Reitsch, Hanna (1912–1979)
Reitsch, Hanna (1912–1979)
German flier and test pilot, now recognized as one of the foremost aviators of the 20th century, who was imprisoned as a Nazi sympathizer after World War II, although her name was later cleared. Born Hanna Reitsch on March 29, 1912, in the village of Hirschberg, in German Silesia; died on August 24, 1979, of a heart attack, in Frankfurt, Germany; daughter of Dr. Willy Reitsch (an eye specialist) and Emy Reitsch (a member of the Austrian aristocracy); graduated from high school and briefly attended medical school; never married; no children.
Broke first world record for gliding (1931); gave up medical school for job with Germany's top research establishment for motorless flight; joined Ernst Udet's elite band of military test pilots (1937); promoted to rank of Flugkapitän; flew the FW 61, the world's first viable helicopter (1937); first woman to be awarded the Iron Cross on two occasions (1940, 1942); was one of the last to visit Hitler in his bunker (April 1945); imprisoned after World War II as a Nazi sympathizer; name cleared after two years; authored numerous books; sent to India where she became friends with Jawaharlal Nehru, premier of India, and his daughter Indira Gandhi (1959); at request of President Kwame Nkrumah, founded a gliding school in Ghana (1961).
Fliegen mein Leben (Flying My Life, 1951); The Sky My Kingdom (London: Green-hill Books, 1991).
On April 26, 1945, World War II was near its end. The Soviet Army occupied part of Berlin, and its anti-aircraft weapons were trained on the skies, when a small German plane carrying a German officer and Hanna Reitsch made its approach to the city. After a burst of gunfire, the officer flying the plane, a general in the Luftwaffe, slumped at the controls. As fuel began to pour out of a wing tank, Reitsch, a flier of worldwide renown, took over the controls and soon managed to land the little Fiesler Storch on a deserted stretch of highway amid the ruins of Berlin, not far from the Brandenburg Gate. The general, almost unconscious, was lifted into a German transport, which conveyed him and Reitsch through the Brandenburg Gate, along Unter den Linden and Wilhelmstrasse, and into Voss-Strasse. Their destination was the bunker of Adolf Hitler, and the officer, General Ritter von Greim, was there to be appointed the new head of the Luftwaffe.
Inside the huge underground structure with its many tunnels, the fliers were greeted by Hitler, his mistress Eva Braun , and Joseph and Magda Goebbels and their children. The bunker housed many other occupants as well, most of whom recognized that the end was near. In the next two days, Reitsch spoke with Hitler and recognized that his health was shattered, talked with Magda Goebbels, and played with the Goebbels children. When General von Greim was recovered, the two pilots departed. Many they saw during that visit, including Hitler and the Goebbels children, would die, by their own hand or poisoned by others, without leaving the bunker's walls. Reitsch, one of the foremost aviators of the century as well as of her country, thus witnessed the Third Reich in its final death throes, an experience she would never fully escape.
Hanna Reitsch was born on March 29, 1912, in the picturesque town of Hirschberg, in the German region of Silesia. She was the middle of three children, including an older brother Kurt and a younger sister Heidi . Her father Dr. Willy Reitsch was an eye specialist, a quiet brooding man who espoused the Prussian concepts of honor and duty; her mother Emy Reitsch was the daughter of an Austrian aristocrat. Her parents merged two separate German cultures: Willy Reitsch was a Protestant, representing the stern disciplined North German tradition, and the Catholic Emy represented the long heritage of German-speaking Central Europe. Both were deeply religious and intensely patriotic, and their love of things German transcended all else, encouraging the devotion to duty and the patriotism that were to mark Hanna Reitsch's life.
Hirschberg stood surrounded by snowcapped mountains, with Austria to the south and Russia to the east, its past symbolic of the intricacies of German history. Six centuries earlier, Silesia had been under Polish rule before it came under German and Austrian domination. After World War I, Czechoslovakia had been created to the south and Poland to the east. Shifting political boundaries and the mixed racial heritage made it virtually impossible to determine the population's true culture, but German had long been the dominant language in Central Europe. In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, the rise of nationalism led some groups to insist on speaking their native languages and demanding political independence. The determination to structure government solely on the basis of racial identities would wreak havoc, a process which continues to this day. National and racial identity became especially lethal after Adolf Hitler and his Nazi party determined that "racial purity" should be a central concept in the restructuring of a modern Germany.
