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Blood and Iron: From Bismarck to Hitler, the Von Moltke Family's Impact on German History

Blood and Iron: From Bismarck to Hitler, the Von Moltke Family's Impact on German History

by Otto Friedrich

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In the turbulent history of modern Germany the name of Moltke has stood for military power and also enduring moral strength. In the Franco-Prussian War and then World Wars I and II, in each a Moltke was a key figure, culminating in the arrest and execution for conspiracy by the Gestapo of Count Helmuth James von Moltke, the great-great-nephew of Field Marshal von


In the turbulent history of modern Germany the name of Moltke has stood for military power and also enduring moral strength. In the Franco-Prussian War and then World Wars I and II, in each a Moltke was a key figure, culminating in the arrest and execution for conspiracy by the Gestapo of Count Helmuth James von Moltke, the great-great-nephew of Field Marshal von Moltke, who had defeated the Austrians, then besieged and conquered Paris in 1871, and made Germany the dominant power in Europe. The Field Marshal's nephew, Helmuth Johannes Ludwig von Moltke, was Chief of Staff of the German armies in 1914. With his armies on the Maine only twenty miles from Paris, he suffered a nervous breakdown and was removed from command. And Helmuth James, working for Admiral Wilhelm Canaris in German intelligence and leader of the underground resistance to Hitler, was arrested by the Gestapo and tried and executed for treason in the last months of the war. At every major crisis in more than a century of German history the von Moltke family has played a critical role. The history of the family is thus a way of perceiving and assessing the history of modem Germany. For the Germany of the von Moltkes was also the Germany of Bismarck and Hitler, Wagner and Strauss, Nietzsche, Mann, and Brecht. Friedrich's vivid and knowledgeable style makes this an absorbing historical chronicle full of characters and events on a broad canvas along with personal histories, anecdotes, and gossip within and without the corndors of power.

Editorial Reviews

Boston Globe
Vivid yet sweeping narrative... Crammed with fascinating nuggets about a large cast of historical figures, this imaginative and engagingly written book is bound to attract a wide audience.
Christopher Lehmann-Haupt
Making history vivid and relating how the von Moltkes affected German history over the course of a century. —The New York Times
Gordon A. Craig
"For the present work Freidrich read exhaustively in the military history of Germany, a fact reflected in the shrewdness of his insights and judgments, but he did not allow this to weigh down his style, which is uncluttered, brisk and always entertaining. —The New York Times Book Review
Publishers Weekly - Publisher's Weekly
Opposing the Nazis from the outset, patriotic lawyer Count Helmuth James von Moltke worked as an analyst in the Third Reich's military intelligence headquarters, where he clandestinely supported the anti-Hitler resistance and devised a blueprint for a democratic Germany. Arrested by the Gestapo, he was executed in 1945, months after Hitler narrowly escaped a detonated bomb in an assassination attempt by his generals. Von Moltke abhorred Nazism as a terrible perversion of Prussian traditions that had been ratified in part by his great-great-uncle, Bismarck's field marshal, Helmuth Carl Bernhard von Moltke, who captured Paris in 1871 in the Franco-Prussian War. Yet Field Marshal von Moltke scorned ``that ill weed Democracy,'' and his nephew and namesake, General Helmuth von Moltke, German chief of staff in WWI, worked out the strategic plan for a two-front war against France and Russia that led him and his country to ruin. Peopling a vivid canvas with cameos of Wagner, Nietzsche, Brecht, Thomas Mann and others, prolific U.S. historian Friedrich recreates modern German history through the prism of the von Moltke family in a gripping political and military chronicle. Photos. (Nov.)
Library Journal
Harvard-educated historian Friedrich (Kingdom of Auschwitz, HarperCollins 1994) has written a multifaceted volume that is at once historical narrative, biography, and engrossing family history. The Von Moltke family epitomized Prussian nobility and the upper-class vanguard of a society in the newly created German state. Theirs is a story of 100 years of German history in which Von Moltke family members played crucial roles in turbulent European diplomacy and power struggles from the Franco-Prussian War (1871) through World War II. Field Marshal Von Moltke, who took Paris in 1871 and made Germany the dominant power in Europe, was the great great uncle of Count Helmuth James Von Moltke, who was implicated and later executed by the Gestapo in 1945 for conspiring against Hitler. In choosing the Von Moltkes, Friedrich chronicles, assesses, and illuminates an often tragic century of German history-a history as much of Bismarck, Hitler, Wagner, Strauss, Mann, and Brecht. Friedrich's engaging, accessible style puts this tumultuous period in Europe in reach of lay readers, history buffs, and scholars alike. Excellent complementary reading on Helmuth Von Moltke is found in Caleb Carr's chapter, "The Man of Silence," in Robert Cowley's Experience of War (Norton, 1992).-Thomas G. Anton, Field Museum of Natural History, Chicago

