Women’s History Month Ethics: Should We Remember Hanna Reitsch? [Corrected]

Note: the photo originally included in this post was not Hanna Reitch. Thanks for the correction is due to author Clare Mulley, whose book, “The Women Who Flew For Hitler,” is well worth reading.

If Women’s History Month is truly intended to honor remarkable women whose stories have been neglected over time, shouldn’t we spend a bit of it learning about Hanna Reitsch?

Born in 1912, she was intrepid, irrepressible, bold and brave, and few women—indeed, few men— of her generation could claim the kind of exploits she had completed by the time of her death in 1979. Yet I’ll wager you never heard of her.

There was one teeny little problem with Hanna, though. She was a Nazi.

Hanna Reitsch was the first female test pilot in world history. She left medical school  in Germany to take up flying full time, and quickly became superb glider pilot. The Germans built gliders because they  fit through a loophole in the Treaty of Versailles, which forbade the defeated nation from  building “war planes.” Reitsch also did stunt flying in movies. At the age of 21 she broke the world’s flying altitude record for women (9,184 feet). More records and firsts were to follow after she became a test pilot in 1935: the women’s gliding distance record, the first woman in the world to be promoted to flight captain,  the first woman to fly a helicopter, the  world distance record in a helicopter, the first pilot  to fly a helicopter inside an enclosed space, and the women’s world record in gliding for point-to-point flight, among others.

Reitsch was made an honorary flight captain by Adolf Hitler, and  in 1937 she became a test pilot for the Luftwaffe, as she completely embraced National Socialism.  She  flew  German troops along the Maginot Line  during the Germans’ 1940 invasion of France; later in the war, she earned  an Iron Cross, Second Class, for risking her life trying to cut British barrage-balloon cables. Among the warplanes she tested was the Messerschmitt 163, a rocket-powered interceptor that she flew at 500 mph. Hitler awarded her an Iron Cross, First Class, after she crashed while testing the ME 163 and managed to record everything that had happened before she passed out.

Reitsch took the opportunity of meeting Hitler when he awarded her this medal in 1944 to pitch her frightening idea of creating a Luftwaffe suicide squad to fly specially designed versions of the V-1. Hitler was intrigued by the concept, and gave Reitsch the assignment  of assembling a “Suicide Group.” She was the first in line to take group’s pledge: “I hereby…voluntarily apply to be enrolled in the suicide group as a pilot of a human glider-bomb. I fully understand that employment in this capacity will entail my own death.” The squad never was deployed.

Reitsch was one of the last  human beings to see Hitler alive. On April 26, 1945, she flew to Berlin with General Ritter von Greim, who was to be given command of the Luftwaffe. Greim was wounded when the  plane was hit by Soviet antiaircraft fire. Reitsch and the general both said farewell to the Fuhrer in his bunker. Their parting gifts from Hitler were cyanide  pills to use when the time came. Reitsch then flew Greim back out of Berlin.

Reitsch was captured and held by the U.S. Army for 18 months after the war. Released, she continued to set records. She became the first woman to fly a glider over the Alps, and won various flying competitions. Over the span of her aviation career, she set more than 40 world records for flying both powered and engineless planes.

In 1959, Indian Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru invited Reitsch to start a gliding center in India, and she flew him over New Delhi. President Kennedy invited her to the White House. Then, in a startling turn of events for a member of the Nazi Party, she moved to Ghana after being invited to start a gliding school by ex-Ghanian Prime Minister Kwame Nkrumah. She founded the school, the first for Africans, and lived in Gahna for five years. The West German government also supported Reitsch as a technical adviser.

Reitch continued to fly throughout the Seventies, and by the time of her death had written five books about her life and aviation. Some believe she died after finally taking the cyanide pill Hitler gave her in his bunker. She never married.

Hanna Reitch’s life exemplifies the kind of trailblazing and individualism that feminists and women’s activists believe girls should be taught to believe are within their reach. Her connection to Hitler and the Third Reich, however, creates one of the greatest cognitive dissonance scale gaps in all of history. As a result, she is disqualified from being a role model or an exemplar.

But you have to admit, she was an amazing woman.

