In "Memories of Kreisau and the German Resistance," a small, resonating book, Freya von Moltke bears witness to the history she lived through and survived.
Born in 1911, Freya Deichmann married into a prominent family 20 years later. Her husband, Count Helmuth James von Moltke, was the great-great-nephew of the legendary German field marshal Helmuth von Moltke. During most of her marriage, Freya lived on the family farm in Kreisau, in Silesia, then in southeastern Germany, now in Poland. There the old field marshall's rooms were maintained as a kind of shrine, often visited by admiring Nazis.
Her husband and his immediate family, however, were resolutely anti-Nazi, although after 1939 Helmuth James served in the German High Command as an expert on martial and international law. He did what he could to rescue Jews, as he had before. Able to travel abroad, he tried to warn other nations about what was happening in his homeland.
By 1940, he had begun to organize secret meetings with other prominent Germans to discuss the future of the nation after the end of the war and the collapse of the Third Reich, which they viewed as inevitable. This was high treason, and very dangerous. Three of the major meetings took place during weekends on the farm in Kreisau, where Freya served as hostess.
Members of the group were also involved in the attempt to assassinate Adolf Hitler in July 1944. Helmuth James, in prison on another charge, was not a direct participant. Nevertheless, in January 1945, he was executed for his role. The Gestapo dubbed his cadre of resisters the "Kreisau Circle." Of the 21 members listed in the book, seven were executed.
The story of the Kreisau Circle has become better known during the last 30 years; there are several books about the German resistance to Hitler and biographies of individual resisters, including Helmuth James. He corresponded daily with his wife when they were apart, and his "Letters to Freya" also have been published. (His wife concealed them inside her beehives at Kreisau.)
But this book is unique because it lives at the intersection of history and daily life. It is a reticent book, and the author doesn't go in for histrionics or self-dramatization. She announces her husband's execution in a single sentence at the end of one chapter, and the next begins two days later with her trip back to Kreisau, where no one had heard the news.
Despite its reticence, it is a profoundly personal book, filled with devotion to the land, to a vanished culture, to family, friends, and to principle; there are even touches of humor, as when they decided not to ask Konrad Adenauer, who would later become the postwar chancellor of Germany, to join the group because he was "too old"; most of those in the Kreisau Circle were young.
The book is primarily about the struggle to maintain human decency in an environment opposed to it. "Life-threatening danger was always present, and fear contributed to keeping people under control," Freya writes. "Why did we personally never live in a condition of fear? Probably because we so firmly believed in the necessity of what we undertook. Danger became a part of everyday life."
The second half of the book, which concerns the last months that Freya spent at Kreisau, was written more than 40 years ago, when she did not yet know that the farm would become the home of a "Foundation for European Understanding" and "a place for meetings, for speaking and listening, and above all, as a place where younger and older people can meet." So, writing from her present home in Vermont, she adds a brief afterword recording her pleasure at that fact.
The book was originally published in German in 1998, where it was widely read and admired. It is to the credit of the University of Nebraska Press that it has published "Memories of Kreisau," in an eloquent translation by Julie M. Winter, but it is unfortunate that the 87-page book sells for five times the price of the German version, which will keep it out of too many hands that would value it.