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The triumph of love between a couple torn apart by the Third Reich

Helmut James von Moltke (Wikimedia)

Watching the scenes on television these last few days of the collapse of the Berlin wall 30 years ago has been extraordinary and heart-warming. John Simpson, veteran BBC reporter, described it as an occasion of joy. Really there is no other word; we are so used to people fighting each other that it seemed a miraculous event when ordinary Berliners, apparently through the error of an obscure East German bureaucrat discussing new rules for meetings, simply decided that they would not be separated any longer from their families and friends on the other side of the wall.

As I watched the embraces, the tears and the hugs between strangers who had become brothers, I was reminded that the wall came about because the German Democratic Republic, (GDR) couldn’t bear to watch its citizens abandoning its Communist system for the west; and the GDR came about because of the last war: the Iron Curtain had come down on the whole of eastern Europe.

As this made me think of a book, even more moving than the scenes of reconciliation in Berlin thirty years ago: Last Letters: The Prison Correspondence 1944-1945 of Freya and Helmuth James Von Moltke (translated by Shelley Frisch, New York Review Books), edited by their older son, Helmut Caspar Von Moltke and his two children, Dorothea and Johannes. It is a story of the triumph of love between a couple whose lives were torn apart by the Third Reich but whose letters should certainly belong to any anthology of “classic” correspondence and who played their part in the history of the humanisation of their country, just as Berliners did in November 1989.

Count Helmut James Von Moltke, from an old Prussian aristocratic family that had distinguished itself in the Franco-Prussian War, a trained lawyer and passionate believer in human rights, was imprisoned by the Nazis for the (secondary) role he played in the officers’ plot of July 1944 to assassinate Hitler. Although he had been imprisoned months before the failed attempt on Hitler’s life, he was implicated in the resulting persecution of all those who opposed the regime, as he was the founder of what became known as the Kreisau Circle: meetings between 1940 and 1943 at his family home at Kreisau that brought together many people who believed Germany would lose the war and who planned to build a humane, democratic and just country in its aftermath.

This “defeatism” was itself enough to convict Von Moltke of high treason for which the penalty was death. The almost 150 daily letters between him and his young wife Freya during October 1944 and January 1945 are a lasting testimony to their courage, fidelity and Christian faith. Providentially, the prison chaplain at Tegel Prison in Berlin was a mutual friend who risked his own life to smuggle the letters between the couple.

Reading them it is clear that the exchange sustained them during a time of enormous anxiety and stress, as they faced up to the likely verdict of Von Moltke’s forthcoming trial, yet hoped against hope that his life might be spared. In the event, he was hanged on 23 January 1945; his wife had his last letter to her, dated 9.30 on the day of his death, at her bedside when she died 65 years later, having lived to see her husband’s family home, then a part of Poland, converted into an international youth centre following the collapse of Communism.

The letters are highly personal and affectionate, full of mutual tenderness and encouragement; it is understandable that their personal nature made Freya withhold their publication until after she died. But they deserve to be read now as widely as possible: a demonstration of the heights to which the human spirit, nourished by faith – especially their reading of the Psalms – can rise over adversity, despite the couple’s recognition that their life together, including that of their two small sons, was soon to be destroyed for ever.

Freya was to write in one letter “My beloved, my eternal soulmate…I’m full of the most profound gratitude…we have been given a great gift…” and her husband was to reflect, “I have discovered my bond with you…I have also loved our little sons more dearly than before. I have learned to give thanks, and have learned to say, “Thy will be done.”

Perhaps the last word should go to Freya who was to write, near the end, “What matters most is not letter-writing, or even living together; what matters is love.”