Helmuth Caspar von Moltke, son of an anti-Nazi hero, uses the
family estate in Poland to teach teenagers about democracy and
protecting human rights.
Striding down from the tiny "emperor station" near Schweidnitz in
Lower Silesia (now in Poland, at one time Germany), Helmuth Caspar
von Moltke arrives at Kreisau, a sprawling estate that is his
birthplace and childhood home.
As he walks along a dirt path, this tall, elegant man feels the
weight of responsibility to see to it that Kreisau, laden with
personal memories and important history, be used to promote a
peaceful, united Europe. It was this vision for which his father
died: It was here that his father and a group of his friends met
secretly to reject the Nazis and plot a democratic Germany as part
of a united Europe without Adolf Hitler.
Those were dangerous, treasonous ideas in 1930s and '40s Germany.
They led to prison and execution for most of those involved in the
In 1866, German Chancellor Otto von Bismarck had helped Mr.
Moltke's great-great uncle, Field Marshal Count Bernhard von Moltke,
acquire the estate, a thank-you for help in winning a war against
As children, Caspar and his brother, Konrad, would wait eagerly
for the steam engine train to puff up to the emperor station. It
wasn't until much later that they learned what went on at Kreisau:
Their father, Helmuth James von Moltke, had gathered his friends
there to plan for a new Germany without the "Fuhrer."
After the Allied victory in 1945, Germans were driven out of
Silesia; and Moltke's home, renamed Krzyzowa and now part of Poland,
fell into ruin. But the Kreisau story did not end. It only slept
during the years when his mother, Freya, took her two young sons
first to Switzerland, then to South Africa and eventually Britain.
Slowly, appreciation for the Moltke legacy was reborn. Inspired
by Helmuth James, individuals in Poland and East Germany vowed to
turn crumbling Kreisau into a "New Kreisau," an international
meeting place for young people. Freya became honorary chair of the
New Kreisau Center for European Mutual Understanding.
Moltke took over that role upon his mother's death two years ago.
A retired lawyer, he lives in Montreal and New England with his
wife, but works intensely for the New Kreisau. "We have our property
back, but in a different way," he says. "It is now serving a useful
Thousands of youths from Germany to Ukraine, Belarus to
Afghanistan, converge on Kreisau each year to participate in
workshops designed to continue the Moltke family's legacy - the
protection of human rights and advocacy for democracy and tolerance.
Hitler no longer endangers Europe. But the extremism ignited by
Europe's current economic upheavals could. Passing on his parents'
ideals represents the best way there is to "inoculate" young people
today against extremist ideology, Moltke says.
As the most visible spokesperson for Kreisau, Moltke epitomizes
the ability of former enemies - Germany and Poland - to turn hatred
into reconciliation. "A lot of terrible history happened between
Russia and Poland, and between Germany and Poland," says Moltke, who
was 6 years old when Hitler's Gestapo (secret police) hanged his
For more than a century until the Treaty of Versailles in 1918,
Russia, Prussia, and Austria had repeatedly divided and reconfigured
Poland between themselves. Later, Nazi Germany made no secret of its
intention to erase Poland and its people from the map. As a border
region between Poland and Germany, Lower Silesia symbolized the deep
tensions between the two countries long after it was given to Poland
in 1945. There, Poles' distrust and fear of Russia and Germany
remained deeply anchored.
Then in the months before the Berlin Wall came down in 1989, a
small group of Polish and East German intellectuals and theologians
drew inspiration and strength from the story of Kreisau in their own
struggle to build a new post-communist Europe. …