Nehru’s Nazi friend: How Adolf Hitler’s star pilot came to play a cameo role in making of modern India

Nehru’s Nazi friend: How Adolf Hitler’s star pilot came to play a cameo role in making of modern India

Nehru’s Nazi friend: How Adolf Hitler’s star pilot came to play a cameo role in making of modern India

Illuminated by tracer and exploding artillery, the small training plane hurtled through Berlin’s bombed-out Tiergarten, lurching into the air with the last, desperate hopes of the Third Reich. Flight-Captain Hanna Reitsch had spent the evening begging to stay inside the Führerbunker and die with her leader, Adolf Hitler. Instead, she had been ordered to carry Field Marshal Robert von Greim—appointed head of the Nazi Luftwaffe after the betrayal of HermannGöring—to rally its remaining aircraft to Berlin’s defence.

Later, the young Flight-Captain would tell a United States military intelligence officer: “It was the blackest day when we could not die at our Führer’s side”.

In the summer of 1959, Flight-Captain Reitch had her next moment in history: this one, inside the home of India's first prime minister Jawaharlal Nehru, along with his daughter, and future prime  minister, Indira Gandhi, and his grandchildren, Rajiv Gandhi and Sanjay Gandhi. Reitch had flown the prime minister over New Delhi in her glider. He was delighted, and an invitation to lunch followed. For last several days of her visit to India, she lived at the Nehrus’ home as their guest.

“Nehru was particularly curious about the rumour that Hanna had been Hitler’s mistress”, Reitch’s biographer, Sophie Jackson, records. “Hanna did not mind recounting her time in the bunker. At least with this audience, she could speak openly and would not be automatically condemned”.

The grandchildren—one of whom was later to become an airline pilot, and then Prime Minister; the other, to die in an aviation accident—“were enthusiastic, as only young boys can be, over all things to do with flying”. “They showed her their model aeroplanes and escorted her around Delhi”. Indira Gandhi and Reitch, according to her autobiography, continued to correspond.

In some senses, the brief friendship between Nehru and the Nazi tells us little—except perhaps about the exceptional privilege being White brought, and sometime still brings, in post-independence India. Yet, the story illuminates, how quickly the world—and even committed anti-fascists like Nehru—were to forgive those who participated in and enabled the most evil regime the world has ever known.

Emerging from prison late in 1945, Reitch found her world no longer existed. Fearing the prospect of being repatriated to Soviet Union-controlled Germany, her father Wilhelm Reitch had shot dead his wife Emy von Alpenheim, younger daughter Heidi Reitch, and her three children, before turning the gun on himself. These kinds of suicides, historian Jörg Freidrich has shown, were not uncommon: the downfall of Hitler had meant not just military defeat, but the implosion of society itself.

In 1932, Reitch had learned to fly gliders in the small town of Grunau, going on to set several altitude and endurance records. Following a brief stint as a movie stunt pilot, she went on join the Luftwaffe’s testing centre at Rechlin-Lärz Airfield—achieving iconic status in Nazi propaganda for flying the Focke-Achgelis Fa 61, the world’s first fully controllable helicopter, the Junkers Ju87 dive bomber, the Dornier D017 light bomber and the rocket-propelled Messerschmitt Me 163 Komet.

Following the war, though, Germans were barred from piloting powered aircraft. Reitch returned to her first love, gliding. From 1955 on, she set multiple new records. New Delhi, meanwhile, had lost its flying club’s fledgling fleet, after a jet aircraft crashed into the hangar. Hans Georg Steltzer, the Federal Republic of Germany’s ambassador in New Delhi from 1957 to 1960, thought a new glider would make a perfect present to the newly-independent country.

The fact that Steltzer chose an apparently unrepentant Nazi icon to fly that glider is illuminating. In fact, key figures in Nazi Germany were being rehabilitated across the world. Reitch’s one-time lover Wernher von Braun—the architect of the Nazi missile programme, and now widely known to have been responsible for war crimes involving the use of slave labour—had become a respected figure in the United States’ space programme.

Large numbers other Nazi scientists were rehabilitated in both the United States and Soviet Union; the new Federal Republic’s political leadership and intelligence services, too, were awash with former Nazis.

Elsewhere in the world, too, figures close to the Nazi establishment found themselves rehabilitated. Kurt Tank, the legendary Focke-Wulf aircraft designer, went on to design combat jets for Argentina, Egypt and India. Indeed, Tank was in India when Reitch made her visit, although there’s nothing to suggest the two met.

For Reitch, the India visit appears to have coincided with an effort to build a new inner world. Reitch, Sophie Jackson tells us, became drawn to“various forms of Eastern religion, particularly meditation. It seemed to Hanna that this might help combat her anxiety and emptiness”. She went on what her biographer describes as a “pilgrimage” to Pondicherry, meeting with the French spiritualist Mira Alfassa. The one-time Nazi test pilot, by her own account, even practiced yoga with Nehru.

The journey to India was to mark Reitch’s rebranding as a feminist aviation icon. Meetings with President John F Kennedy, and other world leaders, followed. Then, she moved to Ghana in 1962, setting up a flight school for the newly-independent country. Kwame Nkrumah, Ghana’s iconic freedom movement leader, became a close friend.

Berhard Rieger, in a signal 2008 essay, observed that Ghana provided an ideal stage for Reitch’s effort at “moral self-reinvention: it allowed her to parade herself as a racially unprejudiced humanitarian, thereby sidestepping the very political questions of responsibility and guilt that marred her biography”. For the country she served, too, German technology could be marketed as a benevolent philanthropic tool, thus freeing it of the burden it carried for abetting industrialised slaughter.

In interviews given in her last years, though, Reitch took off the veil she had donned. “And what do we have now in Germany”, she asked the American photojournalist Ron Laytner? “A land of bankers and car-makers. Even our great army has gone soft. Soldiers wear beards and question orders. I am not ashamed to say I believed in National Socialism. I still wear the Iron Cross with Diamonds Hitler gave me”.

“Today in all Germany”, she concluded, “you can’t find a single person who voted Adolf Hitler into power”. “Many Germans feel guilty about the war. But they don’t explain the real guilt we share—that we lost”.

Even at the very end, she expressed neither shame nor regret for the Holocaust, or her own role in Nazi Germany’s wars of aggression. Perhaps, in private, Nehru had asked her what she thought on these issues. Whether he did, and what she said, the archive does not tell us.