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 withing their reach. Her connection to Hitler and the Third Reich, however, create 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.