30 thoughts on “Women’s History Month Ethics: Should We Remember Hanna Reitsch? [Corrected]

  1. That she was. If you get a chance, see the excellent movie, “Downfall”, one of the few films about Hitler’s last days in which Reitsch appears.

  2. I have never heard of her, but I agree with you 100%, she was an amazing woman, Nazi or no. In fact, she was just an amazing aviator, woman or otherwise.

    But it also shows the inherent humanity of us all. Even the most talented people can be taken in by an evil ideology, even support it with their whole heart. In a way, she stands as both an inspiration… and a warning.

  3. World War II has been a long-time personal study of mine. Checking my phone library app, I own nearly 150 books on the subject – 43 involving the war in Europe. Never once do I remember reading of Hanna Reitsch. Her story should be taught – as Glenn suggested above – both for its successes and its failures.

    We often learn more from our mistakes than we do from what we get right. That holds true when we look at the lives of others, whether it’s George Washington, Timothy McVeigh, Billy Graham, or Hanna Reitsch. To remove people from the arena of learning for their evils is to diminish learning for future generations. This is the greatest mistake of today’s “cancel culture”.

    Jack, thank you for discovering, researching, writing, and presenting her to us.

  4. Thanks for the interesting character study! I often wonder if people like Reitsch, highly skilled in and passionate about their technical fields, become so focused on advancing that field that they develop a sort of tunnel vision. They are so devoted to practicing that skill, expanding their knowledge and abilities, and finding new applications for their skill that they can overlook the true nature of public or private benefactors that enable their aspirations. The German rocket scientists seem to fit this model, and in our own time I can imagine skilled people like computer hackers going down similar paths. Not to condemn anyone for having passion for their work, but it just shows the necessity of keeping one’s eyes open and not presuming that anyone who would advance our area of expertise or our personal success has altruistic or even morally acceptable motives.

  5. In all my reading, study, and movie (both foreign and domestic) watching I have never heard of this woman or her accomplishments. As one commentator stated even the most brilliant and talented can be overcome with evil ideology. If her name is to be revived from the trash heap of Nazi history that should be the emphatic teaching point.
    That she supported and idolized a tyrannical despot’s regime that brutally ended the lives of millions.is her most significant “accomplishment.” All the rest is existentially irrelevant.

  6. Interesting dilemma. We continue to laud Charles Lindbergh who was a NAZI sympathizer. Henry Ford was able to spread his Antisemitism through The Dearborn Independent in distribution through dealerships across the US. (I won’t get started on FDR.) Yet we separate their beliefs with their accomplishments.

    Are we able, should we be able, to do the same with Hanna Reitsch? To a certain extent yes. Her accomplishments were great. But, it in all this instances they serve as cautionary tales to recognize the breakthroughs, the daring, without idolizing every thought or word.

    • Certain sectors of the greater community celebrate Rashida Tlaib and Ilhan Omar, two people who have openly supported groups that want to wipe Israel off the map. Surely they can be convinced to extol Hanna Reitsch?

      • Here we have the *wipe Israel off the map* trope that is a tool to suppress and *knee-cap* all thought about US support of Israel, about a whole range of connected actions & activities, about the collusion of the US with Israel in self-devastating wars that do not end which have in no sense benefitted America nor its people, but the most important part here is the way this trope is used to make it impossible to think about, even to consider, the Israel-baed intelligence-operations (a branch of Israel military I must say) to engage in direct, extensive and continual manipulation of the American republic: the true example of ‘Russian meddling’ and ‘hacking of democracy’.

        The critical position that unravels this can be developed at length. It is completely rational & coherent but it has to compete against a sentimental position which pushes reason to the side.

        See, once you begin — once you pull that first thread — inter-connected stories begin to unravel.

        Knee-caping free-thought. Such a delicious, if slightly seductive, enterprise. It is much more fun though if it is done by a whole group.

        • The “trope” is also useful to characterize antisemitic types who have, indeed, supported groups that want to “wipe Israel off the map”.

          I hope your diversion made you feel good.

          • Let me put it this way, perhaps it will get through.

