Biographers' Club Prize-winner Clare Mulley’s The Women Who Flew for Hitlera dual biography of Nazi Germany's most highly decorated women pilots.
Hanna Reitsch and Melitta von Stauffenberg were talented, courageous, and strikingly attractive women who fought convention to make their names in the male-dominated field of flight in 1930s Germany. With the war, both became pioneering test pilots and were awarded the Iron Cross for service to the Third Reich. But they could not have been more different and neither woman had a good word to say for the other.
Hanna was middle-class, vivacious, and distinctly Aryan, while the darker, more self-effacing Melitta came from an aristocratic Prussian family. Both were driven by deeply held convictions about honor and patriotism; but ultimately, while Hanna tried to save Hitler’s life, begging him to let her fly him to safety in April 1945, Melitta covertly supported the most famous attempt to assassinate the Führer. Their interwoven lives provide vivid insight into Nazi Germany and its attitudes toward women, class, and race.
Acclaimed biographer Clare Mulley gets under the skin of these two distinctive and unconventional women, giving a fulland as yet largely unknownaccount of their contrasting yet strangely parallel lives, against a changing backdrop of the 1936 Olympics, the Eastern Front, the Berlin Air Club, and Hitler’s bunker. Told with brio and great narrative flair, The Women Who Flew for Hitler is an extraordinary true story, with all the excitement and color of the best fiction.
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LONGING FOR FREEDOM 1903–1932
Seventeen-year-old schoolgirl Melitta Schiller stuffed her long dark hair into a tight-fitting leather flying cap and strode over to the glider she had finally been given permission to take up. Resting on the grass, its flimsy wooden frame was as light and fragile as a bird's skeleton, and yet full of promise. For months over the spring of 1920 Melitta had been a spectator, enviously watching young men learn to glide above the grassy valleys near her boarding school at Hirschberg in eastern Germany. At first she was largely ignored. It was assumed that a girl would do no more than stand at a safe distance and admire the brave men risking their lives for the thrill and the glory of flight. But Melitta was more interested in flying than social niceties. Soon she was helping to retrieve, mend and launch the gliders whenever an extra pair of hands was needed, and one warm day she was rewarded with the chance to attempt a flight herself. Perching on the centre of the plank that served as a seat, she found her balance, put both hands on the control stick, and looked up. Her 'fine, sensitive face' was torn between joy and concentration. Then she gave a short nod. A moment later Melitta was powered into the air by two lines of young men in knitted jerseys, all pulling rubber-cord tow ropes as they charged down the slopes ahead of her. She pulled on the stick, released the tow, and soared above her ground team as they ducked or tumbled into the grass. Then she curved away from the contours of the world. She was gliding, observing every shudder of her machine as it responded to her hand on the stick or the shift of her weight. Melitta was mesmerized. Right from the start, she later confessed, 'Flying exerted an irresistible magic on me ... I was dominated all along by the longing for freedom.'
The first record of Adolf Hitler climbing into a cockpit also comes from the spring of 1920. Hitler's was a dramatic open-biplane flight from Munich to Berlin where he hoped to join the rightwing nationalist Kapp Putsch and witness the historic fall of the democratic Weimar Republic. Strapping a pair of goggles over his leather cap, Hitler composed his face, held onto his valise, and put his life in the hands of his pilot, the Great War flying ace Robert Ritter von Greim. 'In his tight, open seat, cramped between canister and oil, and buffeted by the wind, only one thought occupied his mind,' wrote the journalist Otto Dietrich. 'Will we make it to Berlin in time?' Rough weather slowed them down, making visibility difficult and drenching both pilot and passenger. With no navigational aids, Greim had to make a stopover in Jüterbog where, according to Dietrich, the plane was surrounded by a hostile crowd of 'distraught Marxists'. By the time they reached Berlin, the putsch had failed. Hitler reportedly donned a false beard to make a discreet exit from the airfield, passing himself off as an accountant. Yet despite the appalling weather, his airsickness, their late arrival and the failure of the putsch, he had been thrilled by the flight. For him the aeroplane was not just for sport or for the military; it was a political machine, and he was determined to align himself with this most modern form of travel.
