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Noble Man

Helmuth von Moltke: A Leader Against Hitler

by Michael Balfour, by 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, even against Russia; on the contrary, he viewed defeat, albeit with no illusion concerning its horrors, as an unavoidable stage of transition to a more sane and hopeful Germany. (“Europe after the war,” he wrote in 1942, “is less a problem of frontiers and soldiers, of top-heavy organizations or grand plans, but…a question of how the picture of man can be reestablished in the breasts of our fellow-citizens.”)

It did not take the military reverses of the post-1941 period to convince Moltke that the war was going to be lost. On the contrary, it was he, the German, who in the dark days of 1940 and 1941, even before the attack on Russia, had to sustain in me, the American, the belief not just in the possibility but in the certainty of an Allied victory. He did not act out of any attachment to his own material interests or to those of German land-owners as a class; on the contrary, he held large landownership to be a thing of the past, which had no place in the future Germany.

Nor was the choice of his political associations in any way limited to conservatives. He laid great weight on finding an accommodation, intellectually and politically, with the socialists; and in so far as the conspiratorial circumstances of his activity permitted, he achieved it. Carlo Mierendorff, Adolf Reichwein, and Theo Haubach were all members of his small circle. He and Haubach, the most militant socialist of them all, were comrades in death from the same scaffold.

Moltke was, finally, anything but a nationalist. He had reconciled himself inwardly, even in the early stages of the war, though naturally with a heavy heart, to the losses of German territory with which he thought the war was bound to end. It was the image of a united Europe—a Europe in which Germany, or individual parts of Germany, would play a constructive but self-effacing role—that dominated his vision.

Moltke’s career, like his political personality, fell into no known category. He was, of course, the scion of a distinguished, though not rich, family—a grandson of the brother of the celebrated field marshal of similar name. Born in 1907, he had grown up on the family estate of Kreisau, from which his political-intellectual circle was eventually to take its name. His father was German, his mother British. Having been educated in the law, both in Germany and in England, he became, at the outset of the war, a legal counselor in the Foreign Countries Division of that curious German military-intelligence unit, so full of suppressed anti-Nazism—the Abwehr. There were limitations on what anyone could do from such a position; but there is ample evidence that Moltke, being a resourceful man and a good bureaucratic in-fighter, used the position most effectively, at no small risk to himself, to moderate the harshness of German conduct both in the prosecution of military operations and in the treatment of Jews and non-Germans of all categories. Hundreds, if not thousands, of those who survived the war unquestionably owed that survival to him.

This was, however, the smaller part of his contribution. The larger part consisted in his initiative in gathering around him a loose circle of like-minded people (later to be known as the Kreisau circle) and pursuing with them a systematic and searching examination of the principles, political and institutional, on which German society would have to be reconstructed in the wake of the demise of National Socialism, if it were to develop along decent and hopeful lines. To this same end he cultivated, partly through such correspondence as he could smuggle out to friends in England and partly through clandestine meetings with two or three foreign representatives in Berlin (myself included), communication with people on the other side of the battle lines, particularly with regard to the great problems of postwar reconstruction. The planning for a post-Nazi Germany went to the point of out-lining the constitutional shape of a prospective new regime and even identifying the individuals who might be expected to be suitable, and available, for the senior positions in it.

All this was, of course, from the standpoint of the Nazis, defeatism, conspiracy, and treason of the most appalling sort—enough, had they known of it, to justify in their eyes Moltke’s execution many times over. At no time did he have illusions about the risk he was incurring.

Although the regime was probably never aware of the full extent of Moltke’s conspiratorial activities, he was arrested, in January, 1944, on the serious but not necessarily fatal charge of having warned others that they were in danger of arrest. Being in confinement from that time on, he had no opportunity to participate in the July 20 plot, and could not be accused of having done so. It is doubtful that he would have done so even if he had been at large, in view of his principled rejection of assassination as a method of political action. 1 Nevertheless, several of the members of his circle did so participate. The shock of July 20, furthermore, caused Hitler to fall back on the most savage and fanatical of his followers. There ensued a general hardening of procedure against political opponents of every sort. Testimony collected, presumably under torture, from persons arrested in connection with the July 20 affair revealed more about Moltke’s activities than had previously been known. On January 9-10, he was arraigned before the People’s Court (Volksgericht).

