The Evangelical Who Was Part of the German Resistance Against Hitler

Helmuth James von Moltke co-founded a resistance group called the Kreisau Circle, and was executed for treason in 1945. His son reflects on his father’s quiet heroism

Danna Harman
Danna Harman
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Freya von Moltke, Helmuth James von Moltke, Dorothy von Moltke (Helmuth James' mother), Ada Deichmann (Freya's mother) at the wedding of Helmuth James and Freya in Cologne, Germany, October 18, 1931.
Freya von Moltke, Helmuth James von Moltke, Dorothy von Moltke (Helmuth James' mother), Ada Deichmann (Freya's mother) at the wedding of Helmuth James and Freya in Cologne, Germany, October 18, 1931.Credit: Courtesy of Helmuth Caspar von Moltke.
Danna Harman
Danna Harman

LONDON – Helmuth Caspar von Moltke likes to imagine that his father might have become a Supreme Court judge after World War II. However, instead of leading a court, Helmuth James von Moltke was dragged before one by the Nazi regime and charged with crimes of high treason. The German aristocrat was hanged on January 23, 1945, when his eldest son was just 6 years old.

The 82-year-old von Moltke, who goes by the name Caspar, was in London this week on a brief visit from his home in Montreal. The judiciary would have been a better fit for his father than politics, he muses, because the latter “is not a good profession for people of considerable principle. And he was a man of considerable principle.”

Haaretz Weekly Ep. 58Credit: Haaretz

Helmuth von Moltke was from a prominent Prussian noble family – one that had provided the German Army with two field marshals and chiefs of staff in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Like so many of those who lost their lives resisting the Nazis, Helmuth von Moltke, 38 at the time of his death, was never given a burial: his body was burnt and his ashes unceremoniously washed away.

But while he has no grave, he is increasingly receiving recognition for his principled life, and is today considered a key figure in German resistance against the Nazis. On the centenary of his birth, German Chancellor Angela Merkel praised him as a symbol of “European courage.”

Helmuth Caspar von Moltke.Credit: Danna Harman

He is best known for creating – together with Peter Yorck von Wartenburg – a small resistance group called the Kreisau Circle, which started meeting and plotting against the Nazi regime in 1940. It was a lofty and somewhat loose grouping of about 25 German intellectuals, theologians and aristocrats from different political and social standings.

Unlike those who gathered around a better-known contemporary, Claus von Stauffenberg – who tried to assassinate Hitler in July 1944 – the Kreisau Circle’s focus was never on how to remove Hitler. Instead, it focused on the kind of Germany that would arise after what the group hoped would be the inevitable fall of the Third Reich.

A lawyer by profession and living in Berlin as Hitler rose to power, Helmuth von Moltke declined the chance to become a judge in order to avoid joining the Nazi Party. Instead, he started a private international law practice, traveled widely and studied at Oxford for a while. Later, conscripted to work as a lawyer for the Abwehr (a military intelligence service in the German Army), he penned several controversial reports: One opposed the Nazi policy of ignoring the Geneva and Hague conventions; another was on the psychological disturbances of German soldiers forced to kill Eastern Europeans and Jews.

“Most people had not actually read ‘Mein Kampf,’ but my father had,” says his son, who also practiced as a lawyer. “He read it, and immediately came to the conclusion that Hitler fully believed what he was writing. He was therefore depressed and worried.

Freya and Helmuth James with James' siblings and Edgar Mowrer with his daughter Diana in front of the "House on the hill" in Kreisau in 1932. Credit: Courtesy of Helmuth Caspar von Moltke

“My father would recommend to his Jewish clients to ‘Go! Go! Go!’” Caspar von Moltke adds. “One cousin of my mother married a Jewish man, and they were making plans to go to Holland. But my father said, ‘Holland is not far enough.’”