As a child Hanna Reitsch was largely unaware of these larger currents swirling around her. Dr. Reitsch was a much-respected member of the Hirschberg community, Emy Reitsch was greatly loved for her charitable works, and the family lived a frugal, peaceful life. One family tradition was to go to bed very early on Saturday night, awaken around 1 am on Sunday, and take a tram through the valley to the foot of the mountains and begin a three-hour climb, in order to reach the summit just at the break of dawn. There the family held their own religious service, then stayed until lunch. The parents' mixed religious background did not prevent grace from being said before every meal, and God was ever present in the household.
Hanna was a small but self-confident and rambunctious child who loved adventure and recounting what had befallen her. Life for her was never dull, and she adored being the center of attention. Approaching the end of her school career, she extracted a promise from her father that if she did well in her studies he would allow her to take a course at the gliding school in Grunau. Reitsch's parents had their hearts set on their daughter attending medical school, and had no idea how obsessed she was with flying. She obediently gained admittance to medical school with ease, but before her training began, Reitsch spent a year in a Koloschule, which had been established to prepare young ladies for life and work in Germany's colonies. Although Germany no longer had colonies, her parents felt Hanna
needed the training she could get there in practical skills such as cooking, cleaning and farm work. Reitsch was happy at the Koloschule and made many lifelong friends. During that year her father kept his promise; he allowed her to take gliding lessons.
After World War I, gliding had developed in Germany as a peculiarly national sport. The Versailles Treaty had banned Germany from establishing an army or an air force, and the gliding schools became a way of circumventing the treaty to train the country's future pilots. Wolf Hirth was a famous aviator and director of a school, and when Hanna proved to be a natural pilot she became his star pupil and protégé. As a mark of trust, Hirth allowed her to fly a new glider normally reserved for instructors, with permission to stay aloft for as long as she liked. When she landed after a flight of five-and-a-half hours, she had broken a world record for staying airborne in a glider, the first of many records she would topple in her long career.
As a pilot, Reitsch was fearless. Once, while flying near a thunderstorm, she was suddenly sucked upwards, higher and higher, until the earth below was blotted out. Worried at first about crashing against the 5,200-foot Schneekoppe, the highest peak in the Risesengebirge range, she eventually realized that she was well above it. Reitsch was not warmly dressed, and the air grew colder and colder. Then the glider began to be thrown about violently amid a storm of hail and rain. She had reached 9,500 feet, well above normal altitude for gliding, when her glider began to ice and went into a steep dive. The plunge was interrupted by a series of involuntary loops when the young pilot, rain-soaked and freezing, let go of the controls in hopes that the glider would stabilize. She landed finally in front of an inn on a high mountain ridge, at an altitude of 4,500 feet. Hirth learned of her location with relief.
I had only one desire—to fly as a bird flies, unfettered and wholly free.
Reitsch enrolled in medical school where she performed well, but her heart was still in the clouds, and her appetite for adventure had merely been whetted. She began to enter and win gliding competitions, paying her way to one in South America by acting as a double in a film called Rivalen der Luft, in which the heroine flew a glider. In South America, she met more pilots and, as always, was the only woman. Back in Germany, she was invited to work for the Deutsche Forschungsanstalt für Segelflug (DFS), Germany's top research establishment for motorless flight. Discovering that she could earn money doing what she loved most in life, she abandoned all thoughts of medical school to join the elite group of German glider pilots.
In 1933, the world of flying in Germany underwent a dramatic change once Hitler became chancellor. He appointed Hermann Goering as his air minister, and in 1935 the Luftwaffe officially came into being. Suddenly, after years of amateur competition and testing, pilots like Reitsch occupied a central place in the plans of the Third Reich. Few except Hitler knew that his generals were devising new military concepts which relied heavily on tank and air warfare.