The 'air age' had arrived in Germany at the turn of the twentieth century. It was 1900 when mighty Zeppelin airships had first fired the imagination of the German public, embodying ageold dreams of freedom and power. Three years later, less than twelve months after Melitta's birth on 9 January 1903, the Wright brothers successfully tested their pioneering engine-powered aeroplane in the USA. Within five years Germany was gripped by 'flight fever'. Over the next decade the country competed to set world records for altitude, distance, speed and endurance, and its successes generated a surge of patriotism. Flight had become the international measure of modernity and dynamism, and Germany was a country increasingly defined by its aspirations. Yet despite growing up during this craze for flight, as Melitta later acknowledged, 'The decision to devote her life to flying and thus to a job which ... right from the start, appeared to be a specifically masculine one was, admittedly, unusual for a young girl.'
Melitta was born in Krotoschin, a country town historically within the Kingdom of Poland but at that time in the Prussian province of Posen, near the Russian border. The history of the town was reflected in its demographics. Almost two-thirds of the population were Polish but Melitta's family belonged to the privileged and conservative Protestant German community. Her father, Michael Schiller, was a civil engineer, architect and civil servant whose family, from Odessa, had become established through the fur trade. A proud local official, he liked his shirts to have high collars, his expensive coats to be double-breasted, and his fine moustache to be stiffly curled with wax. Her mother, Margarete Eberstein, came from similarly respectable roots, being the daughter of a schools inspector from Bromberg descended from a noble German family. She was almost twenty years younger than her husband, and a portrait by her talented sister Gertrud von Kunowski, who had studied at Breslau art academy, shows her looking effortlessly – almost carelessly – beautiful in her wedding dress, a coral choker echoing the deep red of the peonies resting in her lap. Her daughters would remember Margarete's 'distinguished coolness', even as she struggled through two world wars.
Settling in Krotoschin, the newly-weds developed a strong sense of national identity that chimed with the rising patriotism across their country. Firmly anchored in the values of upper-middle-class Germany, together they managed to instil a sense of both entitlement and social responsibility in their five clever children. Marie-Luise, better known as Lili, was the eldest, followed by Otto, the only boy. Melitta, called Litta by all who loved her, came next, and then her two younger sisters, Jutta and Klara. Although strict about their formal education, exercise and manners, Michael Schiller was also unusually keen to guide his children personally, especially when discussions turned to music, philosophy or science – the last of which fascinated Melitta. Margarete took them to the theatre and to concerts, encouraging them to stage their own plays in an old horse-drawn carriage in the garden, and to swim, play tennis and learn dancing with other children of similar social status. Their aunt Gertrud set up easels and got them drawing, sculpting clay animals and cutting delicate silhouettes from paper. All of them were taught the importance of discipline, duty and noble endeavour, but all also had very active, independent natures. Escaping adult supervision whenever possible, they would play in the wreck of the family's first car, rusting away in a cloud of creepers and cornflowers at the end of the lawn or, as they got older, hike through the forests together to swim in the lakes, make camps and watch the stars come out.
Melitta was eleven when the First World War broke out in 1914. 'The days of my youth, where one can look for the origins and secret roots shaping a life, were a time when there was nothing but deep tribulation for Germany,' she later wrote. At fifty-three her father was too old to fight, but as a reserve officer with a good knowledge of Russian he was assigned to a prisoner-of-war camp as a censor and interpreter. He eventually received the Iron Cross, Second Class, for his service. Margarete and her eldest daughter, Lili, volunteered as nurses: 'womankind's most noble and distinguished mission', as Melitta saw it. Too young to join them, Melitta adopted animals to care for instead. She was not a natural nurse but after a favourite mouse died the family had it stuffed and she kept it in her bedroom.
