Freya von Moltke

Freya von Moltke

Freya von Moltke was born Freya Deichmann in Cologne, Germany, on 29th March 1911. She was the daughter of Carl Theodor Deichmann, a banker, and his wife, Ada (née Ada von Schnitzler). "She attended idealistic work camps that brought young people of all classes together to share ideas and dreams." (1)

In 1929 at the age of 18, she met Helmuth von Moltke while on a vacation to Austria’s lake district. The following year she began studying law at the University of Bonn and attended seminars at the University of Breslau, where she worked as a researcher for Moltke. They married on 18th October 1931. (2)

Freya continued her studies at the University of Berlin, where she took her doctorate in 1935. She never practised, concentrating instead on running the Kreisau estate. (3) Moltke declined the chance to become a judge to avoid having to join the Nazi Party. Instead, he opened a law practice in Berlin. As a lawyer dealing in international law, he helped victims of Hitler's régime emigrate. (4) During this period he spent time in London where he made important contacts with the government. In a letter he wrote in October 1938 he spoke of his fears that Britain might turn fascist. (5)

Moltke was especially worried by the appeasement policies of the British government. Moltke, along with other anti-Nazi lawyers, such as Adam von Trott and Fabian Schlabrendorff, advised Neville Chamberlain on how to deal with Hitler. They suggested to Chamberlain to make it clear that Britain was willing to go to war in order to halt Hitler's aggression. However, it did not "lead to any readiness on the part of the British government to cooperate with the German resistance movement." (6)

Outbreak of War

On the outbreak of the Second World War her husband joined Abwehr, the High Command of the Armed Forces, Counter-Intelligence Service, Foreign Division, under Admiral Wilhelm Canaris, as an expert in martial law and international public law. Canaris was growing increasingly disillusioned with Hitler and so were two of his senior officers, Hans Gisevius and Hans Oster. Gisevius later commented: "Canaris was one of the profoundest and most perplexing personalities among the oppositionists." (7)

Freya and Helmuth von Moltke
Helmuth von Moltke and Freya von Moltke

Moltke's work for the Abwehr mainly involved gathering insights from abroad, from military attachés and foreign newspapers, and news of military-political importance, and relaying this information to the Wehrmacht. Over the next few years he wrote regularly, almost daily, to his wife. Anton Gill has argued: "The correspondence, saved by a miracle from the Gestapo, now forms one of the most delightful and interesting records of that time." (8) Freya hid over 1,600 letters in beehives on the estate. Moltke told her not to tell him where they were hidden in case he was tortured by the Gestapo. (9)

Unlike most of his colleagues he did not celebrate the successes of the German Army. On 17th June, 1940, three days after the fall of Paris, while everyone around him was rejoicing at the extraordinary victory of the German Army, Moltke spoke in a letter to a friend about the "triumph of evil". Moltke admitted that he would have to wade through a "swamp of outward success, ease, and well-being" and suggested that defeat on the battlefield would have been preferable to "this progressive corruption of the national soul". (10)

Formation of the Kreisau Circle

In 1940, Helmuth von Moltke and Peter Graf Yorck von Wartenburg joined forces to establish the Kreisau Circle, a small group of intellectuals who were ideologically opposed fascism. Other people who joined included Adam von Trott, Fritz-Dietlof von der Schulenburg, Wilhelm Leuschner, Julius Leber, Adolf Reichwein, Carlo Mierendorff, Alfred Delp, Eugen Gerstenmaier, Ulrich-Wilhelm Graf von Schwerin, Dietrich Bonhoffer, Harald Poelchau and Jakob Kaiser. Freya von Moltke and Marion Yorck von Wartenburg, were the only women who attended these meetings. (11) It has been pointed out that "Mrs. Moltke could have faced the death penalty simply for serving food and drinks to the conspirators. Her husband relied on her first impressions of people to make life-and-death judgments. She contributed ideas, particularly on legal issues, her area of expertise." (12)

Louis R. Eltscher commented: "Rather than a group of conspirators, these men were more of a discussion group looking for an exchange of ideas on the sort of Germany would arise from the detritus of the Third Reich, which they confidently expected ultimately to fail." (13) The group represented a broad spectrum of social, political, and economic views, they were best described as Christian and Socialist. A. J. Ryder has pointed out that the Kreisau Circle "brought together a fascinating collection of gifted men from the most diverse backgrounds: noblemen, officers, lawyers, socialists, trade unionists, churchmen." (14) Joachim Fest argues that the "strong religious leanings" of this group, together with its ability to attract "devoted but undogmatic socialists," and has been described as its "most striking characteristic." (15) Hans Gisevius suggested that Moltke was "the most vigorous militant among the socialistic conservatives". (16)