            The effect of establishing Israel in 1948, or reestablishing Israel, has been calamitous, generally, for the various countries in the region. With the ‘forever wars’ begun in the 1990s, brought to us by Christian Zionists and Zionist New-cons with unconcealed interests, done in concert with Israeli planners, and the larger plan being to *remodel the Middle East*:

            If all of this is true, then I would say that those who suffered, and suffer, these effects have some justification if they were to say — in anger, or if seriously — that they desire to see Israel wiped off the map.

            Does my diversion make me feel good? Only insofar as my object is to see into the sorts of lies and self-deceptions you and people like you engage in.

            You say you are *patriots* but when you look more closely into the issue you seem to be exactly the opposite.

            And that is what is being confronted today, to the degree that it is allowed to get out into the open. To the degree that people can — and it is really really hard to get good information — they are questioning and challenging the Grand Plans of designers who do not have people’s interests in mind. They have interests in mind, that’s for sure, but now people’s interest.

            This resistance that is developing is about gaining insight, and organizing opposition.

            Make sense Michael?

                • It work’s for me, I’ve schooled you on Israel two or three times already. Right every single time. I’m not interested in rehashing correct arguments that you won’t pay attention to. It was enough that you defended people’s attitudes that Israel should be wiped off the map for me to rest my case.

                  • Ah yes. The *I schooled you* assertion.

                    ::: applause :::

                    It is not that I don’t pay attention, it is that your arguments are faulty. And for the group of reasons that I mentioned just above. I am fine that you don’t agree. But I have noticed that opinions do change. Mine have and did.

                    This might help you: after 9/11 when for the first time in America’s history a devastating attack was brought against it, stop and consider the mood of retaliation that it evoked. The will to *wipe off the map*, bomb, do harm, get even. If you do harm to American you will pay the price, and it is a steep one. This is a *fact*.

                    The mood or the statement, and the sentiment, of desiring to do harm to Israel and to Jews (and to America) stems from the awareness of surrounding people to the many many harms done to them, their polities, their communities. These wars have been and continue to have devastating effect.

                    But you are an American! You do not have to be concerned for the pain and suffering others live as a result of your forever-righteous choices. You can do any harm to anyone anywhere and you do not have to pay a price and you do not have to any sort of conscience. You are Americans after all.

                    And in our present Israel’s actions and America’s have become strangely bound together.

                    In the past hundreds of thousands of people have died as a result of America’s mistaken adventures. Take Vietnam and Cambodia as a starting point. Not only was the damage done to others but that it ricocheted back and these harms still exist in the body politic. Examine the records. It starts there and it goes on from there. You have *special rights* that no one else has. As Jack explained ‘the world needs to have a big kid on the block’. That is how you see things. These are *metaphysical certainties*.

                    So here, little one, I am reverse-schooling you. And who won’t listen?

                    “Obstinacy makes us deaf to sound advice for all that we have ears.”

                    • So, because I’m an American, and don’t understand the sufferings as I’m not an Arab from one of the nations surrounding Israel, nor am I an Arab in Israel, I can’t possibly have a reasonable opinion about this topic?

                      Ok. Since you aren’t an Arab from any of those areas, your opinion is pretty useless also. If we are to keep a consistent standard.

                      Thanks for wasting our time with ad hominems!

    • Dan Laurita wrote:

      “As one commentator stated even the most brilliant and talented can be overcome with evil ideology. If her name is to be revived from the trash heap of Nazi history that should be the emphatic teaching point.”

      “That she supported and idolized a tyrannical despot’s regime that brutally ended the lives of millions.is her most significant “accomplishment.” All the rest is existentially irrelevant.”

      Opal wrote:

      “We continue to laud Charles Lindbergh who was a NAZI sympathizer. Henry Ford was able to spread his antisemitism through The Dearborn Independent in distribution through dealerships across the US. (I won’t get started on FDR.) Yet we separate their beliefs with their accomplishments.”

      Any mention of Nazis, National Socialism and other regimes of this sort (for example Mussolini) immediately triggers a complex set of reactions in highly propagandized minds. One cannot think in any other way except to feel that a Nazi is commensurate with a demon. There is no possible conversation in which any aspect of the National Socialist project could ever be represented in a positive light. By definition any such mention, any such consideration, will be understood to be collusion with that evil.

