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BOOK REVIEW : Martyr Emerges From the Third Reich

LETTERS TO FREYA, 1939-45 by Helmuth James von Moltke Edited and translated by Beate Ruhm von Oppen Alfred A. Knopf $24.95, 414 pages

On Oct. 21, 1941, a young German officer in the Abwehr military intelligence service sat down to a write a letter to his wife. He described some of the atrocities of the recent fighting--villages burned to the ground, thousands of men and women murdered in reprisal executions, the Jewish citizens of Berlin rounded up, beaten in the streets, then deported to an unknown destination and an ominous fate.

“And all this is child’s play compared with what is happening in Poland and Russia,” the young man wrote. “May I know this and yet sit at my table in my heated flat and have tea? Don’t I thereby become guilty too? What shall I say when I am asked: And what did you do during that time?”

The question is answered in “Letters to Freya,” a remarkable collection of the wartime letters that Helmuth James von Moltke wrote to his young wife, Freya. The book is a unique historical document, a morality tale, a love story, all set within the very heart of the Third Reich and, in a real sense, in the soul of a man of conscience.

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The letters collected here show Moltke to have been a civilized and courageous figure set among barbarians and cowards, a strict moralist in a world where evil had become something casual and commonplace. A member of the Prussian gentry, a descendant of Bismarck’s famous field marshal, a student of law and history, Moltke used his position as a legal adviser in the Abwehr to voice a principled opposition to the excesses of the Third Reich.

Moltke organized the so-called Kreisauer Circle, a kind of underground whose members contemplated the rebuilding of Germany after what they regarded as its inevitable defeat. Ultimately, Moltke was arrested, condemned on charges of treason and put to death, but his letters continued until the very end as a stirring and enduring moral testament. According to George Kennan, he was “one of the few genuine Christian-Protestant martyrs of our time.”

“Letters to Freya,” selected from more than 1,600 letters that Freya von Moltke hid from the Gestapo in the beehives on the Moltke estate, shows us the real man in all of his aspects. Moltke’s letters report on what he ate for lunch, his lumbago, his suggestions on where the lilacs should be planted on his estate, the number of grains on a stalk of wheat that Freya sent to him.

But it is Moltke’s firsthand observations of the Third Reich that make “Letters of Freya” so fascinating and so important. He gave Freya a day-by-day account of the war, with eyewitness descriptions of Dunkirk, the Maginot Line, Paris under Nazi occupation, Berlin under an Allied air raid. “An uncanny sight to see,” he wrote of the Fellini-esque scene of children at play among the festive ruins of a bombed-out shop that sold carnival decorations. “An apocalyptic sight.”

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Moltke was too honest and too perceptive to close his eyes to the monstrous crimes that were committed behind the tattered veil of legality that he tried so hard to preserve. He made himself a firsthand witness to the Holocaust and the other crimes against humanity. As early as October, 1942, Moltke wrote to Freya that he heard “an authentic report on the ‘SS furnace’ (probably at Treblinka)” from an acquaintance who witnessed the ghastly scene. Moltke wrote: “So far I had not believed it, but he assured me that it was true: 6,000 people a day are ‘processed’ in this furnace.”

There’s a certain preciousness that comes across in Moltke’s letters. He complained, for example, that he was so distracted by the war news that he “wasn’t even able to listen properly to the ‘Eroica.’ ” And Moltke was clearly a man of ideas and ideals, not a man of action--he declined to participate in the Stauffenberg plot against Hitler, although he was ultimately swept up by the Gestapo in the aftermath of the failed assassination.

As I marveled over the moral spectacle of one man at war with the Third Reich, I kept reminding myself that more men and women like Moltke would not have stopped Hitler and the Nazis once they came to power. But I was tantalized--and, at the same time, heartbroken--by the thought that more men and women like Moltke might have stopped the Nazis from coming to power in the first place.


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