This article was first published in the July 2017 edition of BBC History Magazine
In the Nazi regime’s male-dominated air industry, two women defied expectation and rose to prominence as test pilots. Hanna Reitsch (1912–79) and Melitta Schiller’s (1903–45) highly valued and dangerous work saw them connected to the Third Reich’s leading figures, and both were awarded a Nazi Germany military honour, the Iron Cross. Yet, as Clare Mulley reveals, the two women held opposing attitudes towards Nazism, which led them to dramatically different actions during the Second World War…
Q. What was the symbolic significance of flight in Nazi Germany?
A. The German air force was abolished following the First World War, as part of the Treaty of Versailles. Planes were destroyed and mechanised flight was banned. In response, gliding became the nation’s new aspirational sport. It gained a mass following; crowds of 30,000 people would come along to watch shows. Gliding was a symbol of patriotic regeneration and freedom – Germany’s phoenix rising from the ashes.
In 1920, Adolf Hitler flew for the first time. Crammed in between the gas canisters of an open biplane, he didn’t enjoy the experience. It was terrible weather and he got airsick. However, he instantly recognised the huge potential of flight. With its connotations of freedom and power, flying wasn’t just about sport or commerce for Hitler: it was a political machine. In 1932, he became the first leader to undertake an airborne election campaign and did so with huge theatrical panache. He would fly off at dusk, lights blazing in the sky. The Nazi party went on to use flight in all sorts of ways: they advertised party membership figures on the side of zeppelins and used planes to distribute propaganda leaflets all over the country.
Q. What have you learnt about these two remarkable female pilots?
A. Both were naturally brilliant pilots, but had incredibly different careers. Hanna Reitsch was the first woman to fly a helicopter and became one of very few women to fly the jet-rocket-powered Messerschmitt 163. She also tested planes with special wing tips intended to cut the steel cables underneath the zeppelins that formed the barricade around London. She would deliberately fly into balloon cables at huge personal risk: this was incredibly courageous work. After a terrible crash in which she reportedly “wiped her nose off her face”, Hanna also became an early plastic surgery patient.
Hanna Reitsch (1912–79) pictured with the Iron Cross, 1941. (Photo by Heinrich Hoffmann/ullstein picture via Getty Images)
Hanna is probably most famous for being one of the last people to fly into Berlin when the Red Army surrounded the city in the final days of the war. After her plane was shot at and her co-pilot slumped unconscious from blood-loss, she landed near the Führerbunker. Here she begged Hitler to let her fly him to safety, but he refused.
Melitta Schiller (later von Stauffenberg) learnt to fly over the same green Silesian slopes as Hanna. She too adored the sensation and freedom of flight. But she also loved the physics behind it, and these two passions came together in the cockpit. After an engineering degree, Melitta headed up one of the main Nazi aeronautical research centres. She spent half her time at the drawing board developing pioneering changes for the Luftwaffe and the other half testing out her own designs. Her speciality was dive bombing: almost vertical dives at very high speeds. This was hugely dangerous: the blood in your body was pulled to the extremities and pilots were at high risk of blacking out. To undertake one dive bomb was extraordinary. Melitta undertook around 1,500. Other experts couldn’t believe that one pilot could be doing all these tests and when they discovered it was a woman, they were absolutely astounded.
Q. How did Hanna and Melitta feel about the regime they worked under?
A. They were both proud German patriots with a strong sense of duty. However, they were committed to very different things: Hanna to the new Nazi regime, Melitta to a much older idea of Germany. They took diametrically opposed positions to Nazism. Hanna was delighted to be associated with Hitler’s party, which she saw as bringing back commerce, jobs and pride to her country. Even when she was made aware of what was happening in the concentration camps, she was very willing to look away and accept the Nazi cause uncritically. After the war, Hanna claimed that she was apolitical and, perhaps because of her gender, she was viewed as naïve. But in reality she made an active choice to support the regime, and despite being put through the denazification process, she never revised her opinion. Letters Hanna wrote after the war reveal that she was deeply anti-Semitic and she wore her Iron Cross even when it was illegal to do so.
