The last decade of Countess Melitta von Stauffenberg’s life was ringed by impossible decisions, choices that you and I will never experience outside of a theoretical ethics lecture hall, but that were all too real to a woman trying to navigate one of history’s most brutal eras. She was a brilliant aviation engineer and a fearless test pilot who despised Adolf Hitler but who also came from a Jewish family whose lives were only protected by the irreplaceable work she did for Germany during the Second World War. And so she wrestled every day with the dilemma – do you serve a tyrant to save your family and perhaps your country, or do you refuse your gifts and watch your loved ones perish like so many others?
If that question is difficult in the abstract today, how much harder it must have been in the mangle of the moment, with guilt and doubt the only real guarantees no matter which path she chose (and she did, at different times, know the cruelties of both). Melitta Schiller (1903-1945) in any other time would have been a role model of brilliance, charisma, confidence, and inquisitiveness, who would have shared her love of flying and the potential of space flight with a world of eager children ready to be inspired by her infectious energy and enthusiasm. As it was, however, her life was framed by war, and her moments of joy and freedom were but bright candles amongst a resounding and greedy darkness.
Her father was of Jewish descent, and her mother a Protestant, and together they lived a relatively happy life in the Prussian town of Krotoschin until the outbreak of the First World War. Her father was called up to serve as interpreter in the army due to his knowledge of Russian, while her mother took the children (Melitta was one of five) to stay with family in Hirschberg, further from the front lines of fighting. At war’s end, their hometown was absorbed into the newly created Polish state, and their situation as ethnic Germans in a transitioning area was anything but a stable one, as her father was taken hostage twice after the war by Polish forces.
It was decided to move the family permanently to Hirschberg, which remained in the possession of Germany, though travel out of Poland was heavily restricted. When the Schillers finally arrived, however, Melitta experienced a spell of stability and success that showed her just what she was capable of. Attending the Gymnasium at Hirschberg, she shone above other students not only intellectually, but in her daring approach to sports and all means of travel. A fellow student of those years later recalled how Schiller would talk of space travel by rocket as an inevitability, though at the time rocketry was in its most primitive backyard-experimental phase of development. She read philosophy and devoured mathematics while dreaming of somehow becoming a pilot.
In 1922 she entered the Technischen Hochschule München to study science, while a year later she put in a request to be allowed to study piloting at the newly founded Akademische Fliegergruppe. With that, her dual life was well launched, studying the mathematics of aviation into the night while learning how to fly every type of plane she could legally qualify for during her precious spare moments. This combination was to be the source of her value to the nation during World War II – the ability to conceptualize new instrumentation allied to the ability to take her prototypes out into the field and test them over and over in flight until perfected.
After graduating cum laude in 1927, Schiller went to work for the Deutsche Versuchsanstalt für Luftfahrt where she carried out research and published reports on experimental propeller design and rocket propulsion while continuing to acquire specialized piloting certifications, flying in all weather and light conditions to develop her skills. On one flight, when she took an experimental German plane out for a weekend flight in rough weather, she ended up having to make an emergency landing in France, and ended by crashing in a farmer’s field, where the farm workers coming to her rescue kept asking her where the pilot of the plane was, fundamentally unable to comprehend, even after several explanations, that she was the pilot and to, by the way, if it’s not too much trouble, stop smoking cigarettes next to the leaking gasoline tank.
These were happy years of challenging research and bracing self-development as a pilot. She was developing a reputation for mathematical brilliance among her colleagues, and one for cool fearlessness as a pilot among her fellow flyers which included a growing number of fellow women. The rise of Hitler, however, in 1933 brought with it a new set of lasting consequences that would define the course of Schiller’s few remaining years. She was removed from her job at DVL in 1936 on account of her Jewish heritage, only to be taken up by Askania and given the rank of Flugkapitänin (test pilot) in 1937, only the second woman in Germany to earn that title, just behind the ardent Nazi sympathizer and future jet test pilot Hanna Reitsch. At Askania she worked on interesting issues involving seaplane design while, in 1938, participating in and winning a grand multi-day all-woman air race contest that included some of the era’s greatest German women pilots and navigators.
