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Sunday, November 19, 2006

A Remembrance of Kurt Sontheimer

Scott Horton

On a recent trip to Germany, I learned of the death last year in Murnau of the great Munich-based political scientist Kurt Sontheimer. There are a number of teachers and mentors who introduced me to the world of political theory and philosophy. One of them, Sandy Levinson, is among the most industrious contributors to this blog space. However, Kurt Sontheimer was the first. The fact that I learned only this week of his death reminds me how detached I have become from the language and educational institutions of my youth; it reminds me of a lost world filled with intellectual inquiry and peace. I felt a doubled loss.

Kurt Sontheimer was always enshrouded in a quiet, unpretentious greatness. Arrogance and wit are pretty commonplace at universities in almost any society. But Sontheimer was always the other end of that spectrum. He reflected humility and an appreciation of the worth of all those about him. I don't recall ever having had another professor who quite managed to pull this off. One day, slated for one of the innumerable teach-ins that dotted the leftist landscape of German universities in the seventies, a young woman stood up and began to deliver a spontaneous diatribe on state monopoly capitalism in the midst of one of Sontheimer's lectures. I had seen this same sort of stunt used many times to bring the teaching process to a grinding halt. However, Sontheimer listened patiently to what the young woman had to say and then addressed her in a calm, respectful way. I can't remember exactly what words he used, but the sense he conveyed was simple – he fully welcomed her and her right to voice opinions. He would be delighted to engage her in a debate if that is what she wanted. Perhaps she could suggest when that might be scheduled? The would-be provocateur slid back into her seat not quite knowing what to do. She had been fishing for a confrontation. What she got back was respect. She didn't know quite what to make of it.

This was the essence of Sontheimer, a man who not only articulated the values of a liberal democracy, but really, sincerely, believed them. I learned from Sontheimer that even in the crazy world of Germany between the wars there had been determined souls who carried the banner of liberal society – I learned of Max Weber, Theodor Heuss, Hannah Arendt and then always his sentimental favorite, Thomas Mann. Sontheimer's book on the pilgrimage of Thomas Mann from cultural conservatism to liberal and humanitarian values is a classic.

Sontheimer's last work, which in my eye seems still not quiet complete at the time of its publication, on the eve of his death, is an extended essay on Hannah Arendt. It is a warm and intensely human portrait of Arendt but throughout this work, I see an engagement not just with Arendt's times and works but with our own times. Sontheimer is deeply worried about a process of demonization and the erosion of rights. He is adamant that the "right to have rights" belongs to all human beings; he is convinced that this is a fundamental element of the legacy of the Second World War. The attack on this value he views as an imminent threat, capable of unleashing great harm.

Particularly significant is his extended discussion of Arendt's concern for the constitutional crisis of Watergate and the Pentagon Papers – a crisis provoked by the assertion of robust and unrestrained presidential powers. Sontheimer clearly sees that this struggle is being rerun in America today, with consequences potentially far more grave for America and the world. And he sees the impassioned, patriotic engagement of Arendt as critical. "I want to understand" is the Leitmotiv of Arnedt's famous interview with Günter Gaus. But in the end this is an understanding that aims at intervention and engagement, an informed engagement. Our political conduct must be directed to a simple end, namely to make our country and our world something that we can love, something worthy of the humanity that it houses. This describes Arendt, but also Kurt Sontheimer.

In her remembrance of Karl Jaspers, delivered at the University of Basel on March 4, 1969, Hannah Arendt said: "That which may be simultaneously the most fleeting and the greatest about a human being is his spoken word and sudden gesture, which dies with him; but it behooves us that we remember them." The greatness of this man, Kurt Sontheimer, was, I think, in small things. But it was nevertheless a greatness. It enriched my life and I am thankful for it.

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