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Review

Book details lives of female pilots who flew in Hitler's Luftwaffe

MACMILLAN PUBLISHERS/TNS

By VIRGINIA KOPAS JOE | Pittsburgh Post-Gazette (Tribune News Service) | Published: October 11, 2017

We know – and adore – stories of The Greatest Generation. But what about their enemies – their female enemies? Acclaimed author Clare Mulley tackles this long overdue subject in “The Women Who Flew for Hitler: A True Story of Soaring Ambition and Searing Rivalry,” a spellbinding, scrupulously researched dual biography of Nazi Germany’s most highly decorated women pilots. One was a Nazi apologist. One wanted the Fuhrer dead.

Hanna Reitsch and Melitta von Stauffenberg were talented, courageous and strikingly beautiful women who fought convention and class to make their names in the male-dominated field of flight in 1930s Germany. Both became pioneering test pilots and were awarded the Iron Cross for service to the Third Reich. But they could not have been more different – and they absolutely hated each other. One even refused kind words for the other’s eulogy.

Hanna Reitsch was middle-class, vivacious and distinctly Aryan, while the darker, more self-effacing Melitta von Stauffenberg came from an aristocratic Prussian family with Jewish roots. Still both were driven by deeply held convictions about honor and patriotism; but ultimately, while Reitsch tried to save Hitler’s life begging him to let her fly him to safety in April 1945, von Stauffenberg covertly supported a famous attempt to assassinate him.

Biographer Ms. Mulley gives a full and largely unknown account of the aviators’ contrasting yet strangely parallel lives along with historic backdrop of the 1936 Olympics, the Eastern Front, the Berlin Aero Club and Hitler’s bunker. The book is yet another brutal lesson about Nazi Germany’s attitudes toward race, class and women.

The hardcover includes almost two dozen glossy photographs that illustrate the story and the times. Some are charming; family photos, Bavarian style picnics and weddings. There is even a nod to the daring new 1930s “bob” haircut. But others, such as a self-described “beaming” Reitsch with Hitler are hard to take.The author does not shy from Reitsch’s refusal to critically examine her role in the Third Reich and the moral dilemma of the times. She was, in fact, one of the last people to see Hitler alive in his bunker. Reitsch was a Holocaust denier to the end.

Von Stauffenberg was awarded a special decoration from Luftwaffe chief Hermann Goering and it is widely assumed that her dedication to the war effort meant that her family was spared from the concentration camps that were carrying out the systematic murder of most Germans with Jewish heritage.

However, the family that she had married into soon found themselves under threat from the regime. It was her husband’s brother Claus von Stauffenberg who was the key figure in a bid to assassinate Hitler called Operation Valkyrie. On 20 July 1944, he planted a bomb during a meeting with Hitler, before fleeing to an airfield in the hope of organizing a coup. But Hitler survived with minor injuries and the entire von Stauffenberg family, including Melitta, was arrested.

Claus was executed but the other detainees’ explanations that they knew nothing of the plot were accepted. Many historians suspect that Melitta von Stauffenberg’s exemplary record and role in the Luftwaffe was cause for their survival. She returned to military service only to be shot down by an American fighter in April 1945 just weeks before the end of the war. She died soon after.

War is indeed hell and the book paints it no other way. A description from a member of the U.S. Second Army who liberated Camp Bergen-Belsen is chilling: “Over 10,000 corpses lay in open graves … (survivors) walked like ghosts … .”

Some 50,000 had been killed or left to die in Bergen-Belsen, among them Anne Frank, the Dutch teen who had commented on Claus’ assassination attempt in her diary just days before her family was arrested. Reitsch fared better. While she was captured after the war and interned by the U.S. Army, she was eventually released and returned to her first and only love — flying. She died in 1979 at age 65, one year after setting a new women’s glider distance record.

This amazing and true story from WWII told from a fresh perspective is destined to be a movie. But read the book first.

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