In later years, the term most frequently used to describe Reitsch was "naive," but her political attitudes mirrored those of millions of Germans. After World War I, their country had been plunged into economic chaos and inflation, due in part to the huge reparations the country was forced to pay the Allies. The worldwide onset of the Great Depression had made matters worse for millions, and in Germany many became disillusioned with democracy. When Hitler first came to power, he was elected chiefly as an economic reformer, with a vision for Germany that seemed the way out of chaos; in the beginning, his plans to achieve "racial purity" were played down. In Germany and in much of the world, he was seen as a leader who stabilized a dangerous political situation, and an infinitely better political alternative than the Communists who had overrun the Russian Empire. Reitsch's view of Nazism was shared not only by most Germans at this time, but by most Americans, Britons, and the French as well.
At the testing center in Darmstadt, Reitsch meanwhile gained renown as one of the world's best pilots. Moving easily from gliders to powered flight, she tested all the newest planes, including the Stuka (not an easy plane for someone her size to manage) and the Dornier bomber, which she piloted with ease. In September 1937, she was paid the singular honor of being invited to join Ernst Udet's elite band of military test pilots at Rechlin near Berlin, and was promoted to the rank of Flugkapitän, a high achievement for anyone, male or female. Despite the military nature of her work, Reitsch was never actually a member of the German military. Her unique status was due partly to her immense talent and partly to the fact that she was a good instrument for propaganda. Photographs of the petite blue-eyed blonde appeared everywhere. In 1937, few people had flown the FW 61, the world's first viable helicopter, when Reitsch, as one of the world's best test pilots, was asked to take it up for a trial run.
Germany changed greatly between 1933 and 1938, as the Nazis tightened their grip on the country. German leftists, as well as other dissidents and undesirables, were sent to concentration camps. From 1933 to 1945, an estimated quarter of a million Germans were incarcerated every year in the Third Reich, and many died in prison. Dissent was not tolerated, even among the "racially pure," and anti-Semitism was on the rise. In November 1938, an event known as Kristallnacht, or the Night of the Broken Glass, foreshadowed the Holocaust, when Nazi thugs burned synagogues, destroyed Jewish property, and otherwise brutalized and humiliated Jews. Reitsch, who had Jewish friends, was horrified, and protested to Goebbels, who explained that "things had simply gotten out of hand." Her opposition was noted and disapproved of in many quarters.
Reitsch was an optimist by nature, and flying was her love. Allowing herself to accept Goebbels' version of events, she returned to the clouds. In 1939, with World War II under way, test flights grew more dangerous, as a variety of harebrained inventions were devised for use by the Luftwaffe. She flew huge troop planes, a rocket plane, and planes designed to cut cables. In 1940, after managing a miraculous escape from a crash in a Dornier plane, she became the first woman ever to be awarded Germany's Iron Cross, Second Class, and met Hitler, who showed admiration for her exploits. In October 1942, she crashed again, when the controls jammed in an unpowered Me 163B. This time her recovery took months, and letters, cards, and gifts poured into her hospital room, including some from highly placed Nazis like Heinrich Himmler. She was also awarded a second Iron Cross.
As the war continued, the German Army bogged down, Hitler became more desperate, and so did Nazi schemes. Back in the cockpit, Reitsch carried out whatever tests were devised, no matter how crackbrained. As rumors began to circulate about Jewish extermination camps, Reitsch attempted to get to the source of the stories, and heard from individuals in the highest circles that the stories were Allied propaganda. In light of the widely circulated tales of German cruelty during World War I that later proved to be unfounded, the lie seemed credible, and Reitsch returned to work, her fears lulled.
By late 1944, Germany was surrounded by Allied troops, and the end of the war was in sight. In April 1945, Reitsch agreed to accompany Ritter von Greim, a friend and valued colleague, on the dangerous trip to Hitler's bunker. The appointment of von Greim as head of the Luftwaffe was a ridiculous gesture since the Allies had already annihilated the German air force, and in der Führer's presence Reitsch realized that Hitler was physically ill and mentally unbalanced. During her stay, Hitler gave her a poison capsule in case she might need it. Leaving Berlin proved as difficult as entering, and Reitsch and von Greim were eventually captured by Allied forces. Von Greim later committed suicide.
