Holocaust and Aviation
Aviation in Nazi Germany as Major Reason for the Holocaust
Poetic and Healing Research
Part 2 – Chapter 19
Hannah Reitsch - Look for the Woman
Author: Avinoam Amizan
Use of the saying 'Look for the Woman' in study of historic biographies of leaders, especially dictators, indicate the roles played by their wives in the rise and fall of their countries.
The search for the woman behind the rise and fall of the Third Reich leads the researcher to one woman, who more than any other woman affected the fate of the Nazi regime. The woman is Hannah Reitsch, whose image and career as a test pilot inspired the regime and shaped and sealed the fate of Germany.
Hanna Reitsch [1912-1979], daughter of a Nazi doctor, began her career as an excellent glider pilot who broke more then 40 world records over a very long career of fifty years in various categories, before and after World War II. As a result she became a test pilot, before and during the war, of the most advanced and important fighter planes of the Luftwaffe.
Her autobiography, 'Flying is My Life’, is the source of this chapter in 'Holocaust and Aviation’. Her flights descriptions, fascinating and unique, are evidence of her skills as a pilot. Reitsch expands in describing her experiences of many unique flights and most of the book is devoted to her love of flight. But at the same time she emphasizes her blind loyalty to Hitler and the Nazi regime, which gave her the opportunity to fulfill this obsession. The racial anti-Semitism in Germany, which was an inseparable part of everyday life, is not addressed in the book in any way, and it is understood that for sure she supported it.
Reitsch gradually became one of the pillars of the regime, because propaganda of German aviation achievements was an integral part of the Nazi Aerial Dictatorship. As a woman she became one of the most prominent symbols of propaganda, and made many international tours for flying in air shows to foster foreign relations.
Hanna Reitsch had short and thin boyish figure, with pretty but common face and appearance. It is not clear if she was considered a personality who dictated style for women, but certainly she was important and far more famous than any other pilot in the world, including well remembered Amelia Earhart from her time. Earhart was global media star who dictated the international agenda during her daring flights. After Earhart disappeared in the Pacific in 1937, she left a void which helped Reitsch become the most famous woman in the world.
Despite her membership in a conservative right-wing party with oppressing views regarding women, she was in her behavior opinionated, unconventional, inspiring, and controversial. She was a human figure larger than life, full of striving for self-realization and breaking conventions. She is remembered in history as someone who, because of her obsession, drifted off the regular course of life and flew on the fast track toward her self destruction. That is only a superficial observation. Actually she was cold minded person who represents the entire Nazi regime human pattern of technicality and ideology. She was a desired woman who broke hearts of many men and it made her image look lighter.
Hanna Reitsch influenced the liberal world, the German public, and the fanatical Nazi leadership altogether. She was a famous hero with two 'Iron Cross' decorations. She held a stick with two ends. On one hand, she had international recognition as an ambassador for the masses of the aviation world, but on the other hand she was at the forefront of developing the secret weapons of the Nazi army. It was an unusual combination that was unmatched in Nazi Germany. It placed her in a position of great control and option to succeed Hitler along with her friend, Luftwaffe general Ritter Von Greim, who was Hermann Goering's successor at the end of the war.
More than any biographical fact it is significant that her own career reflected accurately the whole history of the Third Reich:
At the beginning, at the early 1930th, she studied in close relationships from some of the fathers of the gliding sport in Germany, a sport which was the link between military aviation of WWI aircraft industry and the Air Force set up by the Nazis. She became world famous after being the first woman who crossed the Alps in a glider. Later on she participated in numerous international air shows as a glider pilot, including one in the USA in1937, as Nazi propaganda messenger.
Later in her career, in the late 1930th, she became an outstanding test pilot for Ernst Udet, head of the development department of the Luftwaffe, during its quick arming and in the first phase of Second World War.
She introduced to the Luftwaffe the revolutionary diving brakes, which she and her friends invented in the 'German Institute for Gliding Research' which was her home base. Diving brakes became a standard part in all Nazi combat planes from the Spanish Civil War and to later on.
Another important development of her and her friends from the 'German Institute for Gliding Research' was the transport glider, out of the small sport gliders. Transport gliders, who could carry significant number of soldiers and military equipment, were vital for air transport in those days of relatively small airplanes. Transport gliders helped the Nazis win the swift offensives in France and Crete.