Moltke had to travel through German-occupied Europe and observed many human rights abuses including the killing of civilians. In October 1941, Moltke wrote to his wife: "In one area in Serbia two villages have been reduced to ashes.... In Greece 220 men of one village have been shot.... In France there are extensive shootings while I write. Certainly more than a thousand people are murdered in this way every day and another thousand German men are habituated to murder... Since Saturday the Berlin Jews are being rounded up. Then they are sent off with what they can carry.... May I know this and yet sit at my table in my heated flat and have tea? What shall I say when I am asked: And what did you do during that time.... How can anyone know these things and still walk around free?" (17)

In October 1943, Moltke arrived in Copenhagen on official business. He worked through Georg Ferdinand Duckwitz, an attaché for Nazi Germany in occupied Denmark, who had become disillusioned by fascism. Duckwitz helped to save most of the Danish Jews who were due to be taken to an extermination camp on the orders of Hitler by arranging for them to go to Sweden. It has been claimed that he managed to rescue 95% of Denmark's Jewish population. When he heard that the German Army was helping the SS in their anti-Jewish manhunt, he went to General Hermann von Hanneken, the Commander-in-Chief, and said to him: "You must have gone mad. You'll pay dearly for this one day. Don't you understand that?" (18)

The Kreisau Circle were divided over the issue of assassinating of Adolf Hitler. Moltke was initially opposed to the idea, and told one friend that "Hitler must be kept alive and made to carry the entire responsibility for the catastrophe with his Party." Gradually even the deeply religious members of the group, including Alfred Delp, Eugen Gerstenmaier, Peter Graf Yorck von Wartenburg and Dietrich Bonhoeffer, changed their mind on this issue. In September, 1943, Moltke told General Alexander von Falkenhausen: "Despite all our scruples we have no alternative but to eliminate Hitler physically." (19)

It has been argued that Moltke and Bonhoeffer were the last of the group to accept the need to assassinate Hitler. Although they had argued for non-violence over many years, in this case it was justified. Harald Poelchau, a member of the Kreisau Circle, and a prison chaplain in Tegel Prison, claimed that Moltke gave his approval for the assassination attempt on Hitler, provided it be understood as the rarest of exceptions." (20)

Arrest of Helmuth von Moltke

Helmuth von Moltke was also in contact with other resistance groups. This included a group that included Elisabeth von Thadden, a Christian educational reformer and Red Cross worker, Otto Kiep, a high official from the Foreign Office and Hanna Solf. The group helped victims of Nazi persecution to flee the country. Moltke discovered that their telephones were about to be tapped and so he warned them to be careful how they communicated to each other. Unfortunately, one of the members of this group, Paul Reckzeh, was a Nazi spy. He now told the authorities that Moltke was a member of the German resistance. (21)

Moltke was arrested by the Gestapo on 19th January 1944. As Hans Gisevius pointed out: "Thus the Kreisau circle lost its leader. What that meant we were to learn during the days before July 20. Moltke's balance and moderation undoubtedly had prevented many careless and improvised actions." (22) In a letter to Freya von Moltke he wrote: "I was removed at the very moment when there was a danger that I might have become involved in active putsch preparations... I therefore remain free of any association with the use of force." (23)

Peter Hoffmann has pointed out: "He (Moltke) was removed by a dispensation of providence in the form of the arrest; it seems certain that otherwise he would have played an active part. Providence enabled him to abide by his principles which otherwise he would have forsaken. At about the same time he had a last talk with Gerstenmaier, arranged for him by two warders in Tegel, and his attitude then was similar. He made no effort to counter Gerstenmaier's argument that in this case assassination was in accord with Christ's commandment to love and declared himself explicitly and unreservedly in agreement with the attitude of his friends of the Kreisau Circle." (24)

After the failed attempt to assassinate Adolf Hitler on 2oth July, 1944. the Führer ordered Heinrich Himmler and Ernst Kaltenbrunner to arrest "every last person who had dared to plot against him". Hitler laid down the procedure for killing them: "This time the criminals will be given short shrift. No military tribunals. We'll hail them before the People's Court. No long speeches from them. The court will act with lightning speed. And two hours after the sentence it will be carried out. By hanging - without mercy." (25)