The “trial” was, of course, a mere formality. The sentence was death, and execution followed in a matter of days. In the intervening days, however, Moltke wrote to his wife and managed to have smuggled out to her (by the prison pastor, Poelchau, who was actually a member of his circle) three immensely moving and impressive letters, included in the book under review, which take their place today among the great documents of faith and hope from the Nazi period.

The work by Balfour and Frisby does not represent the first treatment, in the published literature, of Moltke’s person and activity. The letters from the death cell were published soon after the end of the war.2 Records of some of the discussions in his circle and individual items of attendant documentation have been reproduced in various German historical series. His role has been given attention in a number of works on the July 20 affair as well as in the memoirs of survivors of that affair and of participants in his own circle. Above all, there is the excellent and exhaustive work on the Kreisau circle by the Dutch scholar Ger van Roon, a work which includes useful biographical sketches of all the leading participants, including Moltke.3

But the new book by Michael Balfour and Julian Frisby is the first full-fledged biography.4 They drew copiously on the hundreds of letters from Moltke to his wife which the latter had contrived to conceal and preserve. To the story of Moltke’s own experience, there is appended a vivid account by Countess Moltke of her fate and that of their children in the ensuing period of German defeat, including the swallowing up of their Silesian home, first by the invading Russian forces, then by the new masters—the Poles. This account deserved publication in its own right, and adds, in a curious, posthumous way, to the picture of the man himself.

As a biography, the work is faithful, if not distinguished. It gives the essential facts, in so far as the available record reveals them. It was probably not meant to do more. It will take an analytical study of a different order to clarify all the complexities of experience and reaction in this unusual man, whose reserved personality was often enigmatic even to contemporaries who knew him well, and to place this experience firmly in his time. But the authors, in giving this account of his career, and in showing how a scattered and apparently aimless pattern of earlier interests and activities led logically to a wholly tragic conclusion which was also one of great pathos and beauty, have performed a useful and important historical service.

Why important? Moltke was, of course, only one of millions of persons who met their deaths at the hands of Nazi executioners. Was there anything sufficiently unusual about this one fate to justify a book of this nature?

There was. In the first place Moltke’s experience was unique. He belonged to none of the great categories of people, notably Jews, communists, radical socialists, and Poles, preselected and marked out for persecution, degradation, or destruction by the regime. He could easily have survived the war had he elected to do so—and this without even blemishing his record as a sincere, principled, and courageous anti-Nazi. His acceptance of martyrdom was his own choice. This, be it hastily said, did not make his sufferings greater, or his sacrifice more noble, than those of other victims. He would have been the last to raise any such claim. In the infinity of pain and deprivation that attends great cruelties, there is no place for comparisons of degree. His was simply a different way—not more tragic, merely distinct.

Moltke’s activity in the resistance was distinguished by its concentration on thought rather than on action. This was not the product of any fear of the possible consequences of action, nor of any disrespect for action as such. It was a reflection of his having recognized the limitations on the possibilities for effective action at a given moment, and of a belief that taking thought, seriously and systematically, about different courses and prospective consequences of action was the responsibility of anyone contemplating it. His course was not necessarily the right one for another man; for him, given his temperament and inclinations, it was. It was with pride that he pointed out to his wife, in one of the last letters, that “we are to be hung for thinking together.”

Again, let me defend him from any assumptions of superiority in this respect. He viewed this circumstance only as a mark of good fortune, because he felt that it clarified, in his case, the issue. He took comfort in his final hours in the thought that he and his associates were to be killed “for something which (a) we really have done, and which (b) is worthwhile.”