Product Details

HarperCollins Publishers
Publication date:
Harper Perennial
Edition description:
Product dimensions:
6.00(w) x 9.00(h) x 1.12(d)

Read an Excerpt

Uninhabited for longer than many a lifetime, Field Marshal Helmuth von Moltke's country estate at Kreisau now stands in a sorry state of dilapidation and decay. The roof leaks, as it has for several decades, and so the elaborately painted ceilings of the ground-floor reception rooms have fallen in. The rows of windows lining the brown stucco facade are mostly broken or boarded up. The two captured French cannon that once stood by the front door are gone. The field marshal's so-called Schloss (castle) is surrounded by a high wire fence, for the nearby barns have served a Polish collective farm ever since the long-disputed province of Silesia was stripped from Germany in the upheavals at the end of World War II. From the circle of red-tiled white farm buildings, two chickens now emerge and strut across the dusty barnyard, their maneuvers over their terrain contested only by a pair of towheaded little boys belaboring a small yellow soccer ball. At the edge of the barns, the lilacs bloom.

I saw battle-corpses, myriads of them. Some other lilacs inspired Walt Whitman to write of the American Civil War at about the same time that Count Moltke acquired his estate as a reward for Prussia's shattering victory over the Austrians at K”niggr„tz (1866). Whitman perhaps saw more than the Prussians.

And the white skeletons of young men, I saw them.

I saw the debris and debris of all the slain soldiers of the war,

But I saw they were not as was thought,

They themselves were fully at rest, they suffer'd not,

The living remain'd and suffer'd. . . .

Repairs are finally under way at the derelict Schloss, for the name ofMoltke resounds proudly through two centuries of German history, and the heirs to that legacy are determined to honor it. But German history is divided against itself, and so is the legacy of Kreisau. If the name of Moltke represents the field marshal's successive triumphs over the Danes, the Austrians, and the French, victories that made possible the Prussian creation of the German empire of 1871, it also represents almost the exact opposite. The last Moltke to own this estate at Kreisau was the field marshal's great-great nephew, Count1 Helmuth James von Moltke, who was destined to witness the terrible perversion of Prussian traditions under Adolf Hitler's Third Reich and who hated what he saw. In an age when honorable men lived in fear of the concentration camps, Helmuth James von Moltke began reaching out to form alliances with like-minded patriots who would work for the replacement of the Nazi dictatorship. Three times, they gathered here in Kreisau to chart the outlines of a post-Hitler Germany. In his efforts to maintain contact with Western diplomats, Moltke met several times with George F. Kennan, who was then charg‚ d'affaires at the U.S. Embassy in Berlin. Kennan was deeply impressed. "I consider him . . ." he wrote in his memoirs, "to have been the greatest person, morally, and the largest and most enlightened in his concepts, that I met on either side of the battle lines in the Second World War." Nazi Germany was no place for such a man. Almost inevitably, Moltke was arrested, prosecuted, and executed. He died just as Allied armies were pushing across the Rhine to liberate Germany from its Nazi masters.

So Kreisau, a village of about 500 souls, is now a shrine both to Germany's military past and to the rejection of that past. Is it not fitting, then, that this symbol of Germany's violent history should be located in what is now Poland, a nation that did not officially exist when Field Marshal Moltke acquired his estate? Kreisau is now called Kryzowa, and at a small fork in the road from Breslau (now Wroclaw, about thirty-five miles to the northeast), a drooping branch hides much of the only sign to Kreisau; the only visible evidence of the winding back road to the Moltke estate consists of a few letters: "zowa."

