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Love and Terror in the 3rd Reich: A Tale of Broken Integrity

What was it like to fall in love in Hitler’s Germany? As the War tore them apart, how did young couples keep love vibrant, care for their children, relate to the war? The earthy letters of Ernst and Lilo Sommer depict in unforgettable poignancy the collision of their personal dreams with the political and military realities of the Third Reich. Seventy years later their daughter, Heinke, living in New Zealand, reflects on this tragedy.

Heinke Sommer was born in Wrohm, near Hamburg, in 1938. Her memoir

is based on over 1000 letters and postcards discovered in 2005 and written by her parents Ernst Sommer and Lilo Struck to each other from 1935, when they first met, to 1942 when Ernst was killed on the Eastern Front. These letters present a young couple in their mid-twenties deeply in love, dedicated to teaching – he was a primary school teacher as was her father - devout Protestants with high standards of personal morality; and, yet, ardent supporters of National Socialism, Hitler and the re-emergence of a strong German nation. The letters are supplemented by letters from relatives and photos. Ernst and Lilo’s children’s books and song-books as well as their family snaps add colour to the story.

The letters reveal the gradual divergence of their attitudes to the war as life got harsher and harsher for both of them. An unusual feature of the correspondence is its two-way nature. There are many collections of soldiers’ letters, but Ernst Sommer sent home his wife’s letters with the explicit aim of reliving their experiences by reading the letters together after the War.

Starting with their romance, engagement and involvement in the NS youth movements the letters offer a vivid picture of what life was like in the little villages of Schleswig-Holstein and Pomerania where they grew up. Ernst writes about his passionate engagement with the village children, but also about his after-hours engagement with the Hitler Youth and the SA. Lilo obviously loved her work with the girls of the NS youth league, her vegetable and fruit garden, her two little children. The down to earth reality of village life and family bonds and tensions emerges clearly.

We catch glimpses of Ernst’s training as a German officer in Potsdam, his relaxed time in a coastal garrison in France and then his leadership of his men in forced marches and finally in the Russian winter of 1941-2. We begin to see how decent, loving people like this young couple were swept away by the rhetoric and romantic appeal of the Party and then sink into disillusionment as the reality of war became ever more evident.

Heinke’s post-war life in West Germany, Edinburgh and New Zealand is described, as is the journey with her brother to the spot where their father died. That was in 2001, some years before she set about examining and absorbing the letters and seeking, with her husband Peter Matheson, a religious historian, to comprehend and come to terms with her parents’ beliefs, in particular how they were able to reconcile their religious faith with the atrocities perpetrated by the political party they revered. Wrapped round English translations of 35 complete letters and quotations from hundreds more their commentary offers an empathetic, vivid, and intensely personal window into the life of ordinary people in the Third Reich.

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