Divided by Ideology, United in Marriage
Posted May 1, 2018 8:05 p.m. EDT
Updated May 1, 2018 8:12 p.m. EDT
VIENNA — When she says identity, he hears exclusion.
When he says diversity, she hears Islamization.
He accuses her of forgetting history. She accuses him of obsessing with history. He calls her a racist. She calls him a national masochist.
Helmut Lethen, 79, and Caroline Sommerfeld, 42, are both writers. They represent two generations and two intellectual camps in an ever more divided Germany. They are political enemies.
And they are married.
Their marriage is exceptional, incomprehensible even, but it is also a laboratory for tolerance and a window into how the other side thinks. Daily, they are having the conversation their country is not.
It is a very German love story (though the couple reside in Austria, where the husband teaches), one neatly pegged to the 50th anniversary of the counterculture movement that remains a touchstone of global postwar history — and to the ascent of the counter-counterculture movement of today.
May 1968 was as important in Europe as it was in the United States, fueled similarly by a youth bulge, sexual liberation, disgust with the Vietnam War and general discontent with the era’s political establishment.
And it spawned much the same trajectory for its baby boomers, from budding student revolutionaries to button-down liberal elites.
Germany was no exception. And neither was Lethen.
A student activist at the time, Lethen toyed with communism, rebelling against Germany’s postwar elites which, as he put it, “still stank of the Nazis” — only to become part of the country’s cultural mainstream.
Sommerfeld, a philosopher in her own right, was swept up in another countercultural movement: In the summer of 2015, as hundreds of thousands of refugees arrived in Germany, she discovered the “New Right,” the intellectual spearhead of a nationalist movement that considers Islam and globalization existential threats.
Her husband had celebrated the arrival of the refugees: “I think it is the first time in our cultural history that we have welcomed the foreign in this way,” he said.
Sommerfeld, though, felt “anxious” and “repelled.”
Today, she hopes her own fringe movement is tapping into a shifting zeitgeist that will reverberate in Germany and beyond, just as her husband’s did in its day.
“We are the megaphone of a silent majority,” she claims.
Lethen dismisses the analogy.
“We were moved by a yearning for the world, we looked to the future,” he said. “They are moved by the yearning to go back to the womb of Teutonic tradition. It is a nostalgia for a past that never was.”
So far-reaching are their ideological differences that they seem impossible to reconcile with a relationship borne from romance that began when she was a university student and wrote a dissertation titled “How to Be Moral.” She caught Lethen’s eye in his seminar.
After sharing a bed for two decades and interests in Kant and gardening and bringing up their three sons, they are still talking.
“Familiarity with the other side is good,” she said.
“Talking is better than not talking,” he said.
This much they can agree on. Goethe and Goebbels share a crammed bookshelf in the living room of their 19th century Viennese apartment. In the kitchen a wedding photo is framed with the words: Love will never end.
Yet there is much, too, they agree to disagree on.
One recent evening Lethen called his wife and her far-right friends “spongers.”
Their attack on liberal democracy was only possible because of liberal democracy, he reasoned. Fantasizing about an authoritarian regime like that in Hungary was akin to “sawing off the branch you’re sitting on.”
Sommerfeld countered that the liberal mainstream consensus was itself authoritarian and did not even realize it. “You preach openness,” she said, “but you aren’t open to opinions you don’t like.”
What about those Muslims who do not respect the rights of women or democracy itself, she asked. Wasn’t letting them into the country “sawing off the branch you’re sitting on?”
Sommerfeld, who had toasted the election victory of President Donald Trump with Champagne, has co-written a book called “Living with the Left.” (“Living with Lethen,” Lethen calls it.)
She describes it as a self-help book for the far-right, offering readers advice on how to counter leftists’ arguments — and how to provoke them (for example, by comparing the 20 million who died under Stalin to the 6 million Jews who were killed by the Nazis).
