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Blood and Iron
From Bismark to Hitler the Von Moltke Family's Impact on German History
By Otto Friedrich

From Chapter One: "No Education but Thrashing"

Figures like Count Helmuth Carl Bernhard von Moltke do not just appear out of nowhere. The Moltkes thread back through centuries of German history to a time when Germany hardly existed. "In the year 1164," according to the field marshal's own account of his origins, "Henry the Lion, Duke of Bavaria [and Saxony], conquered the Obotrites, a tribe which lived in the region now known as the Grand Duchy of Mecklenburg. He founded there the Bishopric of Schwerin, and instituted judges and knights - who, of course, were not chosen from the conquered heathens, but from his own victorious men. As early as the year 1246 we find the name of Mattheus Moltke mentioned in the records, which are still in existence, as one of the `knights.' ...Not much later than this, however, we hear of the Moltkes in Sweden...."

The mid-thirteenth century, when Mattheus Moltke's name first appeared on a knightly register, was scarcely a time for neat national boundaries. The Mongols were invading Poland under the leadership of Genghis Khan's grandson, Batu; the Council of Lyons deposed Frederick II as emperor, and work was just beginning on the Cologne cathedral and the Alhambra in Granada. As for the wilds of Mecklenburg, the son of Henry the Lion married a granddaughter of the slain Obotrite chieftain Niklot, and so Mecklenburg duly became the only German territory ruled by a family of Slavic origin.

At least some of the Moltke knights pressed northward into Scandinavia. "We hear of the Moltkes in Sweden, and again in Denmark," the field marshal's survey continues, "where...they held high and influential positions in State and Church." These are not places and times that figure largely in the Anglo-American sense of history. Knut the Great, who ruled over Denmark, England, and Norway, is remembered chiefly as the unhappy King Canute who could not command the incoming tide to halt. How much less do we know of the protracted wars between King Waldemar IV and the encroaching fleets of the North German Hansa?

The Moltkes achieved an eminence in the north long before the field marshal imposed his name on the history of Prussia. One of them, Margaretha Moltke, married Christiern Nils Vasa in 1412 and thus became an ancestor of the Vasas who rose to the throne of Sweden in 1523. In Denmark, the most famous of the tribe was Count Adam Gottlob Moltke (1710-1792), who became what the Encyclopelia-Britannic calls "the inseparable companion" of King Frederick V, who "overwhelmed him with marks of favor." Adam Gottlob became both - the unofficial prime minister and one of the largest landowners in Denmark, but when Frederick died in his arms in 1766, he was banished from court by the new King Christian VII, who denounced the lanky courtier as "stork below and fox above." Adam Gottlob was understandably a conservative, but when Denmark's absolute monarchy finally lurched toward representative government, it was Adam Wilhelm Moltke, Adam Gottlob's grandson, who presided over the cabinet that introduced the constitution of 1849.

Are the Moltkes then a basically German family that migrated into Scandinavia or a Danish family with some branches in Germany?

Alexandra Isles, an extremely pretty young actress who got a lot of unwanted publicity when Rhode Island prosecutors portrayed her as the motive for Claus von Bulow's attempts to murder his wife, hesitates over the answer. Her father, Count Carl Adam Moltke, worked for more than twenty years at the Danish Mission to the United Nations, and his father, also Carl Moltke, had been Danish foreign minister. She has named her own son Adam.

"All the men in the family are called Adam," she observes, pouring out a Coca-Cola. "Adam Gottlob was kind of a hero, and the founding father. There was something I wanted to find you that once appeared in Ripley's Believe it or Not. It said Adam Gottlob Moltke was the father of twenty-two sons, and five became cabinet ministers, four were ambassadors, two were generals - they all went into public service. I think that element of public service is a very interesting thing about the Danish Moltke family. And it came back in Helmuth James, who is one of my heroes. There is no higher sense of public service than he chose. ..."

Pressed for the exact connection between the German and Danish families, Mrs. Isles offers a small red volume that she calls "the family tree." Published by Louis Bobe in Copenhagen in 1921, Stamtavle over Slaegten Moltke starts with handsome pictures of the Moltke coat of arms, a shield showing three male black grouse and a helmet surmounted by six peacock feathers. "Slaegten Moltke fores of den fremragende meklenborgske Historiker G.C.F. Lisch lidet overbe-visende tilbage..." It begins, reporting that Moltke has been reported to be the Wendic name for the black grouse on the family crest. Bobe rejects this theory because, he says, the Wendic language has no such name for such a bird. Besides, says Bobe, the first Moltkes also called themselves Moltiko, Moltike, and Moltike. He suggests that these were all nicknames "for the old Germanic personal name Molt or Malte."

He identifies the first known Moltke as Fredericus Moltiko, who was apparently either the uncle or the nephew of the rival claimant, Mattheus. This Fredericus first appeared in 1254 as a witness confirming the grant of certain privileges to the town of Lubeck by Jarmora, prince of Mecklenburg (or Meklenborg, as this Danish account has it). His name appears in the next few years on several similar grants by Prince Johan of Mecklenburg, and then, in 1260, on the grant of "Silderetten," or herring rights, by Prince Johan and his son Henrik to the town of Wismar. Such is our knowledge of Baltic history in the thirteenth century.