      My understanding of the use of propaganda and PR on the part of the US is that it was classically ‘totalizing’. The US became a ‘totalitarian state’ for the duration of the war-period insofar as it had to create totalized narratives about the Nazis and the Japanese in order to rally people to an absolute and unquestioned support of the war and the war-aims.

      Now, here is the hard part: these narratives were created by war-propaganda departments in which sophisticated forms of propaganda were perfected. And these forms were used, with great success, for many tears before and during war-time. So successful were they, and so *automated* and *conditioned* was made the American mind, and so attractive were the benefits offered to both government and private interests that there was no good reason to bring it all to an end. And indeed how could this have been done unless the very nature of PR and propaganda were thoroughly explained and revealed. That is, with the same sort of energy and intensity with which it was employed. You would actually have had to deprogram the people who had been programmed.

      Obviously, just by saying this, just by indicating that I could hold this view, I can only be seen as subversive to the PR and propaganda efforts. Ultimately, this will mean (not might mean but will mean) that my *American patriotism* will be questioned. And this is an example of the terrifying down-side of the use of such propaganda tools in a democratic society: once the strange animal is let out of its box it will not go back into the box. Once power — seductive power — is used those who use it will not surrender it. And when they them self engage in dubious, unethical, deceptive, misleading, lying and even *evil* actions, and yet use PR and propaganda to misrepresent what they do to a trained, conditioned, docile and faithful public, it is exactly there, the only difference being degree, that the precise evil of the *Nazis* is evident.

      The way that a war-power (a war-office) conditioned mind has been set up to work is through *selective ethics*. That mind can look at one thing — say the atrocity of an enemy — and have our own atrocity shown side-by-side, and yet literally not be able to *see* our atrocity as an atrocity. What are those intervening mechanisms that condition how perception functions? Are they mechanisms or are the complex sentiment-ideas? I think it fair to say that at this point, all clichés put to the side, we have to refer to Orwell. How language and perception and the drilling mechanisms of PR and propaganda function, ultimately, to weaken and destroy the kind of rational and thinking mind needed for the sort of civilization we understand to be possible to exist. In order to understand how this ideal mind, the mind (and spirit) we say that we value, has been destroyed and undermined, requires an extensive critical analysis. But in fact the person who undertakes that work is ‘knee-capped’ (to quote a great Bannon line) just as they begin.

      Just as all of you, in one degree or another, knee-cap those who deviate from the strict propaganda lines that you *believe in* and present as similar to ‘absolutely concluded truth’.

      There is not a ‘free spirit of inquiry that is encouraged in America right now. You have to start from this position. Not that you are God’s own righteous children and when you speak out come angelic harmonies that the whole world must hear & accept.

      I am thinking right now how angry Adimagejim will be with me for even suggesting these dissident thoughts! What happened to me?! What terrible influence enveloped me that I could even think such devious & devilish thoughts? (I tremble in fear that Steve Witherspoon will once again include the *angels dancing on pins* quote which as so wounded me in the past. Oh God, Oh God, not that!)

      So, there are critical postures about the US involvement in WW2 (and WW1). I refer for example to Randolph Borne.

      “Bourne had been a steady contributor to the liberal weekly The New Republic since its inception in 1914, but after the American government entered the war the magazine found his pacifist views unpalatable. He signaled his attack on the liberal support for the war in “The War and the Intellectuals” in the June 1917 issue of Seven Arts, a magazine whose antiwar articles—often by Bourne—led to its suppression in September of that year.”

      I read his essays and he clearly pointed out what would happen if this route of social manipulation taking shape were to go forward. He stated it clearly and lucidly. Was he *American*? Was he *intelligent*? Did his critical fit in with republican idealism? Or was he a deceiving, radical monster? (and a deformed cripple as well).

      The issue is not how you look at *the Nazis* the issue is to be capable of the intellectual freedom to analyze our own society, our own conditioning, and as well the causal chains that have brought us to this juncture. I suggest that there is no one home who is even interested in this *work*.

