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Third Reich dissidents

March 29, 2011

Freya von Moltke bravely defied the Nazi regime, together with her husband, who was executed for his resistance. Today, their son Helmuth Caspar von Moltke continues their quest to promote peace and understanding.

Helmuth Caspar and Freya von Moltke in August, 2009
The von Moltke family are still devoted to Polish-German reconciliationImage: Dorothea von Haeften

Freya von Moltke (March 29, 1911 - January 1, 2010) was a participant in the Kreisau Circle anti-Nazi resistance group, together with her husband Helmuth James Graf von Moltke. They were based in the Silesian town of Krzyzowa (German: Kreisau), which now belongs to Poland. Helmuth James Graf von Moltke was tried and executed by the Nazis for treason before World War II came to an end. Their son Helmuth Caspar von Moltke spoke with Deutsche Welle on the 100th anniversary of his mother's birth.

Deutsche Welle: From September 1944 until his execution on January 23, 1945, your father was detained in the Tegel jail in Berlin. During this time, your parents wrote letters to each other frequently. They were very young - 33 and 38 years old. What was the source of their inner strength in this extreme situation?

Helmuth Caspar von Moltke: They were under the conviction that the Third Reich must be opposed. In 1940, Adolf Hitler was celebrating his greatest triumphs and that made my parents very depressed. For them, it was an unjust regime. This is why they put up resistance and knew from the beginning that this could lead to imprisonment and execution.

At the same time, their Christian faith became increasingly important to them. The letters show that faith was the focus for my father in the last months. He read three Bible chapters every day in jail, and my mother did the same. And they both drew strength from the thought that they were under God's guidance and had to live these last months according to the words "Thy will be done."

Together with your sister-in-law, Ulrike von Moltke, you published these letters in a book and had to engage with the material professionally. How do you read these letters today: from the perspective of a publisher or as a personal document?

For me, it's still a deeply moving and harrowing document. I was familiar with my father's letters from this time, but I had never read my mother's. She never really rubbed them in our faces. We transcribed these letters after her death and matched them chronologically with those of our father, creating a dialog between them. And this touched me a lot. They managed to maintain a very close, intimate, affectionate and even cheerful dialogue through the walls of the Tegel jail.

In 1944, you were a child living with your bother Konrad in Krzyzowa. Your mother traveled constantly between Krzyzowa and Berlin, doing everything to prevent your father's execution. She had to manage the property and provide for the family during wartime. What personal memories do you have of this period?

Despite everything, I was absorbed in the childhood life that I was living in Silesia. The war meant that many young people were sent to the country and we accommodated some families in our residence - some relatives and some of them members of the Kreisau Circle [resistance group].

I had many other children around me and I was naturally more occupied with this than anything else. I was interested in my father's fate, but every day all those children were there and took my mind off things.

Freya von Moltke with her sons Helmuth Caspar (left) and Konrad
Despite the war, Helmuth Caspar (left) and brother Konrad enjoyed a happy childhood in SilesiaImage: Helmuth Caspar von Moltke

After World War II, resistance against National Socialism was not a topic of public debate at first. How did your mother feel about this?

My mother always had the goal of carrying my father's story into the future. She wanted to make sure that what my father and his friends thought in these years was not forgotten. Of course, the Federal Republic of Germany was not open-minded toward these things in the first two decades after the war, but we weren't too bothered by it - we believed it would eventually happen. And it did happen. Throughout my life I have felt that the German resistance and my father were increasingly recognized and respected by the German public.

Reconciliation with Poland was an important issue for your mother later on. She made sure that a meeting place - the Krzyzowa Endowment for European Understanding - was established. Is this also your mission?

Yes, this is extremely important for me. Already in 1989, various events and a reconciliatory Mass took place. In 1998, the new meeting place was opened by then-Chancellor Helmut Kohl and Poland's Prime Minister Jerzy Buzek.

We have always followed these activities with great interest. From the start we realized that reconciliation with Poland would be one of Germany's most important tasks after the fall of the Berlin Wall. And so we involved ourselves a lot in it, especially my mother. I signed an agreement in early years, giving up my rights to any property in Poland. I actively supported the integration of Poland and Germany into the European Union. Today, I am still chairman of the Freya von Moltke Foundation. We set up this foundation about six years ago and it provides financial support for the meeting place in Krzyzowa.

March 29 marks the 100th anniversary of Freya von Moltke's birth. On this occasion, events are being organized in her city of birth, Cologne. What message do you connect with this date?

I believe my mother always wanted to convey two messages. Firstly, that people should personally oppose and stand up against unfair regimes. This resistance is important to the preservation of democracy and civil rights. Secondly, it depends on the young people. The young people who meet in Krzyzowa today can hopefully find something good in the past and take that with them into the future.

My mother was not so interested in how the past is analyzed by historians - she was focused on the future. With the meeting place in Krzyzowa we have achieved just that.

Interview: Cornelia Rabitz / ew

Editor: Kate Bowen