Many of the German resistance groups during the Second World War planned a regime change and with a call to resistance, an assassination or other measures were intent above all on putting an end to Nazi rule. The members of the group later known as the Kreisau Circle, on the other hand, gave thought to the design of a new Germany after Hitler and developed plans for the establishment of a European democratic order. Its aim was the “New Resistance Order” – the title of a monograph by Dutch historian Ger van Roon.
The “Kreisau Circle”, which advanced to become the centre of civil resistance against Hitler in Germany, was by no means a tightly knit political association. Comprised of more than twenty activists and a similar number of sympathizers from various political, social and religious camps, it brought together social democrats and conservatives as well as the two large confessions. What united these groups was their opposition to National Socialism and the will to develop a new European order for Germany.
The leading figures in the Circle were Helmuth James Moltke, a great-grandnephew of the Prussian field marshal general and Peter Yorck von Wartenburg, the descendant of an old Prussian noble family.
The members of the Kreisau Circle met for the most part in small groups in Berlin, either at the Moltke or Yorck home or in the offices of the members. Since only two or three people took part in these meetings as a rule, many of the Circle members did not know how many people actually belonged to the group. Only Moltke and Yorck were in contact with all the participants and coordinated concept discussions. Working papers and drafts were debated at these numerous small meetings, mutually agreed upon and adjusted. Only at three meetings, which took place in the spring and autumn of 1942 and in spring 1943 at the Moltke estate in the Berghaus in Kreisau and were attended by between ten and twenty people, were the drafts discussed in a larger circle.
The members of the Kreisau Circle recognized early on “not only the devastation of the cities but also the horrific destruction in the minds and hearts of the people” (Moltke). They knew that a functioning democracy required both the participation and the sense of responsibility of its citizens. As early as 1939, Moltke had outlined his concept of democracy in a text on “Small Communities”:
“Only those who have carried some form of responsibility in smaller communities will have the right sense of responsibility towards a larger community, the state or any other large communities ...”.
Contact to military resistance was of prime importance for the Kreisau Circle, since it hoped to see the overthrow of the regime in this field, not as a result of Hitler’s assassination or death but of his arrest. The “law defilers” were to be tried in court and held accountable for their crimes. When a number of attempts failed, several members of the Kreisau Circle, including Adam von Trott zu Solz, Eugen Gerstenmaier, Julius Leber and Peter Yorck, joined the conspiracy of Claus Schenk von Stauffenberg, who attempted to assassinate Hitler on 20 Juli 1944. Moltke was not in favour of assassination, fearing ther adverse effects of a new stabbing legend.
The participants of the Kreisau Circle were also in close contact with other German resistance groups, such as those in the Church – including Bishop Preysing in Berlin, Cardinal Faulhaber in Munich, Bishop Dietz in Fulda and Bishop Wurm of the state of Württemberg – and the Goerdeler Circle, although its postwar plans for Germany and Europe were initially unacceptable to the Kreisau Circle.
After the failed attempt on Hiter’s life, many of the Kreisau Circle members were arrested and convicted. By the beginning of 1945 eight of them had been hanged in Plötzensee prison in Berlin. There was not enough evidence in the case of Helmuth James von Moltke to prove his participation in the assassination plot. He was convicted purely on the grounds of contemplating a future after the overthrow of Hitler and hanged in Plötzensee on 23 January 1945. “... we are going to be hanged because we contemplated together”, Moltke wrote in his last letter from prison on 10 January 1945.
After Moltke’s arrest in January 1944, the Kreisau Circle de facto ceased to exist and the individual members met independent of each other. Peter Yorck carried on the work, linking it to military resistance preparations for an assassination.
Although history took a different course, it remains a major achievement of the Kreisau Circle, a highly diverse social group, to have reflected on a new German social order within a common European state system.