Bobe traces all the intertwining branches of the Danish Moltkes as far as an Ingeborg Margrethe, who died at the age of three months in Australia in 1895, but the field marshal's chronicle rather brusquely sweeps them all aside. "The male line of all these Swedish and Danish branches died out between 1440 and 1550..." he wrote. The family seat, he declared, was an estate called Stridfeld, which belonged to a knight, Eberhard Moltke, as early as 1260. "Stridfeld, near Tessin in Mecklenburg, is the ancestral home of the whole race," he wrote; "it remained in the family for 500 years, and for sixteen generations up to the year 1781... This love for a home, which was not situated in a beautiful country, is very remarkable, and affords a proof of their fidelity." The field marshal's account does not say what happened to Stridfeld in 1781, only that "the German Moltkes lost by degrees all their family estates, while the Danish had large possessions in Denmark."

The Danish Moltkes also lost at least some of their possessions. Alexandra Isles recalls that her descent passed through the eldest son of Adam Gottlob Moltke, "a scruffy-looking fellow who ran off to join Voltaire and dance on the Bastille, or whatever, and he got disinherited. So everybody had to work for a living after that. I remember we used to drive by one of the family estates, and my father would always moan and groan because there was this mile-long allee of beautifully clipped trees. But I think he would have had to drive the tractor, which I don't think he would have enjoyed." It was apparently to re-create such a palace, to regain the lost ancestral home at Stridfeld, that the field marshal acquired Kreisau and began planting trees. As early as 1848, long before he had ever seen Kreisau, he wrote to his brother Adolf: "My favorite thought is still, that by and by we may have a family gathering on an estate - I should prefer one in our dear German land."

The future German national hero was almost destined not to be a German at all. Before Prussia became a major military power under King Frederick the Great (1712-1786), an ambitious young man in northern Germany felt a magnetic attraction toward the Scandinavian powers. When Germany was tearing itself apart in the Thirty Years War, for example, Joachim Christoff von Moltke, the great-great-great grandfather of the future field marshal, joined the invading army of Denmark's King Christian IV. After the Danes withdrew in 1629, this particularly warlike Moltke went to Poland to join the forces of Sweden's King Gustavus Adolphus in continuing the ruinous war. Moltke showed exemplary courage at the Battle of Lutzen, where Gustavus Adolphus was killed in 1632, and he retired only in 1646 as a war-weary colonel.

It was the ruthless brilliance of Frederick the Great that imposed a new kind of order - Prussian military order - on central Europe. Frederick began his troublesome career by simply stealing the wealthy province of Silesia from the Habsburgs, then defending his theft through seven years of warfare against the Austrians, Russians, and French. When exhaustion finally forced him to retire from the battle-field to a life of benevolent despotism, playing his flute and debating with Voltaire, little Prussia was generally conceded an upstart's place among the great powers of Europe.

Of the ten sons born to the future field marshal's grandfather, Friedrich Casimir Siegfried von Moltke, six served as officers in the Prussian army (two others joined the Mecklenburg army and two died in childhood). One of these young Prussian officers, Friedrich Philipp Victor von Moltke, was a second lieutenant when he fell in love with Sophie Henriette Paschen, the daughter of a prosperous merchant in the German free city of Lubeck. He duly proposed and was accepted by the girl, but not by her father. Moltke immediately departed and went to stay with an older brother, Helmuth, who was the commanding officer in the nearby town of Parchim. "Soon after," the young lieutenant later wrote in a memoir for his children, "a messenger on horseback brought a letter from Frau Paschen to my brother, telling him that soon after my departure her daughter had fallen seriously ill and had declared she would marry no one but me. Her loving father was in great trouble and ready to give his consent if I were willing to return to them. I left...the following day, and the same evening we were betrothed. The Privy Councillor [Herr Paschen] made one condition, that I should leave the army and look after the estate...." Moltke described his thirteen years in the Prussian army as "very happy ones," but he abandoned his military career in September 1796 and married Henriette the following May.

By then, under his father-in-law's orders, he had already begun an erratic new career as a gentleman farmer. "I had bought the fee-farm of Liebenthal near Wittstock, and we went there some days after our wedding," he wrote. "Here was born my eldest son Wilhelm, March 23, 1798, and on May 22, 1799, my second son Friedrich. Then I sold Liebenthal and we went to live at Parchim, a town in Mecklenburg-Schwerin, where my brother Helmuth was commander. A third son was born to me the same year, and I called him Helmuth after my brother. I did not think then that this son forty years later was destined to be my joy, my pride, and my benefactor."

New births kept alternating with new moves. Moltke bought the estate of Gnewitz in 1801, sold it in 1803 and moved to Lubeck, where his fourth son, Adolf, was born in 1804, and his fifth, Ludwig, in 180. In that same year, he bought the estate of Augustenhof, in the neighboring province of Holstein. The run-down condition of this estate required him to build a new house there, so Henriette and her five young sons remained in her native Lubeck while Moltke supervised the progress of the building. Though Lubeck was a German free city, the province of Holstein was ruled by the king of Denmark, and Moltke's acquisition of the estate at Augustenhof required him to become a Danish subject. As with his abandonment of his army career, he acquiesced.

In this series of moves by the handsome young ex-officer, one can sense either weakness and indecisiveness or the simple incompetence of a professional soldier attempting to pursue a new career for which he had neither experience nor vocation. And in the ensuing difficulties, one can guess the reasons for a gradual estrangement between Moltke and his wife. She was a strong-willed and educated woman, proficient in music and foreign languages, and now she found herself caring for five young sons, largely by herself, while her husband struggled to master his third farm in less than ten years.

© 1995 Otto Friedrich

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