Moral legacy of Nazi resister takes root in Germany – and abroad
As Germany's long, often-praised reconciliation with its Nazi past digs deeper, it brings forward characters such as Christian Nazi resister Helmuth James von Moltke.Skip to next paragraph
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On his centenary anniversary Sunday, German Chancellor Angela Merkel praised him as a symbol of "European courage" and for having a vision of a democratic Europe far ahead of its time.
Mr. Von Moltke, descendant of one of Germany's greatest military generals, was executed in 1945 for collaborating against Hitler, partly as the guiding spirit of the Kreisau Circle, a collection of German intellectuals, theologians, and aristocrats committed to ending Hitler's rule and rebuilding Germany.
His commemoration signifies Germany's persistent efforts to face its Nazi past, an effort now praised as a model of reconciliation at a time when Germany holds the EU presidency. The tribute showed a deeper phase of that reconciliation by highlighting the life of a Christian dissenter whose hidden role and clear thinking in the midst of Nazi atrocities is getting more attention in historical, legal, and religious circles.
Along with greater awareness of figures like Von Moltke, Germany is now in a phase of war-era memory that includes the plight of millions of Germans forced to leave Poland after the war. A TV movie last week, Die Flucht, "The Escape" – has been hotly debated here.
"The Germans have done due diligence in looking at history in recent years through education and films, and are a model in some ways," argues Timothy Ryback, codirector of the history and reconciliation project at the Salzburg Seminar in Austria. "The caveat is that Germans can make more of the wartime dissent than was actually present.... For the most part, the German people did not try to topple a tyrant. They loved Hitler."
Working from the midst of military intelligence in Berlin, Von Moltke took great risks by being at the center of intense debates over how and whether to kill Hitler. After the war, Germans found courage in those who carried out the failed July 20, 1944, coup plot to kill Hitler.
"After the war, the coup was something to build on," says a German foreign ministry source, though it was only in 2004 that Germany recognized the coup attempt.
But Von Moltke represented a different path. He warned that the plot would make a martyr of Hitler if it succeeded. And if it failed, it would expose the tiny band of anti-Nazis at a time when the war was already lost – robbing Germany of those individuals best able to rebuild the state.
His warnings were prescient; some 5,000 dissidents were rounded up by the Gestapo and executed after the failed coup led by Klaus von Stauffenberg on Hitler.
Von Moltke focused instead on opportunities to undermine the Nazi apparatus from within. As legal counsel for the Abwehr, a military intelligence office, Von Moltke was in a position to early inform trusted friends about the dimensions of the war and the Jewish extermination camps. He got Jews safely deported through legal channels. He wrote some of the few reports on the psychological disturbances of German soldiers forced to kill Jews and Eastern Europeans en masse.
In October 1941, as the war hit full pitch, he wrote to his wife, Freya von Moltke, that: "In one area in Serbia two villages have been reduced to ashes.... In Greece 220 men of one village have been shot.... In France there are extensive shootings while I write. Certainly more than a thousand people are murdered in this way every day and another thousand German men are habituated to murder.... May I know this and yet sit at my table in my heated flat and have tea? ... What shall I say when I am asked: And what did you do during that time.... How can anyone know these things and still walk around free?"
Dissent in Nazi Germany required enormous discipline, notes Mrs. Von Moltke, now 96. On trips inside Nazi-occupied Europe, her husband pursued contacts with resistance figures. Britain's recently declassified files show that Von Moltke tried twice to contact "trusted Britishers" during the war. He reached out to friends from his days at Oxford, stating he would "go to any length" to assist Allied authorities.