When the front line came to within sixty kilometres of Krotoschin, the town began to fill with the wounded and Melitta, Jutta and Klara were sent to stay with their widowed grandmother in Hirschberg. For Melitta, now twelve, the one advantage of this enforced evacuation was the chance to spend some time with her uncle, Ernst Eberstein. Already popular among his nieces and nephews for his jokes and easy manner, Uncle Ernst had gained huge cachet for being among the first to sign up as a combat pilot with the Imperial German Air Service. He served as a spotter in a reconnaissance unit, taking aerial photographs and manning a mounted machine gun in a series of military biplanes. His role during one German victory against the Russians in August 1914 earned him the nickname 'Hero of Tannenberg'. That winter he received the Iron Cross, First Class. Family photographs show him in uniform but on leave, sitting beneath a tree, surrounded by children lapping up his tales of courage, skill and honour in the air.
As the war progressed, specialist air units were organized into fighter and bomber squadrons. The very image of the pilot was now being celebrated as the epitome of the courageous and honourable modern man, and Melitta proudly thought of her uncle whenever she heard 'aces' like the 'Red Baron', Manfred von Richthofen, Ernst Udet and Hermann Göring being lionized. One veteran, the philosopher Ernst Jünger, later argued that industrial mass warfare reduced most soldiers to the role of passive and rather pathetic victim. Pilots, by contrast, 'this ideal type in overalls, with a face hewn in stone under a leather cap', were part of 'a new and commanding breed ... fearless and fabulous ... a race that builds machines and trusts machines'. This was the heroic ideal that inspired Melitta as she developed a passion for flight that was deeply bound to her wartime patriotism, her sense of honour and duty, and her love for both science and the adrenaline of action.
By November 1914 the Posen region had become less volatile and the three youngest Schiller girls returned home, still full of the adventures of their heroic uncle. Their mother's concerns were more prosaic: securing food and fuel as the British naval blockade held and the first refugees were billeted on the town. Dismissing her servants, Margarete started growing vegetables, and keeping rabbits and a goat in the garden. The house was freezing and the children often hungry over the next few winters. When the schools closed Melitta studied alone at home, working on her maths and Latin under a pile of coats and blankets, cocooned away from the material world while her mind continued to run free. When the weather improved she would drag her books up to the top of a tree in the garden, or climb to the roof to work on astronomy. Although irritable if interrupted, sometimes she invited her younger sisters to join her in charting the stars, and once, equipped with a pitcher of water, she and Klara scaled the high roof of their shed and lay on their stomachs to test the theory of drop formation. Physics became a lasting passion. 'At the moment I am particularly interested in the problems of flight and rocket dynamics,' a teenage Melitta told her friend Lieselotte. 'My father says that aged around eighteen, girls tend to lose their interest in science,' she added. 'So I have to make sure I get as far as possible before then!'
In 1916 the Central Powers promised the reconstruction of historic Poland. The proposed boundary change included Melitta's home. At best, the Schillers saw this as a 'generous gesture' providing a buffer zone against Russia, but they were also concerned about growing Polish nationalism. Melitta and her sisters felt that the local Polish children were already 'triumphant', chanting that they didn't need 'your Wilhelm', while in town people marched with scythes and baling forks, calling for the German ruling classes to be driven out. Two years later, the American president Woodrow Wilson reiterated the pledge to Poland. 'We all know that Posen is to be Polish,' Lili wrote angrily in her diary. It was, she felt, a 'humiliation', and a betrayal by the 'scoundrels and traitors to the Fatherland' sitting comfortably in Berlin. No doubt her words echoed those around the family breakfast table. Polish troops arrived in Krotoschin soon after the Armistice, covering the town and garrison in white-and-red flags. While the majority Polish population celebrated, for Germans like the Schillers it felt like an invasion.
Despite the peace, Melitta's sixteenth birthday at the start of 1919 was a sad affair. Her brother Otto had been called up to serve in border security as a member of the German peacetime volunteers. Unofficially he hoped to help push back the boundary in favour of the Reich. Michael Schiller, briefly home after the German collapse, had been taken hostage by equivalent Polish volunteers, and deported to the very camp at which he had served as translator. 'You think the war is over,' Lili wrote that evening, 'and then something even worse happens!' Michael returned after ten days, but the skirmishes continued until the borders were fixed on the ground, and later recognized by the Treaty of Versailles. Krotoschin and the surrounding mountains and forests were once again part of Poland, as they had been centuries before, and the Schillers no longer belonged to the social elite but to an unwelcome minority.