Imprisoned for 18 months, Reitsch found her short sojourn in the bunker the subject of public attention. No one was certain that Hitler was actually dead, but her account convinced many that he could not have survived. Interrogated many times by the Americans, she gave a consistently straightforward account. Never a Nazi party member, she viewed herself not as a political figure but as someone who had loyally served her country. At the end of her imprisonment, her name was cleared, but her association with the bunker continued to make good copy. The British historian Hugh Trevor-Roper (who was to be deceived himself in the 1980s by the faked "Hitler diaries") gave her account a garbled treatment that implied she'd had an intimate relationship with Hitler, and her two Iron Crosses, as well as her trip to the bunker, seemed to lend credence to his story. Accounts in the media talked of "Hitler's girlfriend," implying an association which never existed.
Germany, meanwhile, was in a shambles. Depressed and disillusioned, Reitsch managed to hold on, even after learning that her parents, sister, and sister's children were all dead, poisoned by her father who feared what the Soviets might do to his family. Only her older brother Kurt remained alive. Reitsch had been especially close to her mother, and eventually found comfort in her loss by converting to Catholicism, her mother's faith. She made friends with a variety of people, including Yvonne Pagniez , a former member of the French resistance, and wrote a book, Fliegen mein Leben (Flying My Life), published in 1951.
Gradually Reitsch returned to what she loved best—flying—and her renown led to new friendships around the world. In India, she became close with Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru and his daughter Indira Gandhi . In the U.S., she was a friend of Neil Armstrong, and she enjoyed a visit to the White House as the guest of President John F. Kennedy.
In 1961, when she was approaching 50, President Kwame Nkrumah of Ghana asked Reitsch to found a gliding school in his country. Ghanaian glider pilots had few technological skills, but Reitsch threw herself into the venture, planning the school, importing teachers, and training many pilots. She loved the country and its people, and became a good friend of Nkrumah's. Again, however, she had ignored his dictatorial tendencies, and his ouster came as a shock to her, reinforcing the view that her political instincts were always much weaker than her aeronautical skills.
In the 1960s, Reitsch was a true aviation celebrity, recognized as a grand old lady of the air. She was a founding member of the German Association of Women Pilots and of the 99s, an international women pilots' organization established in the U.S. in 1929. She was interviewed for documentaries, wrote several books, and was recognized especially for her expertise in the pioneering aviation of helicopters. Her schedule remained hectic until August 24, 1979, when she died of a heart attack in her Frankfurt apartment. While some obituaries brought up the old accusations, others emphasized the many records she had broken and the frontiers of flight she crossed.
If Hanna Reitsch had a fault, it may have been that she loved flying too much, enough to allow it to obscure everything else. In the clouds, Reitsch left politics behind, always assuming that the world shared her perspective. She was buried in Salzburg, where her grave is a shrine for Austrian and German glider pilots. There are always lighted candles and fresh flowers by the rugged headstone that bears her name. Reitsch
did not fly for political kingdoms whose objectives she never grasped; her kingdom was the air, where the fearless fly free.
Cook, Joan. "Hanna Reitsch, 67; A Top German Pilot," in The New York Times. August 31, 1979, p. B5.
"Final Flight," in Flying. Vol. 105, no. 6. December 1979, p. 19.
Fritzsche, Peter. A Nation of Fliers: German Aviation and the Popular Imagination. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1992.
Habel, Walter, ed. Wer ist wer? The German Who's Who. Lübeck: Schmidt Römhild, 1979, p. 957.
Hayman, LeRoy. Aces, Heroes and Daredevils of the Air. NY: Julian Messner, 1981.
Lomax, Judy. Hanna Reitsch: Flying for the Fatherland. London: John Murray, 1988.
Piszkiewicz, Dennis. From Nazi Test Pilot to Hitler's Bunker: The Fantastic Flights of Hanna Reitsch. NY: Praeger, 1997.
Reitsch, Hanna. The Sky My Kingdom. Translated by Lawrence Wilson. London: Greenhill Books, 1991.
Shears, David. "Iron Cross Heroine Reitsch Dies," in Daily Telegraph [London]. August 30, 1979, p. 15.
Taylor, James and Warren Shaw. The Third Reich Almanac. NY: World Almanac, 1987.
Wistrich, Robert S. Who's Who in Nazi Germany. NY: Macmillan, 1982.
John Haag , Associate Professor of History, University of Georgia, Athens, Georgia