Manfred von Richthofen–the legendary ace of aