Stauffenberg, Litta von (c. 1905–1945)

views updated

Stauffenberg, Litta von (c. 1905–1945)

German aviator and test pilot who, although she was of Jewish origin, was exempted from the anti-Semitic Nuremberg Laws and persecution because of her extraordinary abilities as a test pilot. Name variations: Litta Schiller; Melitta Gräfin Schenk von Stauffenberg. Born Melitta Schiller in Krotoschin, Germany (later Poland), around 1905; shot down by an American fighter plane near Strasskirchen, Germany, on April 8, 1945; earned a degree in civil engineering from the Munich Institute of Technology, 1927; married Alexander Graf Schenk von Stauffenberg; sister-in-law of Claus von Stauffenberg.

The story of Countess Litta von Stauffenberg, one of Nazi Germany's most talented military test pilots, is almost unbelievable, yet true. She was born Melitta Schiller around 1905 in Krotoschin, Germany. Her family, of Jewish origin, had converted to Lutheranism, and her father was a respected member of the Prussian civil service. In 1918, the Schiller home became part of newly independent Poland, but while her parents remained in Poland (they later moved to the Free City of Danzign), Litta moved to Germany to study, receiving a degree in civil engineering from the Munich Institute of Technology in 1927.

At the same time, she acquired several pilot's certificates. From 1927 on, Litta was involved in aerodynamics research, making test flights to check instruments that control dives. She worked at several facilities, including the German Aviation Testing Institute at Berlin-Adlershof, the Askania Works at Berlin-Friedenau, and starting in October 1937, at the Air War Academy at Berlin-Gatow. The first two institutes were thinly disguised military test facilities, which worked virtually day and night, even before the Nazi takeover of Germany in 1933, to advance the nation's air combat capabilities. Both before and during World War II, Litta Schiller would fly well over 2,000 diving missions in Ju [Junkers] 87 and Ju 88 dive bombers, an accomplishment that would be surpassed by only one German test pilot, a man. Awarded an Air Captain's commission in 1937, she would also receive the Iron Cross class II in 1943 and the Pilot's Badge in Gold with Diamonds. In 1944, she would be nominated for the Iron Cross class I.

In August 1937, Litta Schiller married Alexander von Stauffenberg, a member of a distinguished noble family long established in the province of Baden-Württemberg. As Countess Stauffenberg, she now moved in extraordinary circles, meeting among others Alexander's brothers Berthold and Claus von Stauffenberg. By 1938, savage Nazi attacks on Germany's Jews seriously threatened Litta and her family, which included her parents, brother Otto and several sisters. In 1941, when German Jews began to be deported to the occupied territories of Eastern Europe to be murdered, the entire Schiller family was saved, because Litta von Stauffenberg had by this time become indispensable for her war work as a test pilot. A neighbor and friend who had known her parents when they lived in the Free City of Danzig used his influence to save them. In 1944, Litta's sisters and her brother Otto, who worked as an agricultural expert in the German Foreign Ministry, were all declared to be "equal to Aryans."

By 1942, the Stauffenberg brothers Berthold and Claus had become members of a plot to assassinate Adolf Hitler. Litta's husband Alexander was not informed of the conspiracy, but in late May or early June 1944, Claus von Stauffenberg asked his sister-in-law Litta if she would fly him to Hitler's headquarters and fly him out again after Hitler had been killed. She agreed to help. She warned him, however, that because of the lack of an adequate landing strip near Hitler's remote quarters in East Prussia, she would have to use a Fieseler "Stork"—a slow plane that required many fuelling stops. Since this would prohibit a fast escape, she was not involved in the actual assassination attempt, which took place on July 20, 1944, but failed to kill Hitler. In the evening of July 20, Claus von Stauffenberg was executed by troops loyal to Hitler. His brother Berthold was arrested, cruelly tortured, found guilty of treason by a Nazi "court," and executed by strangulation on August 10, 1944.

Although he had not been involved in the plot to kill Hitler, Alexander von Stauffenberg was arrested a few days after July 20, and until the end of the war was held in several prisons and concentration camps, including the infamous Buchenwald camp near Weimar. Litta von Stauffenberg too was arrested only a few hours after her husband, as part of Reichsführer-SS Heinrich Himmler's enforcement of a policy of Sippenhaft—"blood guilt" and "blood liability"—which justified arresting all the relatives of a culprit accused of treason, his/her treachery being merely a manifestation of the diseased bloodline of their entire family. On September 2, 1944, however, Litta was released to enable her to immediately return to her duties as a test pilot, which were deemed of crucial importance to the Nazi war effort. Over the next months, Litta von Stauffenberg performed test dives with the Junkers 88 and night flights with the Arado 96, the Focke-Wulf 190 and the revolutionary new turbo-jet fighter, the Messerschmidt 262. She also worked on night-landing instruments, inventing a number of useful new devices.

Incredibly, Litta also was able to secure permission for flights at her own discretion, which enabled her to visit her imprisoned husband Alexander. Given the fact that there were no airfields near the camps and prisons where he was being held captive, the bombers she usually flew were of no use for these ventures. Only the very slow Fieseler "Stork" could easily land in any field, but this plane was at great risk of being shot down by the Allied (mostly American) planes that by this time held air supremacy over German skies. Litta flew at least twice to visit her husband at Buchenwald, even though she always stood a chance of being arrested, always standing "with one foot before a court martial." After a search, she discovered where the SS had taken the children of her two dead brothers-in-law. At Christmastime 1944, she visited them at Bad Sachsa in the Harz Mountains. Since no toys were available, she brought them the only presents she could find, a handful of bright, colorful war medals.

In January 1945, Claus von Stauffenberg's widow Nina von Stauffenberg gave birth to his posthumous daughter Konstanze . A few days later, after mother and infant had been transferred by the SS to a hospital in Potsdam, Litta visited them despite the great risks involved, arriving by bicycle and wearing the ribbon of the Iron Cross class II and the Pilot Badge in Gold with Diamonds on her uniform jacket. The hospital's senior doctor, who had served in the Luftwaffe, recognized her and thereafter saw to it that Nina von Stauffenberg and her child received the best possible care.

On April 8, 1945, only a month before the end of the war in Europe, Litta von Stauffenberg was on her way to visit her husband in the Schönberg prison near Passau in Bavaria. Flying a slow and unarmed Bücker 181 trainer, she was shot down from behind by an American fighter near Strasskirchen. Although she was able to land her plane, Litta was severely wounded and died two hours later of her injuries. After Alexander's release from prison in May 1945, he searched desperately for Litta, only to learn that she had lost her life so close to the end of the war. In September 1945, he had her body exhumed from its temporary burial site and moved to the Stauffenberg family plot in Lautlingen, Württemberg. Shaken by his wife's death, Alexander withdrew from society for a couple of years, to meditate and write history and poetry. In 1948, he accepted a professorship in ancient history at Munich's Ludwig-Maximilian-Universität. He died in 1963.


Baigent, Michael, and Richard Leigh. Secret Germany: Stauffenberg and the Mystical Crusade Against Hitler. London: Penguin, 1995.

Hoffmann, Peter. Stauffenberg: A Family History, 1905–1944. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1995.

Letter from Prof. Dr. Graf A. Stauffenberg to Walter Hammer, Herrsching am Ammersee, September 24, 1952, Institut für Zeitgeschichte, Munich, Archiv Walter Hammer, ED 106/91.

Posner, Gerald L. Hitler's Children. NY: Random House, 1991.

Wunder, Gerd. Die Schenken von Stauffenberg: Eine Familiengeschichte. Stuttgart: Müller & Graff, 1972.

John Haag , Associate Professor of History, University of Georgia, Athens, Georgia

About this article

Stauffenberg, Litta von (c. 1905–1945)

Updated About content Print Article