‘Religious opposition’

Born to prominent Christian Scientist parents in 1907, Helmuth von Moltke became an evangelical Christian at 14 and his faith became an increasing part of his life. “The German upper class tended to be conservative and almost in totality taken with the Nazis. But if you were not conservative – a rarity in the German upper class at the time – it was different,” Caspar von Moltke explains. “My grandparents with their Christian Science background were already out of step with other people. We were not a typical German aristocratic family – and my father and mother weren’t. They believed strongly in democracy and the Weimar Republic, and wanted it to work. All the things the Nazis did not want.”

Norbert Frei, chairman of modern and contemporary history at the University of Jena, Germany, says Helmuth von Moltke was an important figure in the German resistance “because he had a principled, religious opposition to the Nazis from the start.” Frei contrasts von Moltke’s consistency with that of many other members of the upper class who became part of the resistance but did so very late on, after initially welcoming Hitler in 1933.

German Countess Freya von Moltke, wife of German Count Helmuth James von Moltke, is seen during an exhibition opening ceremony on the resistance during Nazi rule in Berlin, on July 19, 2004.Credit: AP

Mary Fulbrook, a professor of German history at University College London, concurs. Without diminishing other resistors’ personal courage and moral integrity, she says, it bears remembering that there were tens of thousands of other courageous individuals, mainly left-wingers, who had been attempting to protest against and even sabotage the regime much earlier.

She argues in her book “A History of Germany 1918-2014: The Divided Nation” that there was very little that ordinary opponents of the regime in Germany could do, as they were simply too far removed from the center of power and influence, and had no chance of getting close to Hitler – let alone toppling him. But those in elite positions in the army and government, as well as those from influential families like Helmuth von Moltke, might have been a different story. For the most part, though, she says it was all “too little, too late.”

Caspar von Moltke says his father’s concerted efforts against the Nazi regime began soon after the start of the war. “My father and his friend Yorck [von Wartenburg] had been unhappy about the German military successes at the beginning of the war, but they started corresponding and hatching plans in earnest after the German Army had run through France,” Caspar von Moltke recounts. “They were both working in the government by then and were increasingly depressed, because it felt like everything they were most against was winning.”

It was 1940 by this point, and Helmuth von Moltke and von Wartenburg gathered around them a group of like-minded men and women to debate and outline political and economic plans for a postwar democratic Germany. They dubbed themselves the Kreisau Circle because they met several times at Helmuth von Moltke’s family estate of Kreisau in the province of Silesia, some 560 kilometers, or about 350 miles, from Berlin (and today part of Poland).

Adolf Hitler and Hermann Goering in Poland, in 1939.Credit: Roger-Viollet

“What shall I say when I am asked ‘And what did you do during that time?’” Helmuth asks his wife, Freya, in a letter dated October 1941. “Since Saturday the Berlin Jews are being rounded up. Then they are sent off with what they can carry. ... How can anyone know these things and walk around free?”

Ancestral war hero

After four years of clandestine Circle meetings, in January 1944 Helmuth von Moltke was arrested after alerting an acquaintance, Otto Kiep – the chief of the Reich Press Office and part of another anti-Nazi group – that the Gestapo was onto him. Von Moltke was sent to a prison in the grounds of the Ravensbrück concentration camp for women. His connection to the Kreisau Circle initially went undiscovered, and he was treated relatively well. He even believed he would be released, he confided in letters to his wife – with whom he had corresponded regularly since the start of 1939.

The couple had met in 1929 at a get-together organized by Eugenie Schwarzwald, a Jewish educator famous for her literary salons in Vienna.

It had been love at first sight, says Caspar von Moltke. The two worldly law students married in Cologne and started a family: Caspar, born in 1937, and his brother Konrad, born three years later.

Although she was also involved with the Kreisau Circle, Freya evaded suspicion and spent the year of her husband’s imprisonment taking the long train journey between Kreisau, where she was based with her sons throughout the war, and Berlin, where she used every political and social connection to try to secure her husband’s release. The general commander of the Gestapo in Berlin saw her twice, Caspar von Moltke reveals. He was polite – but refused to help.

