No Comment — January 11, 2010, 11:40 am

Remembering Freya and Helmuth James von Moltke

This weekend we learned that Freya von Moltke died at the beginning of the year at her home in Norwich, Vermont. A lion of the resistance to Hitler and the wife of its best known leader, Helmuth James von Moltke, she was 98. The Times reports:

“He put the question to me explicitly — ‘The time is coming when something must be done,’ ” Freya von Moltke said. “ ‘I would like to have a hand in it, but I can only do so if you join in too,’ and I said, ‘Yes, it’s worth it.’ ” So, with a wife’s assent, began a famous challenge to Hitler. At the height of the Nazi victories, Count Helmuth James von Moltke invited about two dozen foes of Nazism, many of them aristocrats like himself, to imagine a new, better postwar Germany. For him, his wife’s participation was essential, as she remembered the conversation in “Courageous Hearts: Women and the Anti-Hitler Plot of 1944,” a 1997 book by Dorothee von Meding.

Moltke’s correspondence with his wife, published as Letters to Freya, constitutes, along with Anne Frank’s Diary, Primo Levi’s Se questo è un uomo, and a handful of other books, one of the great moral documents to emerge from World War II. In his letters, Moltke, the scion of Germany’s greatest military family, documents the mentality of war—what he called “cowardice, servility and mass-psychosis”–and how it undermined the moral essence of men and women, converting them to “machines with a particular function in a process.” Moltke was no pacifist, but he was a firm believer in international law and the laws of war as essential tools to protect the innocent and soften the harms of warfare. The processes he so skillfully observed can be found in some measure in every society enmeshed in war, not least of all in our own. Today, January 11, marks the fifty-fifth anniversary of the death sentence that concluded his trial by the infamous Volksgericht for his courageous actions against the Hitler regime.

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(1) To need his glasses and be struck by an awareness that they are not at hand, an ordinary enough circumstance for Frederick Douglass, except sometimes it’s accompanied by a flash of extraordinary dread. If not quite panic, certainly an unease disproportionate to a simple recurring situation. Dread that may be immediately extinguished if he locates his horn-rimmed, owlish-eyed spectacles exactly where he anticipated they should be. He sees them and almost sighs. Nearly feels their slightly uncomfortable weight palpable on his nose. Finding the glasses enough to reassure him that he remains here among the living in this material …
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