The correspondence of Freya and Helmuth Von Moltke in the four months he was incarcerated by the Nazis awaiting trial, sentence and inevitable execution reveal a bravery and spirit, a sense of hope for humanity’s future that can only bolster a reader’s optimism. This is an uplifting book. The Von Moltkes were of a certain class and background, traditional and conservative, not at all similar to most of the victims of the Nazis but they were prepared to stand up to tyranny on behalf everyone and face the consequences. As long as people are prepared to do that dark times will always pass, which is not to underestimate the tragedy of the Third Reich.
This deeply touching collection of letters written in the most extreme and awful circumstances reveal a strength, a love and a faith that exemplify the very best of humanity. The letters of Freya and Helmuth Von Moltke, written in the certain knowledge that the Nazis would kill him (it was only a matter of how long they would have before it happened) are poignant and brave. We see two people willing to stand up for what they believe in and speak out for the hope of a better world. Freya and Helmuth share a love that gifts each other the courage to go on, to face the future or to face death. They comfort each other, laugh and cry together, share hope and pray together. Theirs is a profound faith that is the bed rock of their strength, an unshakeable belief that even an atheist will recognise as a positive force in their lives.
Helmuth Von Moltke fell victim to the increasing paranoia and depravity of the Nazi regime in the wake of the Von Stauffenberg plot in 1944 and the imminent defeat in war. Von Moltke was opposed to the idea of assassinating Adolf Hitler, it was something he couldn’t contemplate as a committed Christian. Perhaps he would have been approached by the plotters of the 20th July were he not already imprisoned. Von Moltke was disturbed to be accused of the plot. If he was to die he wanted it to be for something he did but any denial or revelation would reflect on his own resistance group, the Kreisau circle, which included his wife. His friend Peter Graf von Wartenberg, part of the Kreisau circle, joined the bomb plot and was subsequently murdered by the Nazis. Guilt by association being enough for the regime.
Freya and Helmuth were a young married couple, both student lawyers, when the Nazis came to power in 1933, and they opposed the regime from that moment on. Helmuth often advised Jewish clients to leave the country and later used his post as legal council to the army to obtain information on Gestapo and army deportations and raids on the Jewish population.
At Tegel, Helmuth and Freya’s meetings were limited, Helmuth was permanently handcuffed (he apologises for his handwriting in the first letter, this may have been to reassure Freya that he was not ill and had not been tortured). Helmuth was charged with treason, defeatism, and attempted overthrow of the regime. He had initially been arrested for warning a friend that the Gestapo had a spy in a meeting critical of the regime. That friend was murdered too.
Unusually after the charge was issued the mock trial and execution did not follow rapidly. That four-month incarceration between September 1944 and January 1945 allowed Helmuth and Freya to correspond. The one stroke of luck they had was that the chaplain Harold Poelchau was a friend and a member of the Kreisau circle. In total, he smuggled 176 letters back and fore between the couple, he would have been executed if he was caught. To avoid detection Freya kept all the letters in a bee hive at their house, after reading Freya’s letters Helmuth handed them back to the chaplain. That is how they are now housed at the German literary archive in Marbach, when Freya died in 2010 the letters were released by the family.
The work of the Kreisau circle prepared for a better judiciary, new laws, a democratic future for Germany. With that sense of the dramatic that fascism seems to revel in, Helmuth faced a show trial on 1/1/45. He was executed on 23rd January. Freya survived Helmuth by 65 years. Kreisau is now in Poland and the Kreisau Foundation for Mutual Understanding was established in 1990.
The first letter from Freya on 29th September, 1944.
“My Jäm, my love, my husband, my dearest beloved.”
“How much beauty and delight will I have to contemplate when you are no longer alive! I’ll grow old and I’ll change, but you will always remain inside me until I may die and find you again, one way or another . . .”
Freya speaks of her delight that Helmuth did not die by a random allied bomb during a raid, his death at the hands of the Nazis will have meaning. She assures him that even if communism follows the family will survive.
Helmuth to Freya 30/9/44. He tells her he is shackled but well:
“My love I’m so certain of my cause, I’m so firmly anchored, that God willing, I will not for a moment lack the strength I’ll need. I believe you can rely on that. . .”
Helmuth 1/10/44. Expresses his confidence in Freya and in the future for her and the boys. He offers his thoughts on the Stauffenberg plot and his unhappiness to be accused of something he didn’t approve. He speaks of God’s will and of his trust in Freya knowing what is right for her and the boys.
Freya 4/10/44. She replies that she may not be told by Helmuth how to live in the future but she will be guided by his spirit.
Helmuth also wrote a couple of letters to their boys Caspar and Konrad, something they could read when older:
“I have always fought against the spirit of narrow-mindedness and violence, of arrogance and lack of respect for others, intolerance and an absolute and an absolute and merciless stringency, which is inherent in the Germans and has found expression in the National Socialist state.”
He then discusses the legal case.
Helmuth 17th Oct (tomorrow is their 13th wedding anniversary):
“My dear, tomorrow is the 18th, and I’ll probably live to see it, come what may. My dear love, what a happy day for us, a happiness, a grace that nothing can destroy. . .”
From here on I have not dated the letters:
Helmuth: “The things you brought yesterday were delightful. But don’t take any more chocolate away from your little sons for the sake of your gluttonous husband.”
Freya wrote her letters at chaplain Poelchau’s house in Berlin before returning home to the country and her children. We hear of the progress of the case, allied bombing and his rheumatism (finally the shackles are removed).
Freya: “Of course you’re fearful about the trial, my dear. I shudder to think what that means for you and what the day will take out of you, but my Jäm, I know that you can ride it out with god’s help. . .”
Helmuth encourages her to go home for Christmas (they now know he won’t be executed yet), Freya replies: “No my love I don’t want to go away from you.”
On January 1st 1945, Count Von Moltke was declared an enemy of the National Socialist Reich and sentenced to death.
Helmuth: “Sometimes I think about the fate of our long written conversations, and whether you and the little sons will find them worth reading after ten, twenty or more years.”
Roland Freisler, State Secretary in the Reich Ministry of Justice and President of the People’s Court: “Do you understand that you are guilty? Helmuth replies – no. “. . . it shows that you think differently and have thus excluded yourself from the warring national community.”
Freya: “So if you should die without my knowledge, I am with you nonetheless.”
The last letter dated 23/1 from Freya was never delivered. Helmuth and Freya met in 1929. After his murder the British evacuated Freya and her boys to Berlin, she moved to Switzerland then South Africa but hated apartheid and came back to Germany in 1956, after marrying in 1960 the family moved to America.
Each letter was a goodbye because neither knew when it might end. The deep love shines through every page, as does their fortitude and endurance. This story of courage is an important historical document. A testament to the better angels of humanity, a powerful and heart breaking read.
Paul Burke 4/4
Last Letters: The Prison Correspondence 1944-1945 by Freya and Helmuth Von Moltke
The New York Review of Books 9781681373812 pbk Sep 2019