussion – occasionally until dawn – the ladies looked benevolently at my companion and we argued about politics, culture or journalism in a way like I have not experienced them too often: always with decency and respect for the opinion of the other.
Sommer was a conservative liberal, a colleague with a thirst for knowledge and a love of life. He belonged to the generation of German journalists who grew up during the Nazi and war years and for whom encountering Anglo-Saxon political thinking was an awakening experience. Wherever he may have erred in his editorials or analyses, Sommer remained the convinced and, if necessary, combative democrat.
It is no coincidence that he did his doctorate in Tübingen under Hans Rothfels, the first historian to write a book about the German resistance. Sommer’s dissertation dealt with Germany and Japan in the years 1933 to 1940. Sommer later did not overlook what was happening in Vietnam, and he suspected very early on the power that was beginning to develop in distant China.
Sommer’s proximity to some powerful politicians has occasionally irritated me, and not just me. His two-year move to the Federal Ministry of Defense led by Helmut Schmidt (as head of the planning staff) triggered a debate that was not flattering for him. Even later, after returning to “his” newspaper, he showed conspicuous sympathy for Chancellor Schmidt’s policies, which did not always correspond to the facts. During these years, the leaders of Die Zeit repeatedly succumbed to the temptation to do politics themselves. Just read Countess Dönhoff’s letters to US Secretary of State Henry Kissinger.
At the end then the embarrassing bang: in 2014 Sommer was sentenced to probation by a Hamburg court for considerable tax evasion. But this frivolous stupidity (success makes us arrogant) cannot devalue the remarkable life’s work of this great journalist. For me – and I believe for many newspaper readers of my generation – Theo Sommer, who has now died at the age of 92, remains one of the enlighteners who gave a difficult country an idea of what reason and humanity can be.