Helmuth James Graf von Moltke – Learning to Number His Days

Helmuth James Graf von Moltke – Learning to Number His Days

“One thing Christianity and we National Socialists have in common, and only one: we demand the whole man.” These words, pronounced by Roland Freisler, State Secretary of the Reich, at the time of the trial of Helmuth von Moltke, were jarring.

            “I wonder if he realized what he was saying?” Moltke wrote later. “This was grim earnest. ‘From whom do you take your orders? From the Beyond or from Adolf Hitler?’ ‘Who commands your loyalty and your faith?’ All rhetorical questions, of course. Anyhow, Freisler is the first National Socialist who has grasped who I am.”[1]

            Every political accusation the party had leveled against Moltke – accusations he was well-prepared to disprove – were suddenly brushed aside to reveal the crux of the matter: Moltke’s loyalty to Christ.

            Now, with the cards laid clearly on the table, Moltke felt thankful and energized. “Just think how wonderfully God prepared this, his unworthy vessel,” he wrote to his wife Freya.

            He then went on to list many instances of God’s providence in his life.

Chosen and Molded

Born in March 1907 in Kreisau (now Krzyżowa, Poland) to a reputable Prussian family, at age 14 he left the Christian Science his parents had firmly embraced and became confirmed in the Evangelical Church of Prussia.

            He later studied law and political sciences in Breslau, Vienna, Heidelberg, and Berlin. In 1931, he married Freya Deichman, who became his greatest earthly source of strength in this life. Four years later, he declined the chance to become a judge because the position would require him to join a party which had already reared its ugly head: the National Socialist German Party. Instead, he opened a law practice in Berlin, where he helped victims of Hitler's régime t.

            In spite of this, he was drafted in 1939 by the German military intelligence – an experience that confirmed in his mind the horrors of war. He learned of villages destroyed and thousands of people executed in senseless revenge. “Certainly more than a thousand people are murdered in this way every day, and another thousand German men are habituated to murder,” he wrote in 1941. “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?”[2]

            He joined a group of friends equally opposed to Nazism. Their three meetings in Kreisau led them to be known as the “Kreisau Circle.” Believing that Germany would be defeated in the war, they focused on post-war reconstruction.

            Moltke opposed the assassination of Hitler. Regardless, he was arrested on the evening of January 19, 1944. Looking back, he recognized God’s hand in taking him out of the picture just as he was in danger of “being drawn into active participation for a putsch” – a violent attempt, which was actually brought to action in July of the same year. “I was pulled away,” he said, “and thus I am, and remain, free of any connection to the use of violence.”[3]

            He gratefully recognized God’s hand in bringing him to Himself, after years of nominal Christianity. “He humbled me as I have never been humbled before, so that I had to lose all pride, so that at last I understand my sinfulness after 38 years, so that I learn to beg for his forgiveness and to trust to his mercy.”[4]

            He recounted all of God’s mercies since he had been in prison: God had allowed him to communicate with Freya and prepare for his death; he had let him “experience to their utmost depth the pain of parting and the terror of death and the fear of hell, so that all that should be over too;” and had endowed him “with faith, hope, and love, with a wealth of these that is truly overwhelming.”[5]

            The last realization was the cherry on the cake, as he stood before Freisler “as a Christian and nothing else.” To him, this was the greatest honor. “For what a mighty task your husband was chosen,” he wrote to Freya, “all the trouble the Lord took with him, the infinite detours, the intricate zigzag curves, all suddenly find their explanation in one hour on the 10th of January 1945. Everything acquires its meaning in retrospect, which was hidden. ... It is not given to us to see him face to face, but we must needs be moved intensely when we suddenly see that all our life he has gone before us as a cloud by day and a pillar of fire by night and that he permits us to see it suddenly in a flash.”[6]

Preparing for Death

The epistolary exchange between Helmuth and Freya is one of the most moving in history. Studded with Scriptures and with honest reflections on God’s work in their lives, they are also an invaluable testimony of how Christians can come to grips with the prospect of imminent death.

            Most of the time, Helmuth found it impossible to focus entirely on either death or life. As long as there was a possibility for him to present his side of the story, he kept developing his line of defense. At the same time, both he and Freya learned to say, “Not my will, but yours be done” (Luke 22:42). Deepest down, under all his layers of reasoning, Helmuth remembered this verse: “If we live, we live to the Lord, and if we die, we die to the Lord; so then, whether we live or whether we die, we are the Lord’s.” (Romans 14.8). “Unfortunately,” he wrote, “this deepest layer doesn’t always hold sway over the two higher ones.”[7]

            In fact, he said, Romans 14:8, “which is spiritually and intellectually satisfying as well as simple, is in reality very difficult, if you don’t have the humility, acquiescence, and simplicity that are so sorely needed.”[8]

            Moltke’s routine in prison included many hours of Bible reading and memorizing. “I memorized a series of passages from the Bible and recited them to myself every day in the mornings and afternoons while continuing to discover new things in them. ... I also whistle hymns all the time.”[9]

            He discovered the wisdom of the prayer in Psalm 90:12: “Teach us to number our days.” “It’s not easy to think in those terms,” he wrote. “No one can always bear that in mind; even in my situation, one constantly forgets it because the flesh refuses to accept it. Even so, that is a very wise statement, because it gives you a fixed pole, the way a compass points to the North Pole. A realistic knowledge of death separates everything into large and small, important and unimportant, and bears out I Corinthians 13:13.”[10]

            Besides preparing for death, Moltke wrote letters to prepare his family for this change in their lives. Among other things, he told Freya not to fill her life with work in order to suppress her pain. Pain is often a corollary of memory, and we can’t suppress one without losing the other.