Helmuth von Moltke at the People's Court
Helmuth von Moltke at the People's Court

Helmuth von Moltke was in prison at the time and was not involved in the July Plot, but he was charged with treason, especially for failing to report the early activities of his associates. He was condemned to death on 11th January, 1945 and in his last letter to his wife he wrote that he did not aim at martyrdom but regarded it as "an inestimable to die for something which... is worthwhile." He added that he was to be killed not for what he had done but what he had thought. Moltke was executed at Ploetzensee Prison on 23rd January, 1945. (26)

Later Life

Freya managed to escape arrest and went to live in Czechoslovakia for the final few months of the war. After the war she returned to the family estate, now absorbed by Poland. She recovered the hidden papers and then emigrated to South Africa, where she worked as a social worker and therapist. Finding apartheid repugnant, she returned to Germany in 1956, where she began to publicise the Kreisau Circle. This was not always appreciated as "many Germans then regarded it as disloyal, if not treasonable". (27)

In 1960 she went to live with Eugen Rosenstock-Huessy, a social philosopher who had fled the Nazis, in Norwich, Vermont. In 1990 she published her husband's correspondence as Letters to Freya. The letters have proved valuable to scholars for their gripping portrayal of heroic resistance, as well as for their glimpses at daily life in the Third Reich. In her later years, when the German government and others came to recognize her contributions, Mrs. Moltke expressed gratitude on behalf of other resistance widows as well. “We were all wives of our husbands,” she said. (28)

At the age of 75, Freya von Moltke took up US citizenship to enable her pursue her interest in participating in the American political system. In 2005, the Freya von Moltke Foundation for the New Kreisau was established. The Foundation is a conference centre where youth and adults from eastern and western Europe meet to become better acquainted and to work on European integration. Her autobiography, Memories of Kreisau & the German Resistance was published in 2005. (29)

Freya von Moltke died on 1st January 2010.

Primary Sources

(1) Dan van der Vat, The Guardian (7th January, 2010)

Countess Freya von Moltke, who has died at Norwich, Vermont, aged 98, fully supported the intellectual and upper-class anti-Nazi dissident movement founded by her late husband, Count Helmuth James von Moltke, and his friend Count Peter Yorck von Wartenburg in 1940. The group of aristocrats, academics, clerics, senior civil servants, union leaders and others became known after the war as the Kreisau circle, named after the Moltke estate in what is now Polish Silesia, where it met. The countess's role went beyond acting as hostess of the circle's meetings and, after migrating to the US in 1960, she began transcribing her husband's letters as part of her life's work to record the circle's role.

The Moltkes, leading members of the Prussian "Junker" class that dominated the second Reich, provided the German army with two field marshals and chiefs of general staff in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Their descendant and namesake, born in 1907, was drafted into Hitler's army in 1939 but showed no sign of atavistic Prussian militarism. He served as a legal adviser to the Abwehr, military counter-intelligence, which, under Admiral Wilhelm Canaris, was a centre of anti-Hitler sentiment inside the Wehrmacht.

The nature and extent of internal opposition to the Hitler regime remains the subject of heated debate among historians inside and outside Germany to this day. Political opposition was outlawed by Hitler's notorious enabling act of 1933. There was hardly any resistance of the kind practised in most of the countries occupied by the Nazis during the second world war.

The Gestapo arrested anyone who showed dissent, then a synonym for treason. The Munich students Hans and Sophie Scholl, for example, were executed in 1943 for distributing anti-Nazi leaflets. Opposing, even questioning, the Hitler regime was therefore not to be undertaken lightly and needed moral courage of a high order. But by summer 1944, Germany's increasingly desperate military situation gave rise to a serious coup attempt by a group centred upon Colonel Claus von Stauffenberg. His July 1944 bomb plot failed by a fluke.

Before that conspiracy, of which Moltke and his associates had prior knowledge, the Kreisau circle and like-minded coteries had willed the end without willing the means. Circle members spent their time discussing what kind of Germany should arise after Hitler's fall, without tackling the problem of getting rid of him. Their approach was marked by a thoroughly German brew of abstract idealism and moral debate.

The circle as a whole met only three times at Kreisau, in May and October 1942 and finally in June 1943. Only two women were present: Freya von Moltke and Countess Marion Yorck von Wartenburg. Otherwise, groups and sub-groups of members kept in touch.