      To grasp how these war-time narratives are still very alive and functional, consider Trump’s Appeasers
      Charles Lindbergh was a national hero, then a fascist sympathizer. History will be just as brutal to more than a few current Republican leaders
      an article in The Intelligencer.

      Trump, I’ll argue not for the first time, is no Hitler. As Fran Lebowitz has said, there are 6 million reasons why not. And some other reasons as well: He has neither the attention span, organizational discipline, nor ideological zeal it takes to be a genocidal dictator. He doesn’t even have the skill set to avoid serial bankruptcies. Yet if Trump is no Hitler, he’s proved himself a stalking horse for a movement with Hitlerian ambitions, psychoses, and allies, the foremost of whom is a strongman with credible Hitler potential, Vladimir Putin.

      Same players here, I remind you, same essential *narrative*, and the same incapacity to extract our self from the *structure* in which these narratives play. Who controls these things? Who defines them and who exploits them?

      What is required is a radical effort to decondition the mind so that the mind can think freely. That is the true meaning of The Red Pill. It is painful & demanding.

  7. In a similar vein, if I may offer a book recommendation for the good of the group…

    If you can find a copy of “Arms and the Man” by William Lowther, I recommend it. It’s the story of Gerald Bull, a super-intelligent munitions guy born in Canada who ended up building some of the most accurate long-range artillery pieces ever developed. His ultimate goal was to build a “supergun” that could launch an artillery shell – with a satellite attached – into orbit.

    His love of the supergun was noticed by Saddam Hussein – lover of all things garish and grandiose – and…well…in case you decide to read the book, I won’t give more away. But suffice to say, there are some parallels to Ms. Reitsch – the incredibly ability and talent and the accompanying tunnel vision.

  8. There are a lot of women with significant accomplishments that are not mentioned by feminists or the press. The left is interested more in symbolic or political accomplishments than ones such as Hannah Reitsch. They seem to be more fond of the ‘well, do you know that invention x was ACTUALLY invented by…”? (save it, Chekov). I think even if she hadn’t been a Nazi, she still wouldn’t be held up as a role model, because her accomplishment doesn’t promote a leftist ideology, her accomplishments don’t undermine the accomplishments of a man, she wasn’t ‘oppressed’ or denied her due recognition for her accomplishments in her lifetime. The left wants victims, not victors. Rosalind Franklin is a good example. Popular culture often list Franklin in lists of important female scientists, even though Hodgkin’s work (see below) was actually more important. I think that is because Franklin was victimized by Watson and Crick (and she was far from alone) and can be held up as a victim of sexism since she was not awarded the Nobel Prize with the other contributors (she had died and posthumous awards weren’t allowed).

    I look at the significant women in science (and there are many) and note that they are not well recognized beyond their field. People like Emmy Noether were trailblazers in the 1920’s. A few decades later, prominent women in science were not unusual (although not the majority). From the field of X-ray crystallography alone belong Kathleen Lonsdale, Dorothy Hodgkin, and Rosalind Franklin. If you ask a scientist to name 5 famous crystallographers, they would probably list Hodgkin and Franklin along with Sir William Lawrence Bragg, his father (they probably wouldn’t have remembered that his name was William Henry Bragg) , and then be left stumbling for another name. It is also interesting that 5 of the 8 Nobel Prizes in science awarded to women were awarded before 1965. Nobel prizes in science are typically awarded decades (20-40 years) after the discovery.

  9. Interesting blog, though the photo at the top does not show Hanna Reitsch.
    Hanna’s full story is told in my book, ‘The Women Who Flew For Hitler’, a dual biography of her and the only other woman to serve the Third Reich as a test pilot, the remarkable Melitta Schiller von Stauffenberg. Melitta was also a brilliant aeronautical engineer, who helped design and test the Stuka dive bombers. However, her father had been born Jewish, and Melitta eventually supported the most famous attempt on Hitler’s life, the 20 July 1944 bomb plot, led by her brother-in-law Claus von Stauffenberg. Being the only two women in their role and on the airfields, Hanna and Melitta knew each other well, but unsurprisingly loathed one another…

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