Legacy of a Witness to the Struggles of Good and Evil
Boston College Professor Releases Documentary on Norwich’s Freya Von Moltke, Who Was Close to German Resistance to Hitler
Freya von Moltke iin her Norwich, Vt., home in June 1988. (Valley News - Stephanie Wolff) Purchase photo reprints »
Almost everyone who met Freya von Moltke, who died in 2010 in Norwich at age 98, came away feeling that they had met an extraordinary person.
This included her husband, Helmuth James von Moltke, a leader of the German resistance against Hitler who was jailed in January 1944 for warning a friend that his arrest was imminent. After the failed July 1944 assassination attempt on Hitler, von Moltke, who had been held in what was called “protective custody,” was accused of treason and rightly anticipated that he would be executed. In October 1944, Von Moltke wrote a valedictory letter to his two young sons, Konrad and Caspar, describing their mother’s stalwart character and moral backbone.
“Freya, who was the one who suffered most from these sacrifices and who always had to be concerned that I would be arrested, imprisoned or killed, never hindered me in what I considered necessary, or made it harder in any way. She was always ready to accept everything; she was always ready to make sacrifices if it was necessary. And I tell you: this was much more than I did. For running risks oneself, which one knows, is nothing compared with the readiness to let the person with whom one’s life is joined run risks one cannot gauge.”
Freya von Moltke’s life is the subject of Freya! , a 45-minute documentary by Rachel Freudenburg, an associate professor of German literature at Boston College. The documentary, which Freudenburg completed in 2011, is now available on DVD. She hopes that the film will be shown at Dartmouth and on Vermont Public Television and public access CATV, based in White River Junction, although no dates are yet set.
Freudenburg envisions the documentary as suitable for screenings in schools, libraries and colleges. It includes excerpts from Freya von Moltke’s writings, and is amply illustrated with family photographs and archival material. Veronica Jochum von Moltke, Freya’s sister-in-law, plays a piano piece by Bach and Busoni on the soundtrack.
Freudenburg met Freya von Moltke in April 2002, at a conference at Boston College on the issue of German resistance to Hitler, which was then, and is still, a fiercely debated subject. For many years, Freudenburg said, the idea that there were Germans who did work against Hitler was highly controversial, because the notion of collective guilt on the part of the German people was so ingrained, not only among historians but among the American public.
Freya von Moltke had toured the U.S. in the 1950s, Freudenburg said, trying to show that there were Germans who had risked everything to oppose Hitler and had been killed for it, but was met with considerable skepticism. How could people who had been associated with the Reich in any capacity be considered heroic?
“In the immediate aftermath of the war and the Holocaust, people didn’t want to hear it,” Freudenburg said. By 2002, enough time had passed that the idea was no longer unacceptable, and at the conference Von Moltke was speaking on a panel about women in the resistance. “She presented her story very intelligently and afterwards I saw her really speaking with people that she knew who were there at the conference. … Everyone was coming up trying to meet her. She loved people and people loved her,” Freudenburg said in a telephone interview from Boston.
It didn’t occur, however, to Freudenburg to actually make a film about von Moltke until a colleague suggested she do so. Freudenburg knew nothing about filmmaking or editing. “I was intrigued by the idea but I’d never even done home videos. ... I had no idea what I was doing, quite honestly.”
Accompanied by her husband and a Boston College student with a video camera, Freudenburg made her way to von Moltke’s Norwich home, where she’d lived since 1960 with the renowned German philosopher and Dartmouth professor Eugen Rosenstock-Huessy, her partner until his death in 1973.
Freudenburg was fascinated by Von Moltke’s presence. “She had this combination of theoretical intelligence but also moral intelligence. She was very sophisticated but also very down to earth,” Freudenburg said. Von Moltke made them a lunch of beet soup and apple sauce. “And she made the apple sauce!” Freudenburg said.
At this point in her life, von Moltke was accustomed to being interviewed. For years, camera crews and interviewers had beat a path to her door because of her stature as a campaigner for peace, her history with the German resistance, of which she was one of the last survivors, and because of her husband. Freudenburg and her lone camera person were, Freudenburg said, a little green, a fact that didn’t go unremarked by von Moltke.
“She was blunt ... very observant, and she speaks the truth, no matter what it is,” Freudenburg said, recalling that von Moltke called them among the least experienced interviewers she’d ever met, but sat for a two-hour interview anyway. The fact that Freudenburg was new to the process may have been an advantage in the end because she asked questions that von Moltke didn’t expect. “I didn’t know any better,” Freudenburg said.
Freya! traces her life from her birth in 1911 in Cologne, the daughter of a banker, Carl Theodor Deichmann, through her fateful meeting with Helmuth von Moltke in the summer of 1929 in Austria. She was 18 and he was 22. In photos of her as a young woman, Freya Deichmann, with large eyes and high cheekbones, possessed the same unwavering gaze and radiant intensity as the man she would marry.
