THIS is one of the great books of the 20th century. It reveals through letters and action what 20th-century art has only hinted at: the whole man. It tells a story of human failure, of overwhelming odds, of patience, and of grace. Standard works on the German resistance to Hitler tell us that Count Helmuth James von Moltke organized his Kreisau Circle around the belief that Hitler's regime was bound to collapse and that a representative cross-section of anti-Nazi German society should prepare plans for reconstruction and be ready to serve (see Peter Hoffman, ``German Resistance to Hitler''). What they don't say is how the Kreisau Circle disappointed Moltke by trying to assassinate Hitler. Moltke was hanged, not like the others, for conspiracy, but for thinking about a better future.
Moltke was a man of action. His great-grandfather, from whom he inherited the family farm-estate at Kreisau, in Poland, was field marshal to Bismarck. His father was a Christian Science teacher and practitioner. His parents translated ``Science and Health with Key to the Scriptures,'' by Mary Baker Eddy, into German, although their children grew up as Lutherans. Moltke was a revered name.
His wife, Freya, to whom he wrote frequently during his years as legal adviser to the German army, was daughter of a Cologne banker and received her law doctorate in 1935. We know her from these letters as the still point in Moltke's strenuous, chaotic life. Awaiting hanging for treason, he wrote to her: ``Only together do we constitute a human being.''
Moltke was not given to sentimental thinking or writing. Freya was essential to this essential man. When it became clear that he had done nothing illegal, the court heard the truth from the prosecution: ``... one thing Christianity and we National Socialists have in common, and only one: we demand the whole man.''
Moltke's wholeness depended on Freya. As Moltke labored to apply international law to the Nazi regime in Berlin, Freya ran the farm and reared their children. He wrote in November 1943: ``Every evening, when the air raids start ... I think, full of tenderness, that your sons are now sleeping soundly and you are probably seated peacefully at your desk. And that's enormously comforting.''
Moltke was a true patriot. He never betrayed his country. By arguing for hours, sometimes days, he helped save the lives of a few neutrals, a few prisoners-of-war, a few Jews - or helped extend their lives for a few days. And he was hanged for treason.
But Moltke was no ascetic. These letters taste and smell of the good things of this world: beautiful scenery, good food, music, friendship, love.
An understanding of Moltke's wholeness requires us to salvage a much abused word: aesthetics. Moltke was an aesthete. True, he believed that ``whoever knows at all times the difference between good and evil and does not doubt it, however great the triumph of evil seems to be, has laid the first stone for the overcoming of evil.'' But the letters make it abundantly clear that Moltke's principles - the first principles of human civilization and progress - were nourished by a refined gusto toward beautiful things and would have shriveled without it. He wrote to Freya, ``man's function is to beautify the world.''
And two months before his trial he wrote about fellow prisoners ``who beautified the summer.'' Singing and whistling Mozart, watering the flowers: These things made beautiful this pit of the spirit.
In words glowing with true aristocratic blood, he writes to Freya about ``the questions of form.'' He says that ``form is absolutely essential and not accidental.... Without form, particularly dogma, there is no way of enquiring closely into content; it remains vague mysticism.... There is a curious and unwise lack of modesty in the opinion that one can dispense with generally valid forms and make one's own....''
At the height of negotiations with Hitler, he wrote to Freya that gathering like-minded men gave the days ``an aura of blissful transfiguration ... in some respects this transfiguration is more important than the concrete result.'' This is crucial and hard to swallow. An aesthetic experience may transcend in importance a practical result of human action, even though it may seem a byproduct of activity toward some concrete goal.
The aesthetic attitude is part of ``the virtue hardest to acquire'' - patience. Without the experience of beauty, patience becomes superhuman. There are many beautiful pages about patience in these letters. In August of 1943, as the Reich began to crumble and murderous paranoia ruled the day, he wrote to Freya: ``My love, chaos was coming now and our watchword must be: patiencia victrix.'' He gained strength from thinking about Freya at Kreisau.
When Moltke discovered that some of his circle planned an assassination and coup d''etat, he wrote to Freya: ``I can do nothing but wait. I am too firmly convinced that there is nothing else to be done to have any faith in the business of the others.'' Two years later he was hanged with the others.
In his final days in prison, Moltke's aesthetic, principled, active life was fulfilled in an act of divine grace. He wrote Freya: ``No, I don't occupy myself with the good God at all or with my death. He has the inexpressible grace to come to me and to occupy Himself with me. Is that pride? Perhaps. But he will forgive me so much tonight, that I may finally ask Him for forgiveness for this last piece of pride too.'' Written not without the saving grace of good humor! Then he cites the Bible passages he's been reading.
In this last letter, for the first time, this supremely intelligent, moral, sensitive man does the human thing: ``I just wept a little,'' he tells Freya, ``not because I was sad or melancholy, not because I want to return, but because I am thankful and moved by this proof of God's presence.''
``Letters to Freya,'' which will be available in bookstores later this month, reveals more than a very great man. It reveals the possibilities for humanity in our time.
These letters illustrate - they define, illumine, and celebrate - the profound Christian truth that, in the words of the Swiss theologian Hans Urs von Balthasar, ``it is not by means of one isolated faculty that man is open, in knowledge and in love, to the Thou, to things and to God: it is as a whole [through all his faculties] that man is attuned to total reality.''
These letters put us in touch with this whole. Moltke was not an artist, but his letters to Freya constitute a great work of art.