Harald Poelchau was born in Potsdam, Germany, on 5th October, 1903. He began studying theology at the Church University in Bethel in 1922, followed by social work at the Berlin College of Political Science. After working for two years as managing director of the German Union for Juvenile Courts and Legal Aid for Juveniles, he gained his doctorate in 1931 under Paul Tillich, the chief proponent of Christian Socialism. (1)
After the 1933 General Election, Chancellor Adolf Hitler proposed an Enabling Bill that would give him dictatorial powers. Such an act needed three-quarters of the members of the Reichstag to vote in its favour. All the active members of the Communist Party (KPD), were in prison, in hiding, or had left the country (an estimated 60,000 people left Germany during the first few weeks after the election). This was also true of most of the leaders of the other left-wing party, Social Democrat Party (SDP). (2)
However, Hitler still needed the support of the Catholic Centre Party (BVP) to pass this legislation. Hitler therefore offered the BVP a deal: vote for the bill and the Nazi government would guarantee the rights of the Catholic Church. The BVP agreed and when the vote was taken on 24th March, 1933, only 94 members of the SDP voted against the Enabling Bill. Soon afterwards the Communist Party and the Social Democrat Party became banned organisations. Party activists still in the country were arrested. (3)
In 1933 Harald Poelchau was the first prison chaplain to be appointed under the Nazi regime. He gave moral support to the victims and accompanied many condemned people to their execution. (4) Poelchau was highly critical of the hierarchical bureaucracy of the main churches in Germany and believed they had lost sight of human beings as the subject and object of ecclesiastical life. Poelchau was one of many Christians who took this view: "There was a strong utopian streak in their thought and planning, which was infused with Christian and socialist ideals, as well as remnants from the youth movement of a romantic belief in the dawning of a new era. They basically believed that all social and political systems were reaching a dead end and that capitalism and Communism, no less than Nazism, were symptomatic of the crisis deep and all encompassing in modern mass society." (5)
In 1940 Peter Graf Yorck von Wartenburg and Helmuth von Moltke joined forces to establish the Kreisau Circle, a small group of intellectuals who were ideologically opposed to fascism. Harald Poelchau joined this group. Other people involved included Adam von Trott, Fritz-Dietlof von der Schulenburg, Wilhelm Leuschner, Julius Leber, Adolf Reichwein, Alfred Delp, Eugen Gerstenmaier, Freya von Moltke, Carlo Mierendorff, Marion Yorck von Wartenburg, Ulrich-Wilhelm Graf von Schwerin, Dietrich Bonhoffer, Theodor Haubach and Jakob Kaiser. "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." (6)
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." (7) Joachim Fest argues that the "strong religious leanings" of this group, together with its ability to attract "devoted but undogmatic socialists," but has been described as its "most striking characteristic." (8)
Members of the group came mainly from the young landowning aristocracy, the Foreign Office, the Civil Service, the outlawed Social Democratic Party and the Church. "There were perhaps twenty core members of the circle, and they were all relatively young men. Half were under thirty-six and only two were over fifty. The young landowning aristocrats had left-wing ideals and sympathies and created a welcome haven for leading Social Democrats who had elected to stay like the journalist-turned-politician Carlo Mierendorff, and... Julius Leber, were the political leaders of the group, and their ideas struck lively sparks off older members of the Resistance like Goerdeler." (9)
After the failed attempt to assassinate Adolf Hitler on 20th 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." (10)
Members of the Kreisau Circle were arrested and executed including Peter Graf Yorck von Wartenburg, Fritz-Dietlof von der Schulenburg, Adam von Trott, Ulrich-Wilhelm Graf von Schwerin, Wilhelm Leuschner, Adolf Reichwein, Julius Leber, Theodor Haubach, Alfred Delp and Dietrich Bonhoffer. As the prison chaplain he managed to provide a link between those arrested and their families. (11)
For example, Helmuth von Moltke 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. This letter was delivered to Freya von Moltke by Poelchau. (12)
In 1945, together with Eugen Gerstenmaier, he set up the relief organization of the Evangelical Churches in Stuttgart and became its general secretary. Back in Berlin from 1946, Poelchau was involved in the Soviet occupation zone in the prison system of the Central Administration of Justice. This was associated with a teaching position in criminology and prison science at Humboldt University. (13)
Harald Poelchau died on 29th April, 1972.
Harald Poelchau was a Protestant cleric with political affiliations, he worked in 1931-1932 with Paul Tillich, the chief proponent of Religious Socialism. In 1933 he was the first prison chaplain to be appointed under the Nazi regime. He gave moral support to the victims of Nazi violence and accompanied many condemned people to their execution. Joined the Kreisau Circle in 1941 but avoided arrest in 1944 and provided a link between those less fortunate and their families. After the war he continued to work as a prison chaplain until 1951.
It was founded and held together by Helmuth von Moltke, a great-grandnephew of the celebrated army commander of the Franco-Prussian War, who worked in the Wehrmacht dubbed the Kreisau Circle after the estate owned by the Moltke family in Silesia, although it met there only two or three times. Its intense discussions, conducted in working groups, took place more frequently in various locations in Berlin; beginning in early 1943 most were held on Hortensienstrasse in Lichterfelde, at the home of Peter Yorck von Wartenburg, another bearer of a famous name in Prussian history... While Moltke has been described as the "engine" of the group, Yorck von Wartenburg was its "heart".
Around Moltke and Yorck gathered what at first glance appeared to be a motley array of strong-willed individuals with markedly different origins, temperaments, and convictions... The most striking characteristic of this group, apart from its strong religious leanings, was its earnest and quite successful attempt to attract a number of devoted but undogmatic socialists...
A number of figures from the Christian resistance also joined the Kreisau Circle, including the Jesuits Alfred Delp and Augustin Rösch, as well as prominent Protestants like the theologian Eugen Gerstenmaier and the prison chaplain Harald Poelchau. Fritz-Dietlof von der Schulenburg and Julius Leber were also loosely affiliated with this group...
There was a strong utopian streak in their thought and planning, which was infused with Christian and socialist ideals, as well as remnants from the youth movement of a romantic belief in the dawning of a new era. They basically believed that all social and political systems were reaching a dead end and that capitalism and Communism, no less than Nazism, were symptomatic of the crisis deep and all encompassing in modern mass society.
(1) Hans Mommsen, Alternatives to Hitler (2003) page 288
(2) Joachim Fest, Plotting Hitler's Death: The German Resistance to Hitler (1997) page 20
(3) Louis L. Snyder, Encyclopedia of the Third Reich (1998) page 84
(4) Hans Mommsen, Alternatives to Hitler (2003) page 288
(5) Joachim Fest, Plotting Hitler's Death (1997) page 158
(6) Louis R. Eltscher, Traitors or Patriots: A Story of the German Anti-Nazi Resistance (2014) page 298
(7) A. J. Ryder, Twentieth Century Germany: From Bismarck to Brandt (1973) page 425
(8) Joachim Fest, Plotting Hitler's Death (1997) page 157
(9) Anton Gill, An Honourable Defeat: A History of German Resistance to Hitler (1994) page 161
(10) William Shirer, The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich (1964) page 1272
(11) Hans Mommsen, Alternatives to Hitler (2003) page 288
(12) Louis L. Snyder, Encyclopedia of the Third Reich (1998) page 232
(13) Don Allen Gregory, After Valkyrie: Military and Civilian Consequences of the Attempt to Assassinate Hitler (2018) page 183