But at the boarded-up windows where the aged field marshal once looked out at his green park, the spring sunshine streams so brightly through the protective wooden slats that a visitor in April 1992 can see the skeletal framework of the empty interior. Six-inch-thick wooden beams and braces reach out in all directions, both horizontally and vertically. Any movement raises clouds of dust.

"This was the field marshal's private room," says Freya von Moltke, the widow of the executed Helmuth James, who abandoned the estate to the triumphant Soviet army in 1945 and took her two young sons to make a new home abroad, first in South Africa, then in Vermont. "He had his bed there, and his desk. And in that pretty alcove over there, he kept a perfectly round piece of porcelain for his wig. He had no hair, the field marshal, so he wore a wig."

A white-haired octogenarian, Freya von Moltke is making one of her periodic visits to Kreisau. She has emphatically renounced all family claims to the estate, but there are symbolic duties that call her here. The previous night, at the brown brick church of St. Nicholas in the nearby town of Brieg (now Brzeg), she attended the world premiere of a solemn oratorio by two Poles, Miroslaw Gasieniec and Janusz Telejko, drawn partly from her husband's political writings and entitled Helmuth James von Moltke, Witness to Christ. Now she is visiting Kreisau to consult with officials of the German-Polish foundation that has acquired the estate and begun the rebuilding. The German government has provided much of the money, and bare-chested young volunteers from places like Holland are providing much of the labor. The foundation is creating "a center for international peace and understanding," here amid the potato fields of Silesia, and Freya von Moltke wants to make sure that no angry ghosts of German nationalism make an unwelcome appearance in the rebuilt shrine.

And what of the elaborate military murals that once covered these walls—one showing the soldiers of Napoleon burning down the field marshal's childhood home in Lbeck, the other showing Moltke triumphant over Napoleon III on the battlefield of Sedan? "Those are covered with boards for now," says Freya von Moltke.

"Here! Here!" cries her sister-in-law, Veronica Jochum von Moltke, from the second floor, where she has just found a memento of the departed family. It used to be a custom for all the children in a household to take turns standing in a doorway once a year while the father measured their various heights at that particular moment. "Here is Helmuth James," says Veronica, a gifted pianist who married Helmuth James's younger brother Wilhelm after the war, in 1961. "He must have been one meter ninety," she goes on, stretching out one arm but barely able to reach the ancient pencil mark, "even when they left here in 1927." Height is another one of the Moltke traditions, and Helmuth James did indeed stand well over six feet tall.

"Nineteen twenty-eight," Freya von Moltke corrects her sister-in-law from the hallway. As the widow of the executed Helmuth James, she often plays the role of guardian of family traditions. It is an integral part of the Moltke family saga that the economic crises of the 1920s, which led to the rise of Adolf Hitler, impoverished the descendants of Germany's great military hero. Helmuth James's father frugally moved out of the field marshal's Schloss and into a nearby cottage known as the Berghaus, meaning mountain house. ("Mountain" is a rather relative term in Europe, but a few modest hills do rise from the richly green meadows and the golden fields of rape around Kreisau; the long terrace that used to extend along one side of the Berghaus provided a splendid view of the Eulengebirge, or Owl Mountains, along the nearby Czech frontier.)

"And here is Willo," says Veronica, pointing out the pencil mark that represents her late husband. "And Jowo," meaning Joachim Wolfgang, the second son and the only surviving one, an art historian now living in Switzerland. "And down here are the von Hlsens, who were younger." This is an intricate familial relationship. Helmuth James's aunt Lenore married a von Hlsen, and so did his brother Jowo. "But here was a swastika that somebody painted—" Among the pencil marks representing the young von Hlsens, there are signs of angry, vehement scraping, white scars that gleam in the surrounding shadows.

"Who did that?"

"Some Poles painted the swastika, I think," says Veronica. "They thought that all Germans were Nazis, and so since Germans lived here—but Freya had it all scratched out."

"I couldn't allow the Hackenkreuz in this house," Freya says from the hallway.

"And who lived in this other room here?" Veronica inquires, changing the subject.

"Aunts," says Freya. "There were always several aunts here."

Meet the Author

Otto Friedrich (1929-1995) was a journalist and cultural historian. A contributing editor at The Saturday Evening Post and Time magazine, he was the author of fourteen books, including Before the Deluge: A Portrait of Berlin in the 1920s.

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