By Helmuth James von Moltke

Edited and translated from the German

By Beate Ruhm von Oppen

Knopf. 441 pp. $24.95

IN THE WEEKS before his trial and execution by strangling, Helmuth James von Moltke, the German aristocrat and lawyer, used to tell fellow prisoners while exercizing in the yard at Tegel prison: "Prepare yourselves; it takes twenty minutes to die."

That warning does not appear in the present collection of letters, but it is typical of this unflappable, grave intellectual who opposed Hitler without actually involving himself in Claus von Stauffenberg's bomb-plot, which failed on July 20, 1944. Had Moltke not been arrested in January of that year, he would no doubt have backed the assassination attempt. And his end would have been the same. He might not have written so many letters, however, which would have been a pity as these to Freya, his young wife, have much the same force and gossipy bite as Galeazzo Ciano's diaries, providing a behind-the-scenes view of the German war machine.

One of Germany's best and brightest, Moltke had a secure career ahead of him in the foreign ministry, at least until 1939, when he began to apply his formidable legal talents to the saving of Jews and prisoners of war. Based in Berlin, but forever scurrying off to Oslo, Warsaw, Paris, Brussels and Vienna to intercede and confer, he became an international courier of compassion. Estimating that in 1943 Germany had 19 guillotines "working at considerable speed," beheading 50 per day (not counting deaths in the camps), he tried to save as many non-German prisoners as he could.

In these pages he reports the fatigue and frustration, but skirts the grisly facts. Only now and then does he tell Freya, at home looking after the family estate, what his dear friend Harald Poelchau, the Tegel chaplain, reports to him with stoic powerlessness: Five of his charges were told at 7 p.m. that they were to be executed next morning at 5 (Oct. 9, 1941); his job is "the same as always, only considerably increased in quantity. Yesterday it was the turn of 13 women" (Aug. 6, 1943). This link with Poelchau is extraordinary since he, night after night, sits with the condemned until the hangman sends for them, while Moltke wheels and deals, often successfully, all over Europe, for lives in just as much jeopardy. In the end, with grievous appositeness, it is Poelchau who smuggles prisoner Moltke's letters out of Tegel, and Freya's in.

Of some 1,600 letters, this edition prints fewer than the German one, but there is enough here for us to get to know well this gentle, diagnostic spirit, surely one of the most articulate martyrs of our time. He was very tall, had a South African mother, and wrote a tiny, neat script. Freya von Moltke hid the letters in the beehives on the thousand-acre Kreisau estate, where in 1940 her husband, to cheer himself up, instituted regular gatherings of compatible leaders and intellectuals intent on rebuilding Germany after Hitler was gone. He once described those bees and their hives as "his favorite object of meditation," perhaps because they paralleled the steady, joint efforts of his circle of friends (later called the Kreisau Circle by the Gestapo) to see beyond Nazism. One of the things which helped him keep his aplomb to the very end was his ability to fuse disparate callings. A passionate farmer, he was always asking Freya about the weighing of pigs, the lilacs and "the little flowering prunus," new fences, cherry trees, the sugar-beet harvest, ploughing, manure, and the wisdom of keeping a pair of ducks.

Rarely at Kreisau, he worked for Admiral Canaris's Abwehr (the German intelligence service) in its foreign division. As legal adviser to the high command, he found operation orders fascinating; he had never been allowed to see such things. The fascination wore off, however, as his awareness of atrocity increased, and his English-educated sensibility recoiled. His stiff upper lip was the badge of a strict conscience which, in these letters over the war years, becomes less and less tolerant of violence. In his most characteristic outburst, he denounces France's Maginot Line for having removed thousands of square kilometers "out of useful cultivation":

"In this entire region nothing grows but thistles and other weeds, and the wind just blowing across it was carrying whole consignments of mature thistle seed, to spread like a plague over German land perhaps 100 km. away, where people will have no idea why there are so many thistles."

He was an ecologist before the word came in, regarding the planet and its rind as not only sacred but also ennobling. His soul writhes in the presence of psychotic Nazi technocrats and nerdy Nazi families buying up dry goods in Paris. Hilter's showcased Olympic Games sicken him no less than mental homes for SS men with nervous breakdowns from executing women and children. He can hardly believe what is happening to Europe while he goes through the standard motions, taking Phanoform for insomnia, being plagued by lumbago and sciatica, hunting a purse for Freya along Tauentzienstrasse and eyeing four volumes of "the little red leather Temple edition of Shakespeare."

Habituated to long and exhausting briefs, he sometimes compresses his thoughts into exclamatory asides: "Today I can endure the sufferings of others with an equanimity I would have found execrable a year ago"; "I love ships, and all pictures of ships in motion excite me. To me a ship is a symbol of freedom"; "every man is a special thought of the Creator's mind"; "we need a revolution, not a coup d'etat." He reads the Times of London daily, as well as Spinoza, Kant, Voltaire, Ernst Junger, War and Peace and Vanity Fair, and gives Freya a running commentary on what he gets to eat, from blue plums bought in Belgium to caviar, ham-in-burgundy, duck, and crepes (he dotes, actually, on mashed potatoes).

In the end, he goes to the hangman "steadfast and calm -- even with joy," as reported by the Catholic prison chaplain at Tegel. He even enjoys sparring at his trial with Freisler, the loud and tyrannical hanging judge. In his alert, mellow way, he had an eye for the red flashlights of the whores on Kurfurstendamm, for the man in cell 76 at Ravensbruck named Poseidon because he was in charge of watering the flowers. He was also the world citizen who once, in Istanbul, wrote of the Black Sea: "I simply can't see the water without instantly realizing that this same water laps Table Mountain, Sydney, and Shanghai."

His final letters while awaiting execution address his sons and the world at large as well as Freya, and they will profoundly concentrate the mind of anyone who reads them. What a spectacle this book presents of homo sapiens gone to waste. Beate Ruhm von Oppen's translation is considerate and idiomatic; one sees her name and recalls Lt. Georg Sigismund von Oppen, who was with Stauffenberg in Berlin on the day of the bomb-plot.

The final letter is dated Jan. 11, 1945, but Moltke's execution took place on Jan. 23. The flap copy says he was educated at Oxford; he was educated at Breslau, Berlin, Vienna and in London, and became persona grata at All Souls.

Paul West's novels include "The Very Rich Hours of Count von Stauffenberg" and "Lord Byron's Daughter."