(2) Douglas Martin, The New York Times (9th January, 2010)

He put the question to me explicitly - "The time is coming when something must be done," Freya von Moltke said. "I would like to have a hand in it, but I can only do so if you join in too," and I said, "Yes, it’s worth it."

So, with a wife’s assent, began a famous challenge to Hitler. At the height of the Nazi victories, Count Helmuth James von Moltke invited about two dozen foes of Nazism, many of them aristocrats like himself, to imagine a new, better postwar Germany.

Alex and Hans seemed excited; it was likely they had not anticipated hearing such ambitious plans. The three talked on for hours, even exploring what the world would look like once they succeeded with their plans. Hans wanted to give up medicine after the war and go into politics. It is often the case that conspirators have a great need to be visionaries.

For him, his wife’s participation was essential, as she remembered the conversation in Courageous Hearts: Women and the Anti-Hitler Plot of 1944, a 1997 book by Dorothee von Meding.

The dissidents met at the count’s ancestral estate, Kreisau, which Bismarck had given his legendary great-great-uncle, Field Marshal Helmuth von Moltke the Elder, for his victories over Austria and France.

It was a perilous act of resistance. As many as half of the dissidents were later executed, some for actively plotting to kill Hitler, others for thinking the unthinkable: they had marshaled logical, moral and religious arguments to question the legitimacy of the Third Reich. Their high-minded planning for a future without Nazis angered a regime that expected to endure 1,000 years....

They initially rejected violence, if only for fear of making Hitler a martyr. But as the killing went on, support for assassinating him grew. Indeed, military conspirators were pushing ahead. At 12:40 p.m. on July 20, 1944, a bomb they had planted in a suitcase beneath a table at which Hitler was sitting at the Wolf’s Lair field headquarters exploded. Hitler suffered only minor wounds.

Mrs. Moltke said she believed that her husband would have backed that assassination attempt — had he not already been in jail for warning a friend, Dr. Otto Kiep, who was plotting violence against Hitler, that Dr. Kiep risked imminent arrest. Count Moltke was never released. He was hanged, most likely by piano wire, in January 1945 after Gestapo agents had linked the assassination attempt at Wolf’s Lair to the Kreisau circle.

In fact, there is strong evidence that Count Moltke was in contact with the July 20 conspirators. Andreas Hermes, one of the few ringleaders who were not executed, told The New York Times in July 1945 that he “vividly” recalled Count Moltke’s participation.

(3) David Childs, The Independent (8th January, 2010)

Freya Gräfin von Moltke was one of the last survivors of the Gestapo purge after the failed attempt to assassinate Hitler 20 July 1944. With her husband Helmuth she was involved in the anti-Nazi Kreisau Circle.

Freya von Moltke was born Freya Deichmann in Cologne, Germany, the daughter of Carl Theodor Deichmann, a banker, and his wife, Ada (née Ada von Schnitzler). In 1930 she began studying law at the University of Bonn and attended seminars at the University of Breslau, where she worked as a researcher for her future husband.

On 18 October 1931, Freya married Helmuth James Graf von Moltke in Cologne. From the famous military family, he was the eldest son of Graf Helmuth von Moltke and Dorothy, the only child of Sir James Rose-Innes, the Chief Justice of South Africa, both Christian Science followers. Helmuth and Freya lived, for financial reasons, in a modest cottage on the Kreisau estate in Silesia, but later moved to Berlin, where Helmuth completed his legal studies. Freya also studied law in Berlin and received a Doctor of Law degree from Humboldt University of Berlin in 1935.

Helmuth was greatly influenced by his parents' liberal values. In 1934, and again in 1936-37, Freya and Helmuth went to South Africa. The couple also visited England many times between 1935 and 1939 and, in 1938, Helmuth qualified for the English bar. They had seriously considered emigrating from Germany but were caught by the outbreak of war in September 1939.

In 1937 Freya gave birth to their first son, Helmuth Caspar. Thereafter, she lived at Kreisau all year round. Her husband inherited the Kreisau estate in 1939. In 1941 she gave birth to their second son, Konrad, at Kreisau.

Helmuth was called up and assigned as adviser on International Law to the foreign department of military intelligence (Abwehr). Without being fully aware of it, he had landed in one of the centres of the military conspiracy against Hitler. The Abwehr was headed by Admiral Wilhelm Canaris, who had organised German support for General Franco but later turned on Hitler. In his travels through German-occupied countries, Helmuth was confronted with many human rights abuses, which he sought to mitigate by arguing that German bodies observe the Geneva Convention.