As for Lethen’s latest book, a critically acclaimed volume about the cultural elite under the Nazis, it can also be read like a letter to the intellectual far-right. Among the dedications is a thank you to Sommerfeld “who electrified this book.”
The book talks about four German luminaries — a musical conductor, an actor, a surgeon and a law professor — who unlike many others decided to stay in Nazi Germany and helped legitimize it.
It had always troubled him: “How could it come to an alliance of high culture and this murdering state?” Lethen said.
Lethen’s father had joined Hitler’s Nazi party in 1928 and agitated in its favor. He never spoke about it after the war.
In nine years of high school in the 1950s, Lethen said, no history class ever touched on the Holocaust. He learned about concentration camps in the cinema, where he watched “Night and Fog,” a French documentary, in 1957.
He has carried the memory with him “like stones in his chest.”
The student movement of the 1960s, he said, was about “breaking open the silent archives of our fathers.”
He became a member of a Maoist splinter group, one of many minuscule communist organizations whose leaders later mellowed into academics, teachers or center-left politicians.
After teaching at a Dutch university for 18 years, he returned to Germany to teach at Rostock University in the former East and met Sommerfeld in one of his seminars.
Her father, too, came of age in 1968. She remembers her parents holding political meetings in their living room. And she remembers how her grandmother’s partner, a former Nazi, was never allowed into their house.
“I was completely shaped by the ’68 generation,” she said. “They were my parents, my teachers, my professors. Everything I read in school was colored by their ideas.”
That includes the experience of rebelling against the older generation and the cultural mainstream.
Even the methods of the New Right borrow heavily from 1968: provoking with language; staging sit-ins; infiltrating book fairs with far-right publishing houses; breaking taboos like throwing a burqa over the statue of the Empress Maria Theresa in Vienna; forging international links to similar movements. The first time they really fought was in 2016 after a far-right politician insulted the German soccer player JérômeBoateng, who is black.
“People consider Boateng a good footballer, but they don’t want to have him as a neighbor,” Alexander Gauland of the Alternative for Germany party had said.
Sommerfeld remarked she would not want him as a neighbor either. Her husband exploded and called her a racist.
It was a key moment in their relationship. “That is the biggest conflict,” he said.
Once, Lethen was so exasperated that he wrote down five conditions as a basis for discussion between them. Three of them had to do with acknowledging the Holocaust and the crimes of Germans during World War II.
She rejected them all. Not, she says, because she denies the Holocaust, but because she rejects the notion that it should define modern German identity.
She wants to move on from “this extreme collective pathological obsession with the Holocaust which informs the entire moral discourse of the ’68 generation,” she said.
“I want to say: ‘Dear lefties, this obsession with those 12 years is all yours. You can stew in it but it’s something we don’t want to deal with every minute of the day,'” she said.
“Why can’t we focus on the positive things in our history?” she asked.
“It is a positive thing to deal honestly with history,” her husband insists.
Since then, common ground has been stripped to the essence: An assumption of good will and rationality. And a focus on things they share — above all the well-being of their three sons. They have a rule: Neither parent is allowed to take the children on political marches. Sometimes — rarely — one side learns from the other.
Lethen says that perhaps liberals like him have been naive at times.
“In 1968, our love of the foreign exploded the ring of a community of elites — we could identify with the Viet Cong, we listened to African beats, we welcomed other cultures as an enrichment,” he recalled. “It never occurred to us that these foreign lovers could turn on us or have certain values that are incompatible with ours, like the separation of church and state.”
Sommerfeld offers that she is appalled at the views of some far-right speakers “who sound like they want to purge anyone with leftist views.”
“That is really ugly bigotry on the part of the right,” she said.
Where there is a right there needs to be a left, she added.
“We are tied to one another, for better or for worse,” Sommerfeld said, as she sipped the herbal tea her husband had just brewed to soothe her sore throat.
It was not clear whether she was speaking about her marriage or her country. Or both.