The Nazis were racist garbage. But, like many fascists since, they discovered that the very people they declared subhuman were actually full of talent, intelligence and drive. Unfortunately, it didn't stop their murderous campaign. But it did allow one female test pilot, Countess Melitta von Stauffenberg, to save most of her family.
And if von Stauffenberg is tickling your memory but you can't remember why, she was related to the famous Colonel Claus von Staffenberg of Operation Valkyrie fame. She even took part in the attempted assassination of Hitler with him.
Here is the story of Nazi Germany's greatest test pilot who was actually a Jewish woman
Born and educated as Melitta Schiller
Melitta Schiller came into the world around 1905 in Krotoschin, Prussia. Her father, of Jewish descent, served in the Prussian civil service. Her mother was a protestant, and both were ethnically German. After World War I, the newly formed Poland was inhospitable to most Germans and the family moved to Germany.
Melitta proved herself in athletics and mathematics and moved in 1922 to study science and the mathematics of aviation. She shone in school, inventing prototype instruments and testing them herself. She went into the aviation industry and became a pioneer of propeller design and rocket propulsion despite a crash landing in France. Farmers who rushed to her aid reportedly kept asking her where the pilot of the plane was because they couldn't believe it was a woman.
During the rise of Hitler and the Nazis, Schiller's employer fired her under pressure. About the same time, she attracted the eye of Count Alexander Schenk von Stauffenberg and married, becoming a countess herself.
The countess returns to the air
The woman now known as Litta von Stauffenberg quickly found new employment as her flying skills were well known. She achieved the rank of test pilot and worked on experimental planes and techniques.
The Third Reich pressured von Stauffenberg into service for them. Litta quickly proved herself as a test pilot for dives and did work essential to the development of the Stuka dive bomber. She routinely flew a dozen or more dives per day and provided information on how to improve the plane and dive techniques.
Litta didn't do this out of the kindness of her heart or out of patriotism. She hated Hitler and the Reich. But her family's safety explicitly rested on her successes as well as her brother's, Otto. In 1943, Reichsmarshall Hermann Goering awarded her the Iron Cross Second Class. In 1944, the Third Reich declared her, her brother Otto, and their two sisters to be "equal to Aryans" in the eyes of the Reich.
An attempt on Hitler
But the countess knew what her work was enabling. And the continued subjugation and murder of millions of Jewish people in the Holocaust weighed heavily on her. Her brother-in-law, the German army Colonel Claus von Stauffenberg, came to her with a proposal. If he could put together a plan to kill Adolph Hitler, would she deliver him to and from the assassination?
Melitta quickly agreed, but there was a wrinkle in the plan. Hitler's headquarters was remote and had bad options for landing strips. She was confident she could do it with a Fieseler plane, named for a stork. But Fieseler planes are slow and require frequent re-fueling. It was a terrible choice for escaping an assassination.
Claus ended up making the attempt without her, smuggling a bomb in a briefcase into a staff meeting with Hitler. He managed to place it properly and get away, but someone moved the briefcase behind a table leg after he left. The table leg absorbed a lot of the blast and Hitler survived.
Two of Melitta's brothers-in-law, Claus and Berthold, were suspected of being part of the plot and were executed. Claus died by firing squad and Berthold was executed by strangulation. Melitta, her husband, and her parents were all arrested.
Melitta was soon released, however. The Nazis treated her loved ones relatively lightly in prisons and concentration camps, but the threat was clear. If Melitta ceased her work, slowed, or became a suspect of another assassination attempt, she and her family would be quickly executed.
Melitta continued her work, inventing a number of new devices and assisting in multiple plane designs, including the Messerschmitt-262 jet fighter. She used her medals and what prestige remained to get permission to visit family in concentration camps and prisons. In one case, this let her get better treatment for Claus's widow and children, including a daughter born after Claus's execution.
But as the Allies came to liberate Europe from the Nazis, they found Melitta in the air. On April 8, 1945, while Melitta flew to visit her husband, an American fighter spotted her. He quickly shot down her unarmed trainer aircraft. Countess Melitta von Staffenberg died of her wounds a few hours later.
While much of her work unfortunately benefited some of the worst people imaginable, Melitta was a pioneering and brilliant woman whose successes proved the folly of the Nazi's ridiculous racial views.
Melitta's story, as well as that of another female test pilot for the Third Reich, is well told in the book The women who flew for Hitler: a true story of soaring ambition and searing rivalry by Clare Mulley. A video introducing the two women and their exploits is available from the Imperial War Museums.