Back in Kreisau in 1942 and 1943, Helmuth, supported by Freya, held three discussions about the situation in Germany and the country's future after Hitler. Smaller meetings were held in Berlin. They brought officers, trade unionists and churchmen together. Between the first and the third meetings the German Sixth Army looked like capturing Stalingrad. By the time of the third it had surrendered to the Soviets and the Germans had been thrown out of North Africa by the Western allies.

In January 1944 Helmuth was arrested by the Gestapo, accused of warning another of impending arrest. He was later tried for treason in the notorious People's Court, sentenced to death and hanged in Berlin 23 January 1945. Canaris was executed on 9 April 1945 for his connections with the 20 July 1944 plot. Her husband's fate put Freya in danger and she spent months in flight from the Gestapo and the advancing Russians. After the war, in 1945, she returned to Kreisau to salvage what she could, especially her husband's papers hidden in her beehives. But Stalin had decided Silesia was to be part of his Polish satellite and with the help of friends in the British Embassy in Warsaw, she left Kreisau for West Germany.

Student Activities

The Political Development of Sophie Scholl (Answer Commentary)

The White Rose Anti-Nazi Group (Answer Commentary)

Kristallnacht (Answer Commentary)

Adolf Hitler's Early Life (Answer Commentary)

Heinrich Himmler and the SS (Answer Commentary)

Trade Unions in Nazi Germany (Answer Commentary)

Adolf Hitler v John Heartfield (Answer Commentary)

Hitler's Volkswagen (The People's Car) (Answer Commentary)

Women in Nazi Germany (Answer Commentary)

German League of Girls (Answer Commentary)

The Assassination of Reinhard Heydrich (Answer Commentary)

The Last Days of Adolf Hitler (Answer Commentary)


(1) Douglas Martin, The New York Times (9th January, 2010)

(2) David Childs, The Independent (8th January, 2010)

(3) Dan van der Vat, The Guardian (7th January, 2010)

(4) Louis L. Snyder, Encyclopedia of the Third Reich (1998) page 232

(5) Hans Mommsen, Alternatives to Hitler (2003) page 135

(6) Peter Hoffmann, The History of German Resistance (1977) page 107

(7) Hans Gisevius, Valkyrie: An Insider's Account of the Plot to Kill Hitler (2009) page 71

(8) Anton Gill, An Honourable Defeat: A History of German Resistance to Hitler (1994) page 161

(9) Dan van der Vat, The Guardian (7th January, 2010)

(10) Theodore S. Hamerow, On the Road to the Wolf's Lair - German Resistance to Hitler (1997) page 279

(11) Dan van der Vat, The Guardian (7th January, 2010)

(12) Douglas Martin, The New York Times (9th January, 2010)

(13) Louis R. Eltscher, Traitors or Patriots: A Story of the German Anti-Nazi Resistance (2014) page 298

(14) A. J. Ryder, Twentieth Century Germany: From Bismarck to Brandt (1973) page 425

(15) Joachim Fest, Plotting Hitler's Death (1997) page 157

(16) Hans Gisevius, Valkyrie: An Insider's Account of the Plot to Kill Hitler (2009) page 66

(17) Helmuth von Moltke, letter to Freya von Moltke (October 1941)

(18) Peter Hoffmann, The History of German Resistance (1977) page 241

(19) Ger van Roon, Oberst Wilhelm Staehle; Ein Beitrag zu den Auslandskontakten des Deutschen Wilderstandes (1966) page 336

(20) Larry L. Rasmussen, Dietrich Bonhoeffer: Reality and Resistance (1972) page 188

(21) Susan Ottaway, Hitler's Traitors, German Resistance to the Nazis (2003) pages 140-141

(22) Hans Gisevius, Valkyrie: An Insider's Account of the Plot to Kill Hitler (2009) page 94

(23) Helmuth von Moltke, letter to Freya von Moltke (11th January, 1944)

(24) Peter Hoffmann, The History of German Resistance (1977) page 372

(25) William Shirer, The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich (1964) page 1272

(26) Louis L. Snyder, Encyclopedia of the Third Reich (1998) page 232

(27) Dan van der Vat, The Guardian (7th January, 2010)

(28) Douglas Martin, The New York Times (9th January, 2010)

(29) David Childs, The Independent (8th January, 2010)