“Hitler’s government, out of deference to our ancestor the field marshal [Helmuth von Moltke the Elder, who helped Chancellor Otto von Bismarck defeat the Austrians] … whom many Nazis considered a hero, didn’t want to harm a von Moltke,” Caspar von Moltke says. “At the end they couldn’t avoid it, because my father had done things they could not accept. But still, they treated him and my mother with respect.”

An excerpt from a letter from Helmuth James to Freya on October 1, 1945.Credit: Courtesy of Helmuth Caspar von Moltke.

Hope that Helmuth von Moltke would be released dissipated after Stauffenberg’s failed attempt on Hitler’s life on July 20, 1944. In its wake, some 5,000 dissidents, including Circle co-founder von Wartenburg – who was a cousin of Stauffenberg – were rounded up by the Gestapo and executed.

Helmuth von Moltke was moved from Ravensbrück to Tegel Prison in Berlin, where his conditions worsened. He was charged with treason, defeatism and attempting to overthrow the regime – not because of Stauffenberg’s plot, which the authorities were unable to tie him to directly, but merely for having discussed a post-Hitler future within the Kreisau Circle.

While his son says it is hard to know what Helmuth von Moltke might have done about the assassination plot if he hadn’t already been in jail when it was hatched and attempted, all the indications suggest he would have been against the idea – for fear of turning Hitler into a martyr and sweeping subsequent retribution against the resistance (which did take place). As proof, Caspar von Moltke recites one of his father’s last letters to his wife: “I never wanted or encouraged acts of violence like July 20. Quite the contrary. I fought preparations being made for them because I disapproved of such measures … for many reasons, and above all because I believed this was not the way to eliminate the fundamental spiritual evil.”

In the final analysis, Caspar von Moltke says, “I think Stauffenberg was right to attempt [the assassination]. But I also think my father was right in thinking [Nazism] had to be burnt out of the German soul. Both were right, in a way.”

Love and soul-searching

The fact that Helmuth von Moltke was able to continue writing freely to Freya from Tegel – albeit often handcuffed while putting pen to the thin sheaves of paper – is highly unusual. It was made possible because, by a stroke of luck, the prison’s longtime chaplain – a priest named Harald Poelchau – was a friend of his and also an undetected member of the Kreisau Circle. Poelchau would stuff von Moltke’s letters in his pockets and smuggle them out of prison. Freya would then come to Poelchau’s home, read the letters, compose her replies and send them back with the priest.

All told, the couple exchanged 176 letters during this period, never knowing whether one might be their last correspondence. Their letters, which were translated into English last year and published as “Last Letters: The Prison Correspondence between Helmuth James and Freya von Moltke, 1944-45,” are filled with love and soul-searching, honest attempts to sift through their fears and understand their fates, and, increasingly, to find solace in their strong Christian faith.

“I was too young to grasp the implications of what had happened,” Caspar von Moltke reflects. “Yes, I saw my mother’s grief. But I also knew she was supported and sustained by the faith in those letters. My parents felt, I believe, that they were under God’s guidance.”

Freya von Moltke, who survived her husband by 65 years, hid the entire correspondence in a beehive at Kreisau and, later, when she and her sons fled – first to Switzerland, then to South Africa and finally, in 1960, to the United States – she took the precious documents with her.

Just prior to passing away at age 98 in 2010, she bequeathed the correspondence to the German Literature Archive in Marbach, granting permission for the letters to be made public after her death. The subsequent book, published by Caspar von Moltke and other members of the family, is dedicated to Poelchau and his wife Dorothee.

Caspar von Moltke, who has two sons of his own and chairs the Freya von Moltke Foundation – which supports reconciliation efforts between Germany and Poland – says he has long stopped trying to unravel which memories of his father are real and which he conjured up from stories and photographs over the years. But the correspondence between his parents has, in a sense, not only given him a father, but guided and kept him company throughout his life.

He has also never forgotten his father’s bravery. As a child growing up in South Africa, Caspar recalls that other kids in the playground would taunt him, the German newcomer with the foreign accent. He would laugh when they called him a Nazi, “and the laughter took the sting out of it,” he says. “I did not take it seriously – I knew it didn’t apply.”

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