Von Moltke’s great-great uncle Field Marshal Helmuth von Moltke the Elder had made his name in a victory against the Austrians in 1866, and as a reward was given enough money to buy a sizeable estate in what was then eastern Germany, at a place called Kreisau. (After World War II and the Soviet takeover of Eastern Europe, Kreisau became part of Poland, and is now called Krzyzowa.) After von Moltke led the Prussian Army to a stunning victory over the French during the 1870-1871 Franco-Prussian War, the title of Graf, or Count, was bestowed on him, a title that passed to his relatives, including Helmuth James von Moltke.
It was Kreisau that gave its name to the Kreisau Circle, a group of highly positioned, dissident intellectuals who met in 1942 and 1943, both at Kreisau and in Berlin. They despised Hitler, foresaw Germany’s utter ruin as a result of the Third Reich, drafted principles for what the country should look like after Hitler’s removal, and, presciently, envisioned a future united Europe. (In Letters to Freya: 1939-1945 , a collection of some of Helmuth von Moltke’s correspondence, it is revealed that it was the Gestapo that dubbed the group the Kreisau Circle.)
Composed of Protestants and Catholics, many of them aristocrats, the circle included Helmuth von Moltke. Some of the men in the group also knew of, if not actively participated in, the failed plot to assassinate Hitler. This would be von Moltke’s undoing.
As the documentary outlines, Freya von Moltke, while not an active member of the Kreisau Circle in the sense of attending meetings and drafting policy, was one of its moral beacons. While her husband worked in the Abwehr, the German intelligence service which was known for its distrust of and opposition to Hitler, doing his utmost to secret people out of the country, or protect those who stayed, Freya von Moltke cared for the estate at Kreisau, and their sons, as well as traveling to and from Berlin to see her husband. She and Helmuth wrote each other frequently.
When Helmuth was imprisoned in 1944 without charge, there was hope initially that he would be released. But once the coup failed, and the conspirators were exposed, both husband and wife knew what his fate would be.
The fact that Helmuth von Moltke had been allowed to speak and work against Hitler during the war without interference was due in large part to the von Moltke name. Hoping it might save him once again, Freya von Moltke appealed to the head of the Gestapo to release her husband but was told that, although she and her children wouldn’t be touched, no one who had conspired to kill Hitler would be spared. And although Helmuth von Moltke was not directly implicated, he knew those who were and had probably known about the coup, which was enough.
There was a show trial, von Moltke was sentenced to death and in January 1945 he was hanged, probably with piano wire, as were the men involved in the coup. His body, Freudenburg said, was not returned to Freya, but burned. His ashes, along with those of the other men, were scattered at a sewage treatment plant in Berlin, which the Nazis regarded as a fitting end for the men they called “blue-blooded swine.”
After the war, Freya von Moltke mo ved with her sons to South Africa — Helmuth’s mother was South African — and then back to Germany. Finally she came to Vermont to be with Rosenstock-Huessy, who had known Helmuth von Moltke before the war.
Some people who had experienced the trauma she had might have chosen to recede into the background, to shun the curious and the worshipful, and live a private life without engaging politically. “I don’t think that was her style, to retreat. I think she felt her story was important,” Freudenburg said. “I think she really felt that people needed to hear there were people who stood up against Hitler.”
After the fall of the Soviet Union in 1989, von Moltke poured her energy into the New Kreisau, a foundation that restored the estate, commemorated its history and that of the Kreisau Circle, and brought people from all over Europe to Kreisau to discuss European and global issues. In 1989 German Chancellor Helmut Kohl and Tadeusz Mazowiecki, the first democratically elected Polish president, met there in a symbolic, historic reconciliation between the two countries. Freudenburg will bring the documentary there in July for a screening.
In person, Freya von Moltke was resolute and always to the point, Freudenburg said. “She knew what she wanted to say, which was of the greatest possible benefit.” She balked only when Freudenburg asked her about the day her husband was killed, saying she didn’t want to go into detail and no one wanted to hear about it. “It’s 60, 70 years later and this is still an open wound,” Freudenburg said.
Asked how speaking with von Moltke affected her, Freudenburg said, “Before I met her I don’t think I was really a person who had a lot of heroes.” The fact that Freya von Moltke persevered in her ideals, even after the worst and until the end of her life, “gives me more courage to stand up for whatever it is, no matter how small,” Freudenburg said.
To contact the filmmaker and buy a DVD of Freya!, go to www.freyavonmoltke.com. The DVD costs $20.
Nicola Smith can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
This article has been amended to correct an earlier error. The following corrections appeared in the Wednesday, July 3 edition of the Valley News:
A documentary about Freya von Moltke was made by Rachel Freudenburg, an associate professor of German literature at Boston College. Her last name was spelled incorrectly in a story on last Friday's Close-Up page. Veronica Jochum von Moltke, Freya's sister-in-law, plays music by Bach and Busoni in the documentary. Their relationship and the name of the composers were listed incorrectly.