By Freya and Helmuth James von Moltke (translated by Shelley Frisch)
NYRB, 432pp, £14.99/$18.95
In any society the number of people who are prepared to suffer for their beliefs and principles is generally very small. This is especially true in times of persecution, as was the case in the Third Reich, where overt opposition to the Nazi regime meant imprisonment and death.
Count Helmuth James von Moltke and his wife, Freya, were one such couple.
A member of the Prussian nobility and an Anglophile, he had trained as a lawyer and was opposed to the Nazis from the beginning. He was conscripted to work in the foreign division of the armed forces High Command at the start of the war, and he did what he could to uphold international legal standards, defend dispossessed Jews and safeguard the treatment of prisoners of war.
He arranged meetings with other principled opponents of the regime at his ancestral home in Kreisau, Silesia, starting in 1940, to discuss and prepare for a democratic post-war Germany after the Third Reich had been defeated. It was these meetings of the “Kreisau Circle”, which were discovered after the plot to assassinate Hitler on July 20, 1944, that ultimately led to Moltke’s conviction for “defeatism”. After a brief trial in the People’s Court under the notorious Nazi judge Roland Freisler, he was hanged on January 23, 1945.
These 150-odd letters between Moltke and his wife cover the last four months of his life.They were often exchanged daily through the unassuming courage of Harald Poelchau, the chaplain at Tegel prison in Berlin, who risked his life in smuggling them in and out. Slightly abridged to exclude repetitions, some details of his forthcoming trial and censored communications, they provide an extraordinary testament to love, Christian faith and steadfastness in the face of almost certain death. They are also passionately, palpably, personal; it is understandable that Freya, who survived her husband by 65 years, chose to delay their publication until after her own death in 2010.
She addresses the serious, indeed sombre tone of the letters, observing: “If you live in the face of death, you operate at a deeper and higher level at the same time.”
Nonetheless, this stark realisation brings their correspondence intensely alive, as if they are determined to live each day’s letter-writing to the full, in the knowledge that their time will be short. Both seriously committed to their Christian faith, they regularly share scriptural passages, especially the Psalms and New Testament, for the supernatural solace and hope of eternal life they provide.
Moltke, who had been imprisoned some months before the July Plot, had to rely on his wife’s descriptions of her life at Kreisau, raising their two small sons, as she tirelessly juggled her commitments to them and to him, in her regular exhausting train journeys to Berlin. Apart from a brief, intense bout of depression, he maintained his spirits and dignity throughout. He was sustained by Freya’s untiring efforts to mitigate the outcome of his trial and by their closeness as a couple.
Freya often writes with gratitude at the “great gift” they have been given: enough time to exchange their deepest thoughts and emotions and to prepare for the future when she would have to raise their sons, then aged seven and four, alone. Remarkably, there are no recriminations, no futile longings for might-have-beens, and no bitterness at the events that have landed them in this situation. It is as if their temperaments, their common sense of purpose and their shared Christian hope in the afterlife have combined to prepare them to face the greatest ordeal of their married life in the noblest and most courageous way.
Moltke comments in one heartfelt exchange, “We are truly not entitled to more life, because we have had so much good come our way” – recognition that it is the spiritual intensity of life rather than longevity that ultimately matters. Thinking of the future, he also reflects that his wife “will be maintaining the spiritual legacy of those of us who die”, urging her to “try to make it fruitful”. For her part, Freya is resolute that “God does not want death to split us apart”. Indeed, she remained loyal to her husband’s memory; after Germany’s reunification Kreisau, which had become part of Poland after the war, became an international meeting place for students across Europe to live, study and debate together. This was in no small part due to Freya’s energy and focus.
Moltke wonders “whether our little sons will read these letters and understand them some day”. His hope also came to pass; this edition of their letters was edited by their older son, Helmuth Caspar, alongside Dorothea and Johannes von Moltke, the children of his brother Konrad. Not merely of historical interest, this intensely moving correspondence deserves a place in any anthology of great letters; it reminds us that whatever vile regime comes to dominate human affairs, there will always be noble souls to witness to a different, higher form of human conduct.