Clare Mulley is one of an exciting group of biographers who are also acclaimed historians. In all three of her books Clare has written about remarkable and original women who were very different, except for one factor: their achievements have not been widely known. The Woman Who Saved Children, a biography of Eglantyne Jebb, founder of Save the Children, won the Daily Mail Biographers’ Club prize. ‘Unusual and perceptive,’ the paper said. Equally complex and difficult, but charismatic and unimaginably courageous, Christine Granville, one of SOE’s greatest operators, was her second choice for The Spy Who Loved; the Secrets and Lives of One of Britain’s Bravest Wartime Heroines. The quality and depth of research, combined with a psychological acuity, produced a narrative that the Sunday Telegraph called ‘thrilling… and compulsively readable.’
Clare’s latest book, which comes out in paperback on 8 March, The Women Who Flew for Hitler: The True Story of Hitler’s Valkyries, examines the lives of two very different women in Nazi Germany. Both were gifted pilots, and both served the Nazi regime, but their politics were opposed and they met very different ends. Elizabeth Buchan finds out more…
Do you see yourself as a revisionist historian?
I think that ‘history’ is not so much the past, as our understanding of the past. As such, the historical record is constantly changing, both as we discover new information and as we re-examine what we thought we already knew from different perspectives. I hope that my books challenge the status quo both by bringing lesser-known stories to light, and by asking different questions.
As a childless Edwardian lady who founded a children’s charity, for example, Eglantyne Jebb almost automatically conjures up images of benevolent maternalism. In fact she was not fond of individual children, ‘the little wretches’ as she called them. Likewise, when I was researching my biography of Krystyna Skarbek, aka Christine Granville, Britain’s first and longest-serving female special agent of the Second World War, I noticed that female agents were often presented as brave and beautiful but perhaps more romantic than effective. Skarbek provided the perfect vehicle to explore a female agent who was not only courageous, but also complex, flawed and extremely good at her job.
History – like a good manuscript – needs to be written, but also to be thoroughly revised. When I am working I often think the process is endless, but sadly I have to stop somewhere and publish my books. I never trust a history or biography that claims to be ‘definitive’ however. Fortunately history never has to be finally handed in.
Can you tell us about The Women Who Flew for Hitler?
Talented, courageous and hugely ambitious, Hanna Reitsch and Melitta von Stauffenberg not only made their names in the male-dominated field of flight in the 1930s but, with the Second World War, also became pioneering test-pilots for the Nazi regime. Both were awarded the Iron Cross for their service to the Third Reich, yet they would end their lives on opposite sides of history. Taken together, the story of these two women provides an remarkable insight into coercion, consent and resistance, courage and conviction, set in the perilous world of the Nazi aviation programme during the war.
How different were Hanna and Melitta? Were they friends?
Hanna and Melitta were both naturally brilliant pilots, and they were both great patriots with a strong sense of honour and duty. There the similarities end. With her blond curls and blue-eyes, Hanna looked the perfect ‘Aryan’ woman, which suited both her inclinations and her ambitions. When the Nuremberg Laws enshrined racial prejudice into German law in 1935 however, Melitta learnt that her father had been born Jewish.
When war came, both women volunteered to serve their country as pilots. Hanna tested prototypes including the Me163 rocket-powered Komet. She would even test a manned-version of the V1 flying bomb, or doodlebug. As a brilliant aeronautical engineer developing, and then test-flying, the Stuka dive-bombers, Melitta was probably even more valuable to the regime. She knew that her skills were the only asset that might protect her and her family. Although the two women often worked from the same airfields, there was never any love lost between them. Melitta looked down on Hanna as ignorant, while Hanna despised Melitta for what she called her ‘racial burden.’
On 20 July 1944 Melitta supported the most famous attempt on Hitler’s life. By chance, he survived. Although arrested afterwards, Melitta talked her way out of prison and continued to fight her own battles. Conversely in the last days of the war, Hanna flew into Berlin under siege and begged Hitler to let her fly him out; he refused, and took his own life the next day.
How crucial was flight to Nazi Germany?
