By now, news of the death of Freya von Moltke this month in her adopted state of Vermont at age 98 -- more than twice the age of her husband Helmuth when the Nazis executed him -- has reached the world, if headlines in at least a dozen languages are an indication.
In her native Germany, the word often describing Freya von Moltke is Widerstandskämpferin: resistance fighter (more precisely, female resistance fighter). The term may imply daring physical acts, but as she contended, her resistance was primarily in aiding her brave and restless husband, Helmuth von Moltke, to carry out myriad acts to thwart the Nazi regime, from helping Jewish friends, to spreading word of annihilation camps, to warning friends of imminent arrests, and to plotting, at the rural von Moltke estate in Kreisau in eastern Germany, a new system of government meant to follow the Nazi defeat. Even uttering the word defeat, of course, was treason.
What Helmuth did not do, she told me clearly during interviews at her Norwich home, Four Wells (so named, she said, because only the fourth well drilled proved to have any water), was what the Nazis attributed to him: involvement with the failed 1944 plot led by Claus Stauffenberg to kill Hitler with a bomb. For some reason, what the Nazis charged Helmuth von Moltke with has made its way to post-war records, too. The truth is more subtle.
On a January day twenty five years ago, a month that coincided with the fortieth anniversary of her husband's murder, she sat amid post Christmas hubbub in her Norwich home, served her own homemade Stollen, and recollected how Helmuth von Moltke's thinking about the plot unfolded. (Although her English was perfect and my German was not, I opted to conduct the interviews in German to keep her memories in the language that formed them.)
She said her husband did contact Stauffenberg early in the war about engaging in "practical work against Hitler," but that Stauffenberg replied the Germans first had to win the war, and only then free themselves of the "brown plague." Her husband, she said, did not oppose killing Hitler, despite "scruples" connected to his Christian beliefs about killing anyone (scruples she said she did not share). What he felt most strongly, however, was a matter of practicality. "He always pondered how one could do it, whether one could do it. And he came to the firm conviction, Stauffenberg and his friends could not pull it off successfully." She said he added, "'We have to leave it to the Allies whether you want to or not.' He said, `We are dilettantes. It won't succeed for us.'"
In her opinion, the Stauffenberg brothers, Claus and Berthold, decided the assassination must be attempted anyway, "for the honor of Germany."
In days of talks and follow-up correspondence with Freya von Moltke, her accounts of the bomb plot, the Stauffenbergs, and her husband's work against the Nazi regime certainly held the most interest for historians of the Third Reich. That was clear. Yet what reverberated to me over the years was Freya von Moltke's assessment of herself, an assessment that seems hauntingly applicable today.
"I say that no none who survived in Germany is guiltless. Such a person does not exist... People who lived through the Nazi time and who still live, who did not lose their lives because they were opposed, all had to make compromises at whatever point. And among them, I also count myself."
In her decades of post-war peacekeeping work, including her gracious surrender of her beloved Kreisau to Poland, due to the war's redrawn borders, the Widerstandskämpferin was honored literally by left and right. All the while, she counted herself as a compromiser. She set the bar of self-critique awfully high.