A third important contribution of her to the Nazis, as well as to the entire aviation world, was being the first successful helicopter pilot in the world. Not only that she could fly an operational helicopter successfully for the first time, but she also flew it in a closed arena in Berlin, in front of thousands people, every night for few weeks in 1938. Charles Lindberg became her friend.
In retrospective, these three major aviation achievements could be sufficient reason for Hitler to declare a world war.
In the early 1940th, at the height of the war, she was involved in several ambitious aircrafts projects designed to destroy the Allies, of which most known is the rocket interceptor the 'Comet'. The Comet was a very fast and maneuverable glider with rocket engine which launched it to the center of bomber formations, where it could attack them for few minutes. The Nazis had great expectations from this wonder weapon but it failed. Reitsch suffered serious injuries after a crash in one of the last test flights in late 1942, an episode which became a defeat sign for Nazi Germany, few months before Stalingrad.
After recovering, towards the end of the war when Nazi Germany collapsed, she established a squadron of Nazi volunteers in order to use them as pilots of guided bombs. After convincing Hitler, who was isolated and detached in Berghof, about the need for this squadron, she cooperated with famed Commando colonel Otto Skorzeny to transform the V-1 guided missile to a pilot version. It too failed due to shortsighted Nazi leaderships who failed to understand, in her words, 'the urgent need for large scale project of such kind'.
Hanna Reitsch was among the few pilots who made constant flights to destroyed Berlin during the last months of the war in early 1945, including the famous last flight to Hitler in the last days which was etched in the collective memory of the neo-Nazis.
Although remaining after the war a declared sympathetic of the Third Reich, her post war international gliding activity resulted in many new contacts. Her vast connections were then with old Nazi leaders, German rocket scientists and western political leaders altogether. She contributed greatly to rehabilitate Germany's international standing.
Because in many ways Reitsch was a role model of a woman larger than life, whose courageous pilot fortitude opened new avenues in aviation, her autobiography challenge the critical attitude towards Nazism. She remained a citizen, but her relationships with the highest hierarchy, including Himmler who was a personal friend, leave no doubt about her importance to the Nazi regime. The answer to the riddle of her character is in the complex social reasons for the rise of Nazism. She was a devoted family member. Her father, a doctor, wanted her to follow his steps and she became a medical student. The German doctors were notorious for their sympathy with the Nazi regime, which introduced modern medicine together with the race theory and deportation of Jewish doctors. Her youth dreams of being a flying doctor in primitive Africa were realized in the diabolical Nazi regime. Women in macho Nazi society were educated to join semi military spheres of duty in the hinterland and created similar cruel ethics. Like most citizens of Germany she contemplated about full identification with the regime. But prominent events that should be a warning sign for her, like Nuremberg Laws, violation of Versailles treaty, occupation of Czechoslovakia, Kristallnacht and the Final Solution, were ignored by her, probably as a 'necessary evil'. She leaved in a dictatorship where only partial information was available to the doubting citizens, but belonged to the generation which grew up with the Nazi regime, and their destinies were combined. Her love of flying was combined with German patriotism, admiration for Hitler the leader of the nation, and the many personal benefits derived from it. As a test pilot, a challenging and dangerous career, she was also trapped in a process of 'survival of the fittest' where only the few best and well connected survived. This too contributed to her obsessive solidarity with the regime she represented.
Hanna Reitsch wrote 'Flying is my life’ in chronological order describes around her important flights. She describes the technicalities, landscapes, feelings and friends. The total is very personal and difficult to separate into its components.
For this reason probably Reitsch did not won the right attention from scholars of the Nazi regime. In ‘Holocaust and Aviation' a separation was made between the components, and her whole career is repeatedly described from four major perspectives: ideology, society, aviation, politics. Chronological order is maintained to some extent: Hanna Reitsch was a young ideological woman, who as a glider pilot became famous record holder, recruited as a test pilot for the most advanced aircrafts, eventually to be influential personality in the Third Reich and later on.
Holocaust and Aviation is a personal and independent research
The English version is a summary of the full book which is available in Hebrew online.
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