The biographical entries say: Marion Gräfin Dönhoff, the grande dame of German journalism, brought the 28-year-old Theo Sommer from the Swabian “Rems-Zeitung” to “Zeit”, where he replaced her as editor-in-chief in 1973 and was there for almost twenty years stayed. The historical truth is: “Ted”, as everyone calls him, was placed in an oversized wicker basket in front of the Hamburg press building. Otherwise he would not have become “Mr. Zeit” – as a star commentator, editor-in-chief, publisher, and finally as an “editor-at-large”. It was a solitary plant that shaped time and “time” – for a generation.
What is an Editor-at-Large? In English, this is a person “on the loose” who no longer bears any formal responsibility but can write anywhere in the paper. What Theo Sommer did until the end.
How did he define this job himself? The man was not only a gifted journalist, but also a quick wit. Because he had to introduce this somewhat overweight author, one of his successors at the head of the “Zeit”, at an international conference: “I am editor-at -large, this man is a large editor.”
The word “large” can be translated as “big”, but also as “corpulent”. People enjoyed the gag; the person concerned also had to laugh.
A popular obituary phrase is: “People like X aren’t made anymore.” In the case of Sommer, that’s the unaffected truth. He studied at the University of Chicago and did his doctorate in history in Tübingen. He built up the planning staff at the Ministry of Defense Helmut Schmidt.
He was at home in all the capitals of the world and conversed brilliantly in English. He has had an outstanding career without being a careerist. How he managed to write 16 books on the side without knowing how to use a typewriter, let alone a personal computer, is a secret he took with him to his grave. He married three times and was the father of five children.
These are just dry facts. He was a man in full as the title of a novel by the US author Tom Wolfe is – a whole guy in German. Not only could he reason brilliantly, he could also drink – one whiskey a day in the afternoon.
When he banged the table in the editorial meeting, he would break the tension with a quick punch line. Smaller minds hold grudges, Ted was three sizes too big for that. The author of these lines, whom he brought to “Zeit” in 1976, once had a yelling duel with him over the phone and slammed the receiver down. The next day the common outburst of anger was forgotten. Was there something?
That is why his people admired, revered and loved him. The conference was often lively. There was debate and dispute – sometimes against His Majesty. But he accepted it willingly (or wisely). He treated his editors not as subordinates but as members of a tight-knit community. One can argue between equals without quarreling or remaining silent.
It helped that under the Theodore regime two bottles of Courvoisier, Black
Shouldn’t anyone be afraid? Ted’s ministerial green felt-tip pen, which he must have copied from Helmut Schmidt, was feared. He tinkered with it in the manuscript until the text sat. I once got a colleague’s draft from him to pass it on to the typesetters – a sea of green. “But Ted, you can’t do that, it’s absolutely demoralizing.”
He countered: “Tell her she can still put her name on it.” But he ironed out this act of violence with his flirty charm.
Once again: Such editors-in-chief are no longer produced today: highly educated, charismatic, powerful in word and thought. The top people are more like managers who have to put sales, reach and ads first in the fight against lightning-fast social media. When they tour, it’s not to excel at Bilderberg, Davos, or Henry Kissinger’s International Seminar at Harvard. You have to use the time to flatter customers across the country.
They are also hardly known in the country itself; the merry-go-round at the top spins too fast. The bosses come from journalism schools, hardly ever write editorials, and they don’t quote historical greats either. Ted’s favorites were Bismarck, the French writer Paul Valéry, and the Swiss cultural historian Jacob Burckhardt. The smell of the elitist clings to education today. But Sommer’s motto was: “Readers have to look up a word once per page.” Today, such terms are translated bite-sized.
Tempi passati. The generation of Marion Dönhoff, Rudolf Augstein (“Spiegel”) and Theo Sommer was able to shape the republic because there was so much to shape after Adolf Nazi – the heads as well as the reconstruction. They have been able to draw the line into a still unrooted liberal democracy. This task has allowed talents and temperaments to flourish that are no longer vital today because German democracy is firmly walled in the earth, despite QAnon and lateral thinkers.
Speaking of coming to terms with the past. The very young Theo attended an elite Adolf Hitler school; he wanted to join the “Werewolves” shortly before the capitulation, for the last contingent. I asked him what he actually wanted to be when he was a teenager. “Preferably governor in Chicago.” So even as a Hitler Youth he wanted to aim high; he made it as a democrat – with a career that was exemplary for the entire republic.
Of course, he was not only wrong in the twelve-year Reich. An example: At a Germany conference in October 1989 in Harvard, a few weeks before the collapse of the GDR, he defended the two-state system because he thought the Soviet Union would never accept unification. Division is the price of peace – which was part of the canon of the political class at the time.
If you think big, you also think big. His motto was that of the American philosopher Ralph Waldo Emerson: “The uniformity of thoughts is the torment of small-minded people.”
The gods have forgiven the big checkered man. He lived until he had almost finished writing his several hundred-page memoirs. He died on Monday at the age of 92 as a result of a fall. In Olympus he will continue to write – with a green felt-tip pen.