Why you should care
Because sometimes you can judge a book by its cover.
Forget about the movies, TV documentaries, books, websites and rants all tilted toward the mythologizing of World War II. Forget them specifically because the mythos of those years shoots us well past remembering that these times were populated by real people making real decisions that still affect us in real ways today.
Case in point? The curious tale of Hanna Reitsch. Born in 1912, at a time when upward mobility for many women meant marrying well, Reitsch fully intended to become a doctor like her father. That was somehow derailed by what had been a side interest in aviation. A very nascent aviation, if you remember that the first international commercial flights didn’t start until 1919, and the famed American aviatrix Amelia Earhart didn’t start learning how to fly until 1921.
Many Germans feel guilty about the war. But they don’t explain the real guilt we share — that we lost.
But combining her medical ambitions with what was becoming an overwhelming interest in flight, Reitsch resolved to become a flying doctor, sort of an early version of Médecins Sans Frontières, and in 1932 started learning how to fly. A learning curve that saw her soon setting world records and coming to the not-so-surprising realization that medical school was the last thing she wanted to do. The priority? Anything with wings and an engine.
Flying “lets you see the world in a way that’s so different that it makes you think differently,” says World War 2 buff and amateur aviation enthusiast Lance Wong. And while in the sky, having earned a stunning series of air accolades that found Reitsch ultimately ensconced in the Luftwaffe in 1937, things on the ground were, indeed, pretty different. The Nuremberg Laws had been passed, and, while generating a significant kind of misery for Germany’s Jews, Hitler’s rearming in violation of the Versailles Treaty created no small amount of what, nowadays, we’d call momentum.
“We should all kneel down in reverence and prayer before the altar of the Fatherland,” said Reitsch in October of 1945, according to The New York Times. And indeed, her seemingly non-nuanced take on National Socialism and her cozy view of those in high places helped her not only get awarded an Iron Cross by Hitler himself in 1941, but also partake in a particularly stunning conversation with Heinrich Himmler, according to her memoir, The Sky My Kingdom: Memoirs of the Famous German World War II Test Pilot. In 1944, during the waning days of the war — her plans for German kamikaze flights had been developed and then shelved as ultimately a little too crazy, even for Hitler — Reitsch came across a booklet detailing the horrors of the gas chambers.
She confronted Himmler about what she felt was propaganda, and he asked her whether she believed it. “No, of course not. But you must do something to counter it. You can’t let them shoulder this onto Germany,” she advised. A heat-of-the-moment assessment, perhaps, in the face of much evidence to the contrary, but Reitsch’s take, and her subsequent 18 months being questioned by Allied forces, gave her ample opportunities to embrace the reality of what her Germany had become. Which culminated in a very personal way, with her father’s refusal to surrender to the Russians and the eventual murder-suicide by him of her mother, sister and all three of her sister’s children.
“You have to understand that while many felt the war to be lost as early as 1943, there were many Germans who were still surprised at eventually having lost the war,” says M.G. Sheftall, technical adviser on the History Channel series Dogfights and author of Blossoms in the Wind: Human Legacies of the Kamikaze. “And Reitsch’s memories probably had little to do with the moral arc of death camps.”
But because travel is, in fact, so broadening, Reitsch’s postwar travels to India and ultimately Africa to teach and start up flight schools seemed, at least for a time, to have opened up her horizons. Most notably in the raised-eyebrow rumor-mongering of the exact nature of her relationship with Ghana’s first prime minister and president, Kwame Nkrumah, as laid out by Jean Allman, African history professor at Washington University in St. Louis, in a 2013 paper titled Phantoms of the Archive: Kwame Nkrumah, a Nazi Pilot Named Hanna, and the Contingencies of Postcolonial History-Writing. This, and the endless awards for flying, was now part of both the legend and legacy of Reitsch.
A legacy that halted in 1979, perhaps as a suicide fueled by a cyanide pill Hitler gave her years before, and definitely as a heart attack (no autopsy was done), with an uneasy interview left for journalist Ron Laytner to publish in the Deseret News. In it she claimed she wasn’t ashamed of having supported National Socialism, and remarked how it was impossible to find anyone who voted for Hitler in Germany today: “Many Germans feel guilty about the war. But they don’t explain the real guilt we share — that we lost.”