Noble Man

Helmuth von Moltke: A Leader Against Hitler

by Michael Balfour and Julian Frisby
St. Martin's Press, 388 pp., $16.50

In the Western-liberal historical assessment of the German resistance to Nazism there has been one tendency which holds in barely concealed contempt, or makes light of, what might be called the upper-class oppositionists, usually pictured as people whose activities centered around the July 20 plot. So strong is the unwillingness to concede to these people any serious merit, or even sympathy, that one gains the impression of a certain real irritation, as though the persons in question had had the ill grace, before dying in their various forms of agony, to confuse the issue by disturbing an otherwise tidy pattern of unadulterated German iniquity (unadulterated anywhere to the right of the communists) with a red herring, designed to mislead simple folk into supposing that there might have been some real enlightenment, some nobility of spirit there after all.

The members of the upper-class opposition are accused of a variety of failings. They were, it is charged, originally collaborators with Nazism, who went into opposition only when they saw that Hitler was going to lose the war. It was nationalism and fear of injury to their class interests that brought them to resistance, not any attachment to democratic ideals. Their grievance against Hitler was only that he promised toward the end to be unsuccessful in realizing Germany’s national aims—that he was jeopardizing, by his strategic and tactical errors, the interests of the large landowners and the industrial tycoons. Therefore, the story runs, the conservative resisters wanted only to succeed him in his power, not to turn it over to the people.

Such views, curiously enough, have been held not only by leftist historians and commentators; in part, at least, they were shared by many upper-class people in England and America—by people, in particular, for whom the First World War had been the great political-emotional experience of life, who had never freed themselves from its slogans and syndromes, and who believed themselves to be still fighting in the Second World War the Prussian Junkerdom they had conceived themselves to be fighting in the First. Both Churchill and Franklin Roosevelt were the victims of this delusion. To them and to many others it seems never to have penetrated consciousness that Nazism was primarily a lower-middle-class movement, that its strongest centers were in Schleswig-Holstein and in nice jolly Bavaria and Austria, and that Berlin—the very heart of Prussia—remained at all times the German city most resistant to the Nazi spirit.

This is not the place to take issue with these views as they relate to conservative or upper-class German resistance (although the subject could well stand further exploration). Suffice it to note here that the subject of the book under review corresponded to none of these stereotypes. Helmuth James von Moltke, who was hanged on January 23, 1945, at the Plötzensee prison by order of the Nazi “People’s Court,” had never at any stage of his life experienced anything other than revulsion for National Socialism. He did not hope for a German victory,…

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