            “I, in any event, am against ‘composure,’” he explained. “Grief is grief and pain is pain, and we needn’t feel ashamed of feeling either of them. Composure can easily harden the heart, and for you that would be utterly impossible. You must never think that you ‘owe me good composure.’”[11]

            He also told her not to second-guess the past. “It could easily happen that subsequent information makes you think everything could have gone differently if only... Don’t allow room for such thoughts; they are wrong and could be a terrible burden on you. Whatever he sends our way is right, and it is not ours to decide whether he chooses this or that path. Don’t agonize over this, but if you do find yourself agonizing, go straight to Poelchau and get his help.”[12]

            Harald Poelchau was the prison chaplain at the Tegel prison in Berlin where Moltke was transferred in September 1944. He was one of the Kreisau Circle who had not been identified as such. Once again, Helmuth and Freya saw this as a work of God’s providence, as Poelchau became their pastor and closest friend, and smuggled over 150 letters to each other.

            A good Lutheran, Poelchau comforted Moltke in his darkest hours, reminding him that, in most spiritual battles, “no subjective remedy can help. We have to know, even if it is only with our reason, that objectively we have become God’s children through baptism, that objectively Christ died for us and that this is how it is, even if we don’t feel it, if we fail to detect the subjective presence of this insight, even if, for that matter, we deny it.”[13]

Freya and the Children

            Helmuth derived great comfort from Freya’s letters. Very few are preserved, because she was only careful in keeping his. In fact, during a time when anything he had written could be seen as incriminating, she hid them inside the beehives she kept at their Kreisau estate (the bees only use one section of the beehive at the time). But Helmuth made frequent reference to her letters and the encouragement they provided.

            He described her role in a letter to his children Helmuth Caspar and Konrad. Their mother, he said, “was the one who suffered the most from the material sacrifices and has had to live with the constant worry that I might be arrested, locked up, or killed. ... And I’m telling you that this is far more than I have done. Even running known risks s nothing compared with a willingness to let the person to whose life you have bound your own run risks that cannot be foreseen. And it is also more than what a soldier’s wife takes upon herself, because she, of course, has no choice in the matter; but I did have a choice, and one word from Freya would have held me back from much of what I undertook.”[14]

            “I just want to tell you that I will die in the certainty that I will come to God through Jesus Christ and that the four of us, Reyali [nickname for Freya], the two of you, and I, will always be united in His love.”[15]

            Helmuth was sentenced to death on 11 January 1945 and hanged twelve days later in Berlin. “The issue that will result in my being killed will go down in history, and no one knows in what form,” he told his sons. “But I want to say the following to you: throughout my life, even back in school, I have always fought against a spirit of narrow-mindedness and violence, of arrogance and lack of respect for others, of intolerance and an absolute and merciless stringency.”[16]

            At the time of Helmuth’s death, Caspar was 8 and Konrad 4. Freya continued to keep them safe, even when it meant moving from place to place, including Czechoslovakia, Poland, and Switzerland. They settled for a while in South Africa, where Freya’s father had worked, but left in 1956 because of her opposition to apartheid. They finally moved to the United States in 1960, and became US citizens. She spoke often about the German resistance and contributed to books about her husband and the Kreisau Circle. She died in Norwich, Vermont on 1 January 2010 at the age of 98.


[1]Helmuth James von Moltke, Letters to Freya, ed./transl. Beate Ruhm von Oppen, New York, Alfred A. Knopf, 1990, 409-410.

[2] Ibid., 175.


[4] Ibid.

[5] Ibid.

[6] Ibid., pp. 410-411.

[7] Helmuth James Von Moltke and Freya Von Moltke, Last Letters, The Prison Correspondence, 1944-1945, ed. Helmuth Caspar Von Moltke, Dorothea Von Moltke, and Johannes Von Moltke, Transl. by Shelley Frisch, New York Review Books, 2011, p. 65

[8] Moltke, Last Letters, 168

[9] Moltke, Last Letters, p. 11

[10] Moltke, Last Letters, 101.

[11] Moltke, Last Letters, 302

[12] Moltke, Last Letters, 42.

[13] Moltke, Last Letters, 118

[14] Moltke, Last Letters, 46

[15] Moltke, Last Letters, 35

[16] Moltke, Last Letters, 36


Simonetta Carr