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If you knew that your nation was savagely butchering its own people in semi-secret camps; if you thought your leader was a madman whose decisions would inevitably ruin your country and threaten all of civilization; would you sit still or would you try to do something? That was the dilemma Helmuth James von Moltke faced.
A lawyer, he was highly placed in the German government. He put two and two together and recognized what Hitler was doing to unwanted population groups such as the Jews. From his vantage, he saw National Socialism as the enemy of civilization. In letters to his wife, Freya, he bared his heart. “…hunger, disease, and fear are spreading under our rule. Nobody knows what the consequences will be or how soon they will set in. But one thing is quite certain: the Apocalyptic Horsemen are beginners compared to what is ahead of us…”
Moltke used his influential position to warn the outside world of what was going on in Germany. He also helped Jews to escape from the Nazis and mobilized opponents of the violent regime.
Eventually, someone betrayed him. He was brought to trial before Judge Roland Friesler. Because no evidence could be found that Moltke had participated in any conspiracy to bring about a coup d’état, Freisler had to invent a charge de novo. Since Moltke and his friends had discussed a Germany based on moral and democratic principles that could develop after Hitler, Freisler deemed this discussion as treason, a crime worthy of death.
In his last letter to Freya, dated on this day, January 11, 1945, Moltke wrote that he had stood before Judge Friesler “not as a Protestant, not as a big landowner, not as a nobleman, not as a Prussian, not as a German, but as a Christian and nothing else.”
He admitted that he expected to die. Nonetheless, he wanted to go on living if he could. “The task for which God made me is done. If he has another task for me, we shall hear of it. Therefore by all means continue your efforts to save my life, if I survive this day. Perhaps there is another task.”
Moltke believed that the hand of God had been at work throughout his life to bring him to the moment when his life must be sacrificed in opposition to evil. Evidently, he was right. Moltke was sentenced to death on 11 January 1945 and hanged at Plötzensee Prison in Berlin. In a letter written while in custody, he revealed his motivation for resistance to his two sons: “Since National Socialism came to power, I have striven to make its consequences milder for its victims and to prepare the way for a change. In that, my conscience drove me – and in the end, that is a man’s duty.”
- Balfour, Michael Leonard Graham and Julian Frisby.Helmuth von Moltke; a leader against Hitler, by Michael Balfour and Julian Frisby. London: Macmillan, 1972.
- Moltke, Helmuth James, Graf von, 1907-1945. Letters to Freya : 1939-1945; edited and translated from the German by Beate Ruhm von Oppen. New York : Knopf, 1990.
- Susanne Eckelmann, Helmuth James Graf von Moltke, Deutsches Historisches Museum, 14 September 2014.
- Original quotation: “Nationalsozialismus zur Macht gekommen ist, habe ich mich bemüht, seine Folgen für seine Opfer zu mildern und einer Wandlung den Weg zu bereiten. Dazu hat mich mein Gewissen getrieben—und schließlich ist das eine Aufgabe für einen Mann.“
- von Moltke, Helmuth James (1986) . “Letter to sons”. In van Roon, G. (ed.). Helmuth James Graf von Moltke: Volkerrecht im Dienste der Menschen : Dokumente (Deutscher Widerstand 1933-1945) (in German). Berlin: Siedler Verlag. p. 6. ISBN 978-3886801541.
- Balfour, Michael; Frisby, Julian (1972). Helmuth von Moltke—A Leader against Hitler. London: Macmillan. p. 388. ISBN 978-0-333-14030-7.
ALSO ON THIS DAY
1525 – At Zwingli’s suggestion, Zurich Council passed an ordinance to use the assets of monasteries taken over by the reformers to create a fund to assist the poor and schools.
1538 – Luther and Agricola met in their second disputation at Wittenberg on the topic of antinomianism (lawlessness). Luther agreed that the law is not necessary to justification but said it must be kept in the church to reveal sin, maintain discipline, and advise Christians what is pleasing to God.
1604 – King James VI of Scotland held a conference at his Hampton Court estate to resolve the differences between his church leaders and the Puritans; to which the Puritans lost the argument. They were tagged Separatists, but from these persecutions came the Baptists in 1611, the Pilgrims who fled to America in 1620, and other dissenting groups.
1700 – Marguerite Bourgeoys, who had founded the Congregation of Notre Dame of Montreal in the colony of New France (Canada); died in Montreal. She educated young girls in the area now known as Montreal, assisting the poor and American Indians. She was declared a saint by the Catholic Church. in 1982 and is the first female saint of Canada.
1362 – Ashbel Green Simonton held his first baptism in Rio de Janeiro, considered the date of the birth of the Presbyterian Church in Brazil.
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