Helmuth James Graf von Moltke

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Helmuth James Graf von Moltke (11 March 1907 – 23 January 1945) was a Christian thinker and jurist who used the power of his mind and the strength of his beliefs to oppose fascism, and was executed by Hitler in January 1945.

In 1935, von Moltke refused a judicial appointment, because accepting would have entailed joining the National Socialist Party. Instead he opened an international law practice in Berlin, and started studying to qualify in English Law as a Rhodes scholar at Oxford. In the summer of 1939 he was one of several German opponents of the Führer who personally sought to warn Chamberlain, Halifax, Churchill and any other British leaders who would listen about Hitler's plans to attack Poland at the end of August.

As soon as war did break out, von Moltke was drafted into the German counter-intelligence service, gathering military intelligence from foreign sources and, vainly, preparing appraisals on questions of international law. Most of his advice was simply ignored. Von Moltke relied on the power of belief, intellect and morality to oppose the horrors of Hitler’s regime. He challenged Nazism on the grounds that it was illegal, undemocratic and above all un-Christian. In 1942 he smuggled out a letter to the British writer and official Lionel Curtis:

An active part of the German people are beginning to realise, not that they have been led astray, not that bad times await them, not that the war may end in defeat, but that what is happening is sin and that they are personally responsible for each terrible deed that has been committed—naturally, not in the earthly sense, but as Christians.

The so-called Kreisau Circle of anti-Nazi activists surrounding von Moltke was made up of intellectuals and theologians, Jesuits, Protestants and others. Those he invited to his Kreisau estate conferences included two Jesuit priests; two Lutheran pastors; political conservatives, liberals and socialists; landowners and former trade unionists. Almost all the men involved were to pay with their lives, though their discussions were concerned not with planning Hitler's overthrow, but with the economic, social and spiritual foundations of the new society which they hoped would come into existence once Hitler had departed the scene.

In January 1944, Von Moltke was arrested at Himmler's instigation. He languished for a year in Tegel prison, spending much of the time in philosophical contemplation. On July 20, 1944, Colonel Claus Schenk von Stauffenberg's attempt to assassinate Hitler failed. (One would never know it from watching Valkyrie, but von Stauffenberg, portrayed in the movie by Tom Cruise, was motivated by a profound Catholic piety, finally opting to attempt the assassination of Hitler in the belief that failure to do so would represent the greater sin.) The Gestapo seized on the assassination attempt as a pretext to eliminate all opposition.

In January 1945, von Moltke went on trial before Roland Freisler's people's court (Volksgerichthof). Since he had committed no specific act of treason, he was put on trial, in effect, for thought crime: “Not plans, not preparations, but the spirit as such shall be persecuted,” he said. There being no evidence that von Moltke had been part of Stauffenberg's plot, Freisler held that his having even discussed a Germany based on moral and democratic principles constituted treason. Von Moltke was sentenced to death and executed.

Shortly before he was hanged in Plötzensee prison, von Moltke put his finger on why his strictly moral and intellectual rebellion represented such a threat to Hitler. “What the Third Reich is so terrified of,” he wrote, “is ultimately a private individual [who has] discussed the practical, ethical demands of Christianity: for that alone we are condemned.”

Von Moltke was by no means the only resister to see opposition to Hitler not as a political necessity, but as a moral duty. The revolt against Hitler was, in part, a religiously motivated rebellion. Other opponents of Nazism were equally devout. One of Hitler’s most trusted intelligence officers, Colonel Alexis Baron von Roenne, his Christian conscience outraged by Nazi brutality, falsified the battle order on the Western Front on the eve of D-Day. He went to his execution declaring: “I shall be going home to our Lord in complete calm and in the certainty of salvation.”