Melitta, on the other hand, was critical of the regime from the start. Her story shows how complicated survival could be inside Nazi Germany. Melitta’s father had been born Jewish. In 1935, the Nuremberg laws meant that this Jewish ancestry – never relevant to Melitta before – suddenly became politically significant. Melitta’s family were in increasing danger, so in order to protect them she applied for ‘honorary Aryan’ status, which wasn’t forthcoming. By establishing herself as the leading expert on dive-bombing, Melitta made herself indispensable to the regime, giving weight to her application.
Q. How were these women used to fuel the Nazi propaganda machine?
A. The media portrayed Hanna as a wonderful flying Fräulein and she became quite a celebrity. You’ll see her in footage of Hitler’s birthday concert in 1944. Dressed in her home-made pseudo uniform decorated with the Iron Cross, with her blonde air curled, she looked extremely glamorous, and very Aryan.
Hanna was more than happy to undertake various PR stunts for the regime. In 1938, at an international motorshow intended to demonstrate the nation’s return to power, she became the first person to fly a helicopter indoors. After landing it, she emerged giving the Nazi salute. She was also used to boost morale during the war, sent to reinvigorate troops on the eastern front when things were going badly.
Melitta was also asked to do publicity work, but always managed to find an excuse. Eventually she buckled under the pressure and did a speech in Stockholm. Yet even then, she never actually mentioned Hitler or the Nazi regime. Instead she spoke about her country in vague, ambiguous terms.
Q. Did the pair cross paths? How did they feel about one another?
A. You might imagine that the only two Nazi female test pilots might have felt some sort of sorority, but actually they loathed one another. It was said that Melitta wouldn’t even have a cup of tea with Hanna. There were certainly some very frosty meetings. Hanna was very suspicious of Melitta and her political persuasions. She even insinuated that Melitta might have been trying to sabotage the war effort. With her father having been born Jewish, Melitta was really in a vulnerable position, so this was serious stuff. Hanna later stated there was nothing remarkable about Melitta’s work and even suggested that her Iron Cross wasn’t valid. So there was no love lost between the two.
Q. Did these women believe that their gender made them pioneers?
A. Hanna pushed for equal pay and opportunities, and even applied directly to senior Nazi leaders about the sexism she was experiencing. Melitta, on the other hand, considered herself an exception to the rule, and even said “we female pilots are not suffragettes”. With more pressing concerns, she had no interest in advancing the feminist cause. She would do her day’s work as a test pilot then go home, put on a pinafore and cook her husband dinner.
Q. What can these two women’s careers tell us about the contradictory ideology of the Nazi regime?
A. This story does highlight the contradictions of the regime. The Nazis claimed that the only place for women was in the home: one slogan was Kinder, Küche, Kirche meaning ‘Children, Kitchen, Church’. They also claimed there was no role at all for Jews. Yet they gave these two women – one part-Jewish – integral roles in the war effort, and awarded them the military honour of the Iron Cross.
There are other apparent contradictions too. Hanna was not a party member, but was an avid Nazi who maintained her anti-Semitic worldview for the rest of her life, and never condemned the policies or practices of the Nazi regime. By contrast, Melitta’s war work was probably of greater value to the Nazis, yet in 1944 she was connected to the most famous German attempt on Hitler’s life. These women were both brilliant pilots, both great patriots, and both incredibly courageous in different ways, but they responded very differently to the Nazi project. Ultimately it is the contrast in their beliefs, decisions and actions that make their stories so fascinating and important.
Clare Mulley is a historical author and biographer. She spoke about the women who flew for Hitler at the BBC History Magazine’s York History Weekend on Saturday 25 November 2017. Her latest book, The Women Who Flew for Hitler: The True Story of Hitler’s Valkyries, is out now, published by Pan Macmillan.