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.

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."

Undermining the Nazis from within

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.

According to media reports on the files, British officials first confused him with his uncle, ambassador to Spain, and the meeting was called off. The second time, MI5 chief David Petrie described it of "enormous psychological interest" but said he needed to see "deeds" rather than "talk," from the German legal official.

In January 1944 Von Moltke was arrested, and executed a year later.

Sunday: a triumph for his widow

Sunday's commemoration was a triumph for Mrs. von Moltke in her long efforts to have her husband's life and ideas better understood. She and former German president Richard von Weizsacker sat together in the front row of a moving service at the French Huguenot church in Berlin. After the service, a young German, Jens Fischer, said he felt Von Moltke's life showed that "resistance to evil things and having a deeper sense of faith aren't separate but actually the same thing, something mutual."

His legacy as a legal thinker

In recent years, Von Moltke's legacy as a legal thinker has risen – especially in Pentagon debates over whether Afghan combatants should receive POW status. As Nazi Germany attacked the Soviet Union, Von Moltke wrote a now-famous memo opposing the Nazi policy to ignore the Geneva and The Hague Conventions for Soviet prisoners, since Moscow was not a signatory. Von Moltke argued it was important to create a "tradition of compliance" with international law, and that good treatment of Soviet prisoners would offer ground for good treatment of German prisoners.

The memo created such a stir in old-line German Army circles, as distinct to Nazi and SS circles, that it required Field Marshal Keitel to finally dismiss it, saying the Geneva Convention was "a product of a notion of chivalry of a bygone era."

"Von Moltke is someone who had a profoundly ethical sense of the lawyer's responsibility to society and to mankind," argues Scott Horton, chair of the New York City bar committee on international law. "The arguments in his memorandum are close to identical to the arguments that are made by Gen. Colin Powell, in the letter he sent to [Attorney General] Alberto Gonzales," in 2002 regarding POWs in the war on terror.

Christian dimension brought to light

A more detailed look at Nazi dissent has brought the Christian dimension of Von Moltke and the Kreisau circle into fuller view. The Kreisau group was made up of theologians, Jesuits, Protestants, and other religious thinkers.

Von Moltke's parents were Christian Scientists; his father was a principal translator of the German-language edition of the sect's "textbook," Science and Health with Key to the Scriptures.

A new biography released last week by scholar Gunter Brakelmann includes new letters by Von Moltke, a diary, and other papers shared for the first time by Freya Von Moltke. Like Dietrich Bonhöffer, the German Lutheran whose famous "Letters from Prison" are now a classic on ethics, faith, and responsibility, Von Moltke's last year, spent at Tegel prison, deepened his sense of the New Testament. The biography shows "how intensively [Von Moltke] devoted himself to the Bible, and what power he drew from it...turning to religion really took place ... in an existential sense," notes a recent review in Die Zeit.

In the 1992 Oscar-nominated documentary film, "Restless Conscience" Von Moltke writes that after his epic trial in January 1945 it was clear to him that the battle he was involved in was between "deeper Christianity" and the "Fuhrerprincip" of National Socialism.

He wrote his wife, "The trial proved all concrete accusations to be untenable, and they were dropped accordingly.... But what the Third Reich is so terrified of ... is ultimately the following: a private individual, your husband, of whom it is established that he discussed with 2 clergymen of both denominations [Protestant and Catholic] ... questions of the practical, ethical demands of Christianity. Nothing else; for that alone we are condemned.... I just wept a little, not because I was sad or melancholy ... but because I am thankful and moved by this proof of God's presence."

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