Secondly, the body of thought embraced in the surviving records and documents of the Kreisau circle—thought not just about Germany’s future but about the problems of modern society generally—is rare, if not unique, in the annals of the German, and indeed the European, resistance. The communists, of course, had their ideological blueprints of a future society; but these were drawn from a rigid orthodoxy of long standing, and were not materially affected by the war itself. The authors of the July 20 conspiracy, in so far as they were not members of the Kreisau circle, tended to act from inherited standards of quite a different sort. For the martyrs of resistance in the occupied countries, the dream of a restored national independence was usually enough. Moltke and his associates were unique, in Germany at least, in their effort to forge a new vision of the future out of the very experience of Nazi terror and war. The careful reader of the chapter “Plans” in the work at hand will not fail to note how many of Europe’s future problems, all the way from the Nuremberg trials to the Common Market, already loomed in the vision of these men, for whom anguish and danger removed all temptation to trivial or pompous thinking.

I find this record important, finally, as a moving and revealing example of the sort of dilemma which honorable men can find themselves faced with in difficult times—dilemmas so cruel that death can sometimes appear as the only logical way out; and of the loneliness in which, on occasions at least, these dilemmas have to be faced. Moltke must have known, no less than did some of the July 20 conspirators, how little understandable, how little forgivable, in the eyes of many Germans would be these or any other political efforts predicated on the acceptance of German defeat in a great war—particularly, after 1941, a war against Russia.

He must, on the other hand, have been no less deeply affected by the failure of the Allied governments to permit any response to his repeated attempts, during the war, to get into touch with his friends in England. Those friendships meant a great deal to him. It was partly his faith in the community of feeling among men of decency and good will everywhere that had given him the strength to take the position he did in the face of the Nazi tyranny. To find this faith rebuffed at the hands of his English friends—to be denied, as it appeared, even their moral support in those years of agonizing struggle: this must, one would think, have been the hardest and most bitter cut of all.

But on top of all this one is conscious of a great personal solitude in the man himself. This had nothing to do with the relations with his family, which were ones of deepest devotion and mutual confidence. But even among his associates in the Kreisau circle he had always shouldered, cheerfully and naturally, the peculiar loneliness of responsible leadership. When he was arrested the circle soon disintegrated; there was no one to replace him. Prison, trial, and condemnation were only the culmination of this solitude.

He was fortunate in being able to fall back, at all times, on a deep religious faith—a vision of Christianity broad, tolerant, and all-embracing, like that of Pasternak, in the range of its charity. It had served him well in earlier years; its importance as a guide to his entire reaction to Nazism should in fact not be underrated. But it was of course most important to him as the final shadows fell; and never was the strength he drew from it more impressive. “Right to the end,” wrote a fellow prisoner who inhabited the same death house and observed him in those moments, “he was completely free in soul, friendly, helpful, considerate, a truly free and noble man amid all the trappings of horror.”

  1. 1

    Murder,” he once said, “is always a crime.” And again: “We have no right to complain about the innumerable murders in the concentration camps if we are prepared to commit murder ourselves.” He accepted the propriety of an attempt to remove Hitler by force, but not his cold-blooded assassination.

  2. 2

    The English edition, which was the first to be published, was entitled: A German of the Resistance: The Last Letters of Count Helmuth James von Moltke (Oxford University Press, 1946). A German edition followed some years later.

  3. 3

    Ger van Roon, Neuordnung im Widerstand. Der Kreisauer Kreis innerhalb der deutschen Widerstandsbewegung (Munich: Oldenbourg Verlag, 1967). A shortened English version appeared in 1971 under the title, German Resistance to Hitler: Count von Moltke and the Kreisau Circle (Van Nostrand Reinhold).

  4. 4

    Michael Balfour is Professor of European History in the University of East Anglia. He is the author of several works on recent German history, including The Kaiser and His Times and The Four-Power Control in Germany and Austria, 1945-1946. Julian Frisby is a long-standing friend of the Moltke family and a one-time guest at Kreisau.

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