The correspondence between Helmuth James and Freya von Moltke is unique among exchanges of letters in the 20th century. It celebrates the power of life and love in the face of totalitarian rule and imminent death.
The mastermind of one of the largest resistance groups against Hitler, the Kreisauer Kreis, Helmuth James Graf von Moltke was arrested by the Gestapo in January 1944. He was detained on the grounds of his alleged involvement with Carl Friedrich Goerdeler, the civilian protagonist of Claus von Stauffenberg’s Operation Valkyrie even though Moltke and his allies – among them Jesuits and Protestants, Socialists and Aristocrats – had not joined forces with Stauffenberg. For these suspicions, Moltke spent nine months in Ravensbrück concentration camp before being transferred to a prison in Berlin Tegel.
Extensive accounts of life at both Ravensbrück and Tegel, as well as his trial before the People’s Court, are contained in the correspondence between Helmuth and his wife Freya, which has now been published in Helmuth Caspar von Moltke and Ulrike von Moltke’s diligent edition. The correspondence is unique: no other member of the resistance was able to write such a substantial number of letters from prison. Helmuth wrote in a cell lit around the clock by bright lights, sometimes at sub-zero temperatures, often while handcuffed.
The correspondence is a pedagogical exchange between Helmuth, the intellectual, and Freya, a pragmatist who speaks the language of her heart. Often, the tone of the letters is disturbingly frank. Helmuth discusses with Freya how one can learn to suffer without idealising suffering, and she responds that a rosy outlook on their future would be a clouded vision. Helmuth, almost always “unsad” and serene, reminds her that life should always be lived like that: aware that it could end the next day, and that in death there will be a new beginning. He expresses his confidence that God will be with her at all times.
Read more in Christophe Fricker’s Times Literary Supplement review of this book and of Frauke Geyken’s biography of Freya von Moltke.
Helmuth James und Freya von Moltke, ABSCHIEDSBRIEFE GEFÄNGNIS TEGEL: September 1944 – Januar 1945, Edited by Helmuth Caspar von Moltke and Ulrike von Moltke. 608pp. C.H. Beck. €29.95.
Frauke Geyken, FREYA VON MOLTKE: Ein Jahrhundertleben 1911-2010. 287pp. C.H. Beck. €19.95.