With the arrival of World War II the following year, Schiller (now Countess von Stauffenberg after her 1937 marriage to historian Count Alexander Schenk von Stauffenberg) attempted to gain work with the Red Cross, but on account of her expertise in aeronautical instrumentation she was compelled to become a test pilot and engineer in Rechlin, developing dive bomb instrumentation for Germany’s Stuka planes. Performing upwards of a dozen dives a day personally to test out new equipment, she had by 1943 amassed over 1500 dives on her way to over 2000, more than all but one other test pilot in Germany, and upon coming under enemy fire while on a test run, she was personally awarded the Iron Cross Second Class on January 22, 1943 by Reichsmarshall Hermann Goering, becoming only the second woman pilot to earn that decoration (Hanna Reitsch had earned it in 1941 for her work as a test pilot on Stuka and Dornier bombers).
People who knew Melitta in the happy 1920s who crossed her path in the late 1930s and 40s were shocked at what a toll her new life was taking on her physically and emotionally. She was serving a leader whom she hated as the price of guaranteeing the safety of her parents and family from Nazi persecution, and the self-doubt as to whether she was had made the right decision is evident in her diary entries of the time, which perhaps explains her willingness to be part of Operation Valkyrie, the failed 1944 attempt to assassinate Adolf Hitler and seize control of Germany from the Nazis. The leader of the operation was her husband’s brother, Claus von Stauffenberg, who felt that Hitler’s leadership had destroyed and shamed Germany, and that the only way to save the country was to kill him and remove his key officers from power in a coordinated uprising. He asked Melitta if she was willing to be his personal pilot on the journey to deliver the bomb and, if he should survive the attempt, on the trip back to Berlin to lead the uprisings. She is reported to have declared, “Wenn ich gerufen werde, bin ich da. Ich habe keine Angst vor dem Tode.”
If I am called, I’ll be there. I have no fear of death.
It was a risky operation, in spite of the extensive planning of the conspirators, and ultimately a failed one. Melitta was, due to logistical problems, not in fact the one who flew Stauffenberg to his grim fate, Hitler was not killed by Stauffenberg’s bomb, and the planned uprisings quickly faded away upon the news that the Fuhrer was still alive. Over four thousand people suspected of connection to the operation were killed by an enraged Hitler, but Melitta’s importance as a test pilot once again saved her loved ones. While her closest family were placed in concentration camps, their relatively light treatment there was entirely dependent upon her continued work as an aeronautical engineer and instructor (shortly after being awarded the Iron Cross, she received her Master’s Degree and became an instructor and researcher at a new flight instrumentation research institute). The work which had assured her family’s liberty before now was the only thing ensuring their lives.
In March of 1945, Melitta discovered that her husband was being held in Buchenwald, and for the last month of her life she flew what planes she could get her hands on in a series of failed attempts to track where he had been moved after the evacuation of that camp in April. On April 8, 1945, three weeks before the death by suicide of Adolf Hitler, she took off on another quest to find her husband, never to return as her plane was shot down by an Allied fighter that mistook it for a fighter craft.
The story of Melitta von Stauffenberg probes all the boundaries of human duty – what do we owe our family? Our country? Humanity as a whole? What if in serving the first two you betray the last? What if in a moment of atonement you not only fail to help the last, but seemingly doom the others? Will they understand, and can they forgive? Stauffenberg did not live to hear the judgment of her country and the world, but bore the tension of torn loyalties through a half decade of steady mental and physical attrition that devoured her brilliance and rewarded her with shame and anxiety. Her spirit deserved to live in a brighter time, and as residents of that brighter time perhaps it falls to us to say We Hear, We Understand, and in so far as we understand (and it is very possible we can’t), We Forgive.
FURTHER READING: Gerhard Bracke’s Melitta Grafin Stauffenberg: Das Leben einer Fliegerin (2013) is an exhaustively researched book that attempts gamely, seven decades after the events it describes, to get to the bottom of the many myths and contradictory stories about Stauffenberg’s life, and is essential to anyone seeking to really understand her. If you don’t read German, however, there is a dual biography of her and Reitsch by Clare Mulley that just came out a few years ago and which I have to confess to not owning (don’t worry – steps are being taken to correct this gross oversight) but that is probably a pretty good read. I’ll let ya know when it shows up!
Original graphite portrait of Melitta von Stauffenberg by Phinea Forsythe as commissioned by Women You Should Know.