Melitta's German-speaking school was an early casualty of the Polish civic reorganization. In October 1919 she and Lieselotte set out for boarding school in Hirschberg, now across the border, with brand-new passports in their pockets and illicit food parcels for 'hungry Germany' hidden in their luggage. If Melitta felt nervous during that long, uncertain journey, she hid it well. Lieselotte remembered there being 'something austere and disciplined about her' as she stood on the draughty station platforms, her sailor dress hidden beneath a thick navy coat with its collar thrown up, lace-up boots reaching almost to the hem of her skirt, and her long dark hair braided and tied with black ribbon. Looking austere while taking bold action would remain Melitta's modus operandi throughout her life.
Melitta was more interested in studying than in making friends at her new school. For some time Lieselotte rarely saw her without a two-volume physics textbook at her side, and soon she had rigged up an electric light in the unheated attic room of her boarding house so she could read undisturbed through the night. When physics failed to satisfy Melitta's curiosity, she turned to philosophy. One day Lieselotte found her 'immersed in Schopenhauer'. 'So, if it is not possible to live a happy life,' Melitta earnestly told her rather bemused friend, 'then the only way is to live a heroic life.'
At first Melitta's 'heroism' was essentially sporting. Hirschberg was known as the gateway to the winter-sports paradise of the Riesengebirge mountains, and she spent every winter Sunday on her skis. After two seasons she could compete with the locals. 'Oh, those dear boys,' she laughed when the young men who accompanied her grumbled about her recklessness. 'They always think everything's too dangerous for a girl.' She would dismiss other men, among them an infatuated teacher, with similar brevity. The north slopes, facing Silesia, kept their snow the longest, and sometimes Melitta would still be skiing there when the flowers were already out in the valley below and her friends were playing tennis.
With summer came mountain walking, climbing, and swimming in quiet bays, sometimes by moonlight to see the forest silhouettes and watch the herons lift their grey bodies from the dark lakes. An early-morning start meant they could reach the Bober Reservoir at Mauer. Here the remnants of old farmsteads that once stood in the sunshine had been submerged when the dam was created shortly before the war. Melitta would wear her bathing costume under her dirndl, ready to plunge into the chilly water as soon as she arrived. 'Jumping from the dam wall was for suicides,' Lieselotte wrote bluntly, but one June, when the water level was still high, Melitta took the plunge. Her spectacular dive was soon legendary. As with skiing, you just 'have to know your limits and gauge the task accordingly', she told Lieselotte matter-of-factly. 'If you do that then all danger is reduced to chance, and if we were afraid of chance then we'd have to give up all car trips and horse riding, and we wouldn't be able to do any sports.'
It was during Melitta's final year at school that enthusiasts started gliding in the Hirschberg valley. Under the humiliating terms of the 1919 Treaty of Versailles, Germany had been forced to dissolve its air force and destroy the remaining military planes: their bodies sawn apart, the engines smashed, while the construction of engine-powered aircraft was banned. Gliding was the phoenix that rose from these ashes, becoming not only a hugely popular national sport, but also a powerful symbol of the country's resistance and rebirth. Air shows became the rage, and thousands of spectators would regularly gather to watch German gliders soar above the tribulations of their country, bringing a sense of liberation as well as a new source of national pride.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "The Women Who Flew For Hitler"
Copyright © 2017 Clare Mulley.
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Table of Contents
Note on Spellings and Place Names xiii
Preface: Truth and Lives xix
1 Longing for Freedom, 1903-1932 1
2 Searching for The Fabulous, 1912-1933 24
3 Public Relations, 1933-1936-39
4 Public Appointments, 1936-1937 67
5 Hovering, 1938 85
6 Descent, 1938-1939 101
7 Women at War, 1939-1941 114
8 Defying Gravity, 1942-1943 141
9 Under Attack, 1943 168
10 Operation Self-Sacrifice, 1943-1944 192
11 Operation Valkyrie, 1944 217
12 In the Camps, 1944 243
13 In the Bunker, 1945 272
14 Final Flight, 1945 294
15 Liberation and Detention, 1945-1946 314
16 Reputations 340
Epilogue: A Time of Contradictions 369
Select Bibliography 435
Picture Credits 454