March 8 is International Women's Day-a day marked by celebrating all the social, economic, cultural and political achievements of women. As a woman, I would like to emphasize the importance of recognizing women for their achievements and contributions to history and the general betterment of society.
Women have pretty much always been involved in aviation, although for the early decades of flying powered aircraft, they were usually restricted to working either privately or in -support- roles in the industry. Élisabeth Thible was the first known woman to fly-in 1784 she was a passenger in an untethered hot air balloon. Sophie Blanchard began flying in balloons in 1804, became a professional aeronaut by 1810, and was made Napoleon's chief of air service in 1811. Katherine Wright, sister to the famous Wright Brothers, contributed to her brothers' work and even flew with her brothers in 1909.
You can read about more awesome female pilots we're written about here.
Naturally, it's important to honor these women-they were great contributors to history, after all! But what happens when celebrating a woman's contributions to history and aviation suddenly becomes a controversial political statement?
What happens when the role model you want to highlight was also a Nazi?
Hanna Reitsch was a fantastic pilot, there's really no argument there. She was Germany's most famous female aviator and test pilot and was the first woman to fly a helicopter. From starting out as a glider pilot to flying a modified V-1 Fieseler Reichenberg, Reitsch was influential in helping improve aircraft design and even helped to establish gliding schools in India and Ghana after WWII. For these reasons, the Canadian-based Institute for Women of Aviation Worldwide (WOAW) has decided to honor her during their Women Of Aviation Worldwide Week.
The controversy of Hanna Reitsch
But not everyone agrees with honoring Hanna Reitsch-not because of her capabilities and historical significance as a female pilot, mind you, but for her role as a Nazi and her close ties to Adolf Hitler.
The WOAW website doesn't include any Nazi-related biographical information on Hanna Reitsch (though there isn't too much information in general on the page in question). In not accounting for her contributions to the Nazi party, they are obviously not condoning her participation in the Third Reich. But the failure to disclose that has implications as well, particularly when some of her achievements were earned or recognized in direct connection with her part in WWII and Hitler's Germany. Situations like this can obviously create some kind of moral dilemma-what is one to do?
Who was she?
Reitsch was born in Hirschberg, Germany and began flight training at the School of Gliding in Grunau when she was 20. While studying medicine in Berlin, she enrolled in a German Air Mail amateur flying school for powered aircraft. She ended up leaving medical school to become a full-time glider pilot/instructor at Hornberg in Baden-Württemberg. Contracted with the Ufa film company as a stunt pilot, she set an unofficial endurance record for women.
In January 1934, she traveled to South America on an expedition to study thermal conditions. While in Argentina, she became the first woman to earn the Silver C Badge (and the 25th to do so among world glider pilots).
In 1935 she became a test pilot and later enrolled in the Civil Airways Training School.
In September 1935, she was posted as a test pilot at the Luftwaffe testing center at the Rechlin-Lärz Airfield. During this time, she received the Iron Cross, Second Class, from Hitler on March 28, 1941. She was the only woman to earn this award during WWII. The first female helicopter pilot, and one of the few pilots to fly the Focke-Achgelis Fa 61 (considered the first practical, functional helicopter), Reitsch was also a recipient of the Military Flying Medal.
Because she was such a skillful pilot (and rather photogenic), she became a star for Nazi propaganda. As a petite, blonde-haired, blue-eyed woman with a -ready smile,- she was physically ideal to represent the Nazi party. More than just a pretty face, though, Reitsch really was a fantastic pilot worthy of recognition. She flew many of Germany's newest aircraft designs during the war, including the rocket-propelled Messerschmitt Me 163 Komet in 1942. After a bad crash landing during a flight on her fifth ME 163, she spent 5 months recovering in the hospital. She was awarded the Iron Cross First Class following the incident. She was also the only woman to earn such award during World War II.
By Bundesarchiv, Bild 183-W-0801-512 / Becke, Heinrich von der / CC-BY-SA 3.0, CC BY-SA 3.0 de, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=5437660
Apart from her flying prowess, Reitsch is known-and criticized-for Operation Suicide, an idea which she presented to Hitler on February 28, 1944. Her plan was essentially the German equivalent to Japanese kamikaze suicide bombers. Her idea was for a suicide squad of pilots who would fly specially-designed versions of the V-1. Hitler, though initially unsettled by the idea, eventually gave his approval and about 70 men volunteered. Though the V-1 was adapted with and without landing mechanisms, the plan was never implemented.
During the course of WWII, Reitsch was the closest any woman got to seeing combat. She was also one of the last people to see Hitler alive, and the last person who flew the last plane out of Berlin at the end of the war.
"It was the blackest day when we could not die at our Führer's side"
Reisch was captured by American military intelligence officers along with Robert Ritter von Greim. She held for 18 months; upon her release, she moved to Frankfurt am Main. Though German citizens were barred from flying powered aircraft, it didn't take long for gliding to be allowed, which she resumed. In 1952 she became the first woman to compete in the World Gliding Championships in Spain and she took home a bronze medal. In 1955 she became German Champion. She continued to break records and earned her first diamond of the Gold-C badge in 1957.
In 1959 she was invited to India to begin a gliding center. She lived in Ghana from 1962 to 1966 and founded the first black African national gliding school. Throughout the 1970s she continued to break many gliding records and finished first in the women's section of the first world helicopter championships.
Hanna Reitsch died on August 24, 1979, of an apparent heart attack. During her lifetime she earned over a dozen awards and world record titles. She also wrote a number of books.
The past, the present, and the future
So...what now? There's no dispute that Hanna Reisch was an amazing aviator and accomplished a lot--especially for a woman at that time. However, her political position during an incredibly important time of her life is concerning to many people, and rightly so. Is there a way to separate a person's accomplishments from their politics or their troubling past? And should we?