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Difference Maker

Son of an anti-Nazi hero uses family estate to nurture democracy and rule of law

Helmuth Caspar von Moltke, son of an anti-Nazi hero, uses the family estate in Poland to teach teenagers about democracy and protecting human rights.

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For more than a century until the Treaty of Versailles in 1918, Russia, Prussia, and Austria had repeatedly divided and reconfigured Poland between themselves. Later, Nazi Germany made no secret of its intention to erase Poland and its people from the map. As a border region between Poland and Germany, Lower Silesia symbolized the deep tensions between the two countries long after it was given to Poland in 1945. There, Poles' distrust and fear of Russia and Germany remained deeply anchored.

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Then in the months before the Berlin Wall came down in 1989, a small group of Polish and East German intellectuals and theologians drew inspiration and strength from the story of Kreisau in their own struggle to build a new post-communist Europe.

"Helmuth James struggled with how to think freely, and to think about a new Europe in a context [under Hitler] where it wasn't possible to think freely," says Wolfram Bürger, a theology student in East Germany and now a pastor in Berlin. "He rethought Europe at a time when there was no hope that Europe could ever have a positive future.

"For us, young theology students, that was a mind-boggling thing," says Mr. Bürger, who led the move to create the nonprofit New Kreisau Center. "In a context of a deeply anchored status quo of the East-West divide, to be thinking in terms of beyond this divide was revolutionary."

On Nov. 12, 1989, three days after the Berlin Wall came tumbling down, Poland's Tadeusz Mazowiecki, who had just become the first noncommunist head of government in Eastern Europe, and then-German Chancellor Helmut Kohl chose Kreisau to hold a celebration of a reconciliation mass between their countries. They committed 30 million deutsch marks ($17 million) to restore the former Moltke estate.

Once she was reassured that Kreisau would be a European, not just a German, initiative, Freya backed the project. In the words of Jürgen Telschow, a lawyer in Frankfurt who became the first chairman of the Kreisau foundation, she was "Kreisau's guardian angel."

"New Kreisau profits immensely from the fact that the Moltke family is behind the effort," Mr. Telschow says. "It opens doors and sources that might otherwise be closed."

"Caspar continues a mission strongly associated with his mother," says Bürger, the Berlin pastor. "It is good and important because, through Freya, Konrad, and now Caspar, the name Helmuth James von Moltke stands for an open future for Europe and a world that hinges on the rule of law and on the protection of human rights."

In the 1920s young Helmuth James had tried to improve horrendous conditions in Silesia's coal mines by living and working there as part of a youth camp organized by his teacher, Eugene Rosenstock-Huessy.

The experience taught him the value of sharing viewpoints and making compromises to bring about change. During the Third Reich, his youth camp friends – aristocrats and trade unionists, Protestants and Roman Catholics – made up the Kreisau Circle. "If I don't do something that sustains my hope. I won't be able to stand it," Helmuth James wrote to Freya.

As counselor to the German Army's high command, Helmuth James fought for compliance with international law and the fair treatment of prisoners. He wrote about the psychological suffering of German soldiers involved in mass killings of Jews and Eastern Europeans. "His idea was that the criminals of the Nazi periods should be judged by an international court," Moltke says.

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