Kurt Sontheimer

Political scientist arguing for a new Germany
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The Independent Online

Kurt Sontheimer was one of the most influential German intellectuals of the post-war generation, who preached hard and long the case for democracy in Germany, exposed the failure of the old German élites, and was well-known to colleagues in France, Britain and, above all, the United States, as the personification of the new, democratic Germany. He was awarded an honorary doctorate by Bradford University and admired the British for their "common sense".

Kurt Sontheimer, political scientist: born Gernbach, Germany 31 July 1928; Professor of Political Science, Free University of Berlin 1963-69; Professor of Political Science, University of Munich 1969-93 (Emeritus); married (one son, one daughter); died Murnau, Germany 16 May 2005.

Kurt Sontheimer was one of the most influential German intellectuals of the post-war generation, who preached hard and long the case for democracy in Germany, exposed the failure of the old German élites, and was well-known to colleagues in France, Britain and, above all, the United States, as the personification of the new, democratic Germany. He was awarded an honorary doctorate by Bradford University and admired the British for their "common sense".

Born in 1928 in Gernbach, Baden, a small town but one with a revolutionary democratic past, Sontheimer said he had been traumatised by Hitler's rule. He was forced to be a member of the Hitler Youth and served as an auxiliary in an anti-aircraft unit at 16. He was part of the post-war German intellectual class who looked to the Anglo-Saxons for ideas and guidance on democratic regeneration. He enthusiastically embraced the "new" disciplines of sociology and political science as taught in the United States.

After studies in Freiburg im Breisgau and Paris, he took an MA in sociology at the University of Kansas, returning, in 1952, to Germany to complete a doctorate in philosophy at the University of Erlangen. After a brief period at the Pedagogic College in Osnabrück, he was appointed, in 1962, Professor of Political Science at the Free University of (West) Berlin. In 1969, he took up a chair at the University of Munich, remaining there until his early retirement in 1993. He loved the Geschwister-Scholl-Institut of Munich University, and its associations with the two students, Hans and Sophie Scholl, who distributed anti-Nazi leaflets only to be arrested by the Gestapo and beheaded, in 1943. He also loved Murnau am Staffelsee, where he lived for many years, which inspired the Russian painter Kandinsky and other artists.

Sontheimer wrote many books, among the most important of which were Thomas Mann und die Deutschen ("Thomas Mann and the Germans", 1960); Antidemokratisches Denken in der Weimarer Republik ("Anti-Democratic Thought in the Weimar Republic", 1962); Deutschland zwischen Demokratie und Antidemokratie ("Germany between Democracy and Anti-Democracy", 1971); Grundzüge des politischen Systems der Bundesrepublik Deutschland ("Fundamentals of the Political System of the Federal Republic of Germany", 1971), which became a standard text; and Deutschlands politische Kultur ("Germany's Political Culture", 1990). His final work, about the Jewish writer Hannah Arendt, will appear later this year.

Sontheimer believed that the academic could not just observe from the sidelines and he joined the Social Democrats (SPD) and, in the crucial 1969 election, together with writer Günter Grass and others, organised support for Willy Brandt. He was successful in this and Brandt's SPD won the election in September. In 1975 his work, Die DDR: Politik, Gesellschaft, Wirtschaft, with Wilhelm Bleek, on the East German Communist regime (GDR) was published and translated as The Government and Politics of East Germany. In it he concluded that "there are in Germany today two peoples growing nationally ever further apart". It was a mistake and he did not expect to see that process reversed by the early fall of the GDR.

Although he remained an SPD member, Sontheimer was disappointed with Gerhard Schröder's Red-Green coalition and last month forecast that it would lose the election of 2006 because, he believed, it had no vision for the future of Germany.

He summed up his own political position with reference to the writer Thomas Mann, who wrote,

I am a person of balance. I instinctively lean to the left, if the boat is in danger of keeling over to the right, and vice versa.

David Childs



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