Hitler took his first flight in 1920, the only passenger in an open biplane speeding from Munich to Berlin where he hoped to join the Kapp Putsch and witness the downfall of the Weimer Republic. The putsch failed. Hitler arrived late, air-sick and frozen by wind and rain, yet he recognised the political and military potential of flight. In the coming years he would use aerial leaflet drops to spread his message across the country, advertise Party membership figures on giant Zeppelins, and in 1932 he became the world’s first political leader to tour his country by plane. During the war, the Luftwaffe was critical to early Nazi successes in Europe, and in the later stages Hitler pinned his hopes on his ‘Vengeance Weapons’, such as pioneering rocket-planes and flying-bombs. Hanna and Melitta both played important roles in helping to develop this technology, regularly risking their lives to do so.
Research is key to your books and dealing with this skilfully is important. How do you begin? How do you weigh up what you find and how much do you discard?
I am a very nosy person. I love my job partly because it gives me licence to search for the truth – or perhaps the many truths – of people inside the files of public archives, and between the lines of private letters. I get obsessed, until I am boring all near me with the price of war-time petrol or the fact that Churchill wore dentures.
I particularly like doing what Antonia Fraser calls ‘optical research’, which basically means going on holiday to where your subject spent time, and seeing what trace of them remains or just knowing that you shared the view. It is incredible how revealing this can often be.
With Second World War stories it is still possible to interview witnesses to events, who sometimes remember profoundly telling details. For The Women Who Flew I found myself just one handshake away from Hitler more than once, bearing in mind that not everyone who shook his hand did so willingly. That was sobering.
To understand motives, opportunities and so on, you need to know much more context than you would ever put into a book. As long as the story is properly anchored, I try to let the narrative carry only what it needs. What I find hard to leave out are those peripheral stories that are both wonderful and irrelevant. My favourite footnote in The Women Who Flew tells an anecdote a former Luftwaffe pilot recounted to me about Mussolini’s willy; I just could not let it be lost to history!
Did you uncover anything that truly astonished you during the research for The Women Who Flew for Hitler? Is there for you an object that summons up these women?
I found this whole story astonishing. Hanna is fairly well known, but often presented as a brave and brilliant pilot with no mention of her political views. It was good to find previously unpublished letters in a couple of private archives that made clear just how anti-Semitic she was.
Melitta is hardly known at all, partly because Hanna worked hard to keep her name hidden, so it was fabulous to be able to bring her story to light. I was even lucky enough to hold Melitta’s handwritten 1943-1944 diary, providing a new insight into the 20 July 1944 bomb plot, as well as covering her test-pilot work and love-life before, and the time she spent in prison afterwards. Pleasingly, the diary also held a secret of its own – a small curl of hair hidden between the folds of two pages.
Do you think war affects men and women in different ways?
I think that war affects everyone differently. Of course, historically most armed forces have employed more men than women, and usually in different roles, and of course war also impacts on those on the home front. People inhabit specific times and places, which to some extent influence their hopes, opinions and expectations – we are all in part socially constructed. Yet this very gender bias is what made the female special agents so unexpected and inconspicuous, and therefore so effective, when they were trained, armed and sent to work behind enemy lines alongside their male counterparts. Last year the RAF became the first of the British forces to accept applications from women for all roles, including close combat, so perhaps the official gender dynamics of war are slowly changing. Writing biographies has taught me, however, that everyone’s inner life is distinct, moulded by a million factors, and to make assumptions based on anything as broad as gender is usually unhelpful.
So, what’s next?
Right now, coffee. Book-wise, I am currently obsessed with three more difficult and determined women… but I don’t yet know where they will take me.
Elizabeth Buchan‘s novels include the award-winning Consider the Lily and the international bestseller, Revenge of the Middle-Aged Woman, which was made into a CBS Primetime Drama. Her latest, The New Mrs Clifton, is set in London and Berlin in 1946, and was a Waterstones Paperback of the Year. Elizabeth’s short stories are broadcast on BBC Radio 4 and published in magazines. She has reviewed for The Times, the Sunday Times and the Daily Mail, and has chaired the Betty Trask and Desmond Elliot literary prizes. She has been a judge for the Whitbread First Novel Award and for the 2014 Costa Novel Award. She is a patron of the Guildford Book Festival and co-founder of the Clapham Book Festival.
- Clare Mulley
- Hanna Reitsch
- Melitta von Stauffenberg