Female flyers in Nazi Germany: 60 seconds with Clare Mulley
Brilliant pilots Hanna Reitsch and Melitta von Stauffenberg fought convention to make their names in the male-dominated field of flight in 1930s Germany, and both were awarded the Iron Cross for service to the Third Reich. At our York History Weekend this November, Clare Mulley will get under the skin of these two distinctive and unconventional women…
Ahead of her talk, ‘The Women Who Flew for Hitler: A True Story of Soaring Ambition and Searing Rivalry’, we caught up with Clare to find out more…
Q: What can audiences look forward to in your talk?
A: Hanna Reitsch and Melitta von Stauffenberg were both brilliant pilots, and proud German patriots with a strong sense of honour. Although both women received the Iron Cross for their courage and devotion to duty as test-pilots during the war, they ended their lives on opposite sides of history. As well as showing how, why and what they flew for the Nazi regime against the backdrop of the 1936 Olympics, the Eastern Front, the Berlin Aero Club and Hitler’s bunker, I take people behind the scenes with some of my own adventures during my research. Not all of these stories, or all the photographs I show, are in the book.
Q: Why are you so fascinated by this topic?
A: Every chapter of Hanna and Melitta’s lives is packed with drama. As test-pilots, they would deliberately fly into the steel cables of captured barrage-balloons to test prototype wing-blades; fight to stay conscious while undertaking near vertical nose-dives in experimental Stuka dive-bombers; and take up the world’s first rocket-powered aeroplane, the Messerschmitt Komet. I love the congruence of gender, technology and extreme danger here, but their private lives at the heart of the Third Reich were just as perilous. For me, it is the contrasting motivations of these two pilots that make this such compelling story.
Women, more usually honoured by the regime for the number of children they had, were not expected to become test-pilots. Hanna and Melitta were exceptional. Hanna was bubbly, blonde and blue-eyed, a perfect example of ‘Aryan’ womanhood and a ‘fanatical Nazi’, devoted to her führer and the regime. The darker, lesser-known Melitta seemed more reserved but was no less keen to serve her country. Melitta knew she had to make herself uniquely valuable to the regime as a means to protect herself and her family. Although raised a Protestant, her father had been born Jewish.
Hanna Reitsch. (Photo by Keystone/Hulton Archive/Getty Images)
So, we have two women who learnt to fly over the same green slopes. They knew each other, loathed each other and were both awarded the Iron Cross for their service. Yet ultimately each woman developed her own radical plan to bring a very different conclusion to the war.
Remarkably, Melitta and Hanna’s stories have never been told together, so the research was also fascinating. I was able to interview family members and veterans who knew both women, and found incredibly candid unpublished letters penned by Hanna, as well as Melitta’s handwritten 1943/44 diaries. There is layer upon layer of history here: extreme drama, huge themes to explore, and significant new insights are revealed through the contrasting beliefs, decision and actions of these women.
Q: Tell us something that might surprise or shock us about this area of history.
A: The whole premise of this book is extraordinary. The Nazi regime based much of its policy on the ‘biological’ concepts that women had purely domestic value, and that Jews had no value at all. This story reveals how the leadership then bestowed their highest honours on two women – one ‘Aryan’, the other defined as Jewish ‘Mischling’ – for their skills and achievements in the male-dominated world of flight, and in absolute defiance of such ‘natural’ laws. It is a shocking story on several levels, but at times also a deeply uplifting one.
Melitta von Stauffenberg. (Photo by DRK/ullstein bild via Getty Images)
Q: What is the hardest question you’ve ever been asked about your area of expertise?
A: Any history rooted in Nazi Germany raises huge moral issues, and is tied to the appalling facts of the Holocaust. I do get asked the big questions – such as how much did ‘ordinary’ people in Nazi Germany know, or to what extent did the conditions of war and dictatorship prevent defiance. Recent research into the lives of civilians inside Nazi Germany during the war is now helping us to gain more insight, but there will never be simple answers to such complex questions.
Q: If you could go back in time to meet one historical figure, who would you choose and why?
A: Ideally I would go back in time to meet the subject of my next book. Once I arrived at the right spot in space and time, it would be very good of them to introduce themselves to me, as at present I am not sure who they are.
Q: What job do you think you would be doing now if you weren’t an author?
A: Researching this book with a flight in a glider revealed to me that it would not be a job as a stunt pilot. In retrospect, perhaps it was not a good idea to make copious notes while in the air. When younger, my daughters decided to live on a canal boat together and taste-test biscuits for various factories around the country – that doesn’t sound a bad sort of life.
Clare Mulley is an award-winning author and journalist whose books include The Spy Who Loved and The Woman Who Saved the Children. Clare will be speaking about the women who flew for Hitler at BBC History Magazine’s York History Weekend on Saturday 25 November.