In 2020, it is not difficult to find books, podcasts, and other media about resisting fascism and living in a political dystopia. But not all “resistance” manuals are created equal. One recent addition should be lauded for offering more than a simple picture of oppression.
In Last Letters: The Prison Correspondence 1944–1945, Shelley Frisch faithfully translates a compilation of letters between Helmuth von Moltke and his wife, Freya, written between September 1944 and January 1945. The letters were exchanged during the months that Helmuth was in Tegel prison, in Berlin, and were carried in secret by the prison chaplain, Harald Polechau. The Moltkes’ stoic refusal to give in to spiritual or moral defeat, even in the face of Helmuth’s death, is striking.
Count Helmuth von Moltke was a law student in Berlin when Hitler rose to power in January 1933. Helmuth was the great-grand-nephew of the Prussian field marshal Helmuth von Moltke the elder, a celebrated military commander, and was the great nephew of Helmuth von Moltke the younger, a German general during World War I.
In 1940, Helmuth and his wife, Freya, were rearing two young sons and tending to an apiary and gardens on their familial estate in Kreisau when he founded a resistance group against the Nazis, the Kreisau Circle, that was composed of individuals with an array of different religious and political beliefs — Protestants, Catholics, social democrats, liberals, and conservatives.
Helmuth formed the Kreisau Circle despite the fact that the Moltkes were a respected family that could have continued to live relatively comfortably under the Nazis. Members of the group laid plans for the social and political organization of Germany after the Nazis lost World War II, which, they assumed, was inevitable.
Helmuth had been conscripted to serve as a lawyer for the Wehrmacht, but he devoted as many hours of his days as he could to fighting the “internal war” against Nazism. He was arrested by the Gestapo in January 1944.
The letters can be heartbreaking to read, and mundane and repetitive at times (Helmuth and Freya write every letter with the fear that it will be their last), but also remarkably hopeful and insightful. Although after the guilty verdict at Helmuth’s eventual trial, he is effectively doomed, their deeper hope that their sacrifices had not all been in vain threads each letter. Freya writes, “This letter is neither an end nor a beginning, but merely one of the many seals on something far more beautiful and enduring, for which there are no proper words.”
Helmuth spent his time in jail writing, committing Psalms and Bible verses to memory, and planning his court defense. Many of the letters are devoted to the Moltkes’ dealings with bureaucrats in their efforts to secure clemency for Helmuth. In this horrible circumstance the Moltkes’ patience is incredible. Freya remarks of one Attorney Weismann: “He’s not wickedness personified. There’s no such thing. They worship their Baal with an absolutely clear conscience and conviction.”
These letters reveal Helmuth’s courage in the face of an imminent death, and they also give us insight into the fear that can plague even the intrepid. All the Moltkes had was the strength of their convictions, shared by their small circle of trusted fellow dissidents. They did not have institutional support or broader social approval. Without these letters, there would be few artifacts of their heroism.
At the outset of the prison correspondence, Helmuth uses a great deal of religious language, abandoning himself to the care of God. Freya does not immediately respond with similar sentiments. More deeply rooted in the earth than Helmuth is, she writes that she is “not a spiritual person but more like a growing plant in the world.” She devotes herself to her husband, children, and the Kreisau Circle not for transcendental reasons but because these loves offer her a nourishing soil. Freya writes that she has taken every word of Helmuth’s consolations and “brought it deep within me, and from there the words keep rising back up.”
Rather than seeing death as something to escape or avoid as long as possible, Helmuth sees the end of life as a fixed pole that can help guide one and effectively teach one how to do good and live justly. One follows a path that leads with certainty to death, and that fixed path itself can give one a sense of proportionality and help one see what should take precedence. Helmuth writes to Freya that “a realistic knowledge of death separates everything into large and small, important and unimportant.” Being close to death, rather than embittering them against their enemies or inflating them with a sense of superiority, lent the Moltkes a greater moral clarity.
At first Freya expresses some doubts about religion. She freely admits that she “doesn’t have any notions about life after death,” but she consoles Helmuth by writing that he will “die for something worth dying for.” Even without religion, Freya happily makes sacrifices and demonstrates a great capacity for compassion, and as the letters progress she grows in her belief that God’s “love is great and He is simply far greater than our own hearts.”
Ultimately it is faith, not any earthly comfort or recognition, that bolsters them. Quoting Hebrews 11:1, Helmuth writes to Freya that “‘Conviction is the vital point.’ . . . This is not an intellectual question but a spiritual one. It can be tackled not with work but only with prayers, innocence, and a humble heart. Everything worthwhile takes time and strength and effort.” Fortitude in faith is something that must be constantly rediscovered and reinvigorated.
Their hope was not extinguished when Helmuth was imprisoned. His trial was delayed, and the Moltkes were tossed between preparation for his death and hope of his acquittal. But they attempted to be for each other exemplars of the hope and bravery that they constantly exhorted each other not to abandon. Freya writes to Helmuth: “I have to see you in the pure happiness of being able to see you, filled only with joy and not with pain and with the fact of life.” Resilience is not an easy position to adopt, much less stick to, but the Moltkes were relentless.
They fought vigorously and optimistically for amnesty for Helmuth but were careful not to assume that it would be granted, and, sadly, it was not. Helmuth was executed on a charge of high treason on January 23, 1945, leaving behind 33-year-old Freya and their two sons, Caspar and Konrad.
The stunning sacrifice of these resistors to one of the most oppressive regimes of the 20th century is noble and provoking. Helmuth, in approaching death, was not focused on later generations’ recognition of his own goodness; rather, he died with the hope that the resistance would not have been for nothing — that justice and peace and faith and charity would prevail.
But what is most remarkable about the Moltkes, more than their courage or faith, two aspects of character that are reciprocal, is their gratitude regardless of their circumstances. Helmuth writes in the middle of his long imprisonment, “I am receptive and filled with gratitude for every ray of sunshine, for every friendly thought, for the jingling of keys in the lock when Polechau comes. . . . Look at how rich I am, immeasurably rich.”
The Moltkes’ sincerity with regard to their faith in their convictions and their grace and wisdom in their suffering are inspiring; their letters offer an authentic and full portrait of moral resistance to a popular evil. There is so much good that ordinary people can do, whether or not the world approves them, and the Moltkes provide one look at how this can be done, without indulging fear or histrionics.