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Moral legacy of Nazi resister takes root in Germany – and abroad

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As Germany's long, often-praised reconciliation with its Nazi past digs deeper, it brings forward characters such as Christian Nazi resister Helmuth James von Moltke.

On his centenary anniversary Sunday, German Chancellor Angela Merkel praised him as a symbol of "European courage" and for having a vision of a democratic Europe far ahead of its time.

Mr. Von Moltke, descendant of one of Germany's greatest military generals, was executed in 1945 for collaborating against Hitler, partly as the guiding spirit of the Kreisau Circle, a collection of German intellectuals, theologians, and aristocrats committed to ending Hitler's rule and rebuilding Germany.

His commemoration signifies Germany's persistent efforts to face its Nazi past, an effort now praised as a model of reconciliation at a time when Germany holds the EU presidency. The tribute showed a deeper phase of that reconciliation by highlighting the life of a Christian dissenter whose hidden role and clear thinking in the midst of Nazi atrocities is getting more attention in historical, legal, and religious circles.

Along with greater awareness of figures like Von Moltke, Germany is now in a phase of war-era memory that includes the plight of millions of Germans forced to leave Poland after the war. A TV movie last week, Die Flucht, "The Escape" – has been hotly debated here.

"The Germans have done due diligence in looking at history in recent years through education and films, and are a model in some ways," argues Timothy Ryback, codirector of the history and reconciliation project at the Salzburg Seminar in Austria. "The caveat is that Germans can make more of the wartime dissent than was actually present.... For the most part, the German people did not try to topple a tyrant. They loved Hitler."

Undermining the Nazis from within

Working from the midst of military intelligence in Berlin, Von Moltke took great risks by being at the center of intense debates over how and whether to kill Hitler. After the war, Germans found courage in those who carried out the failed July 20, 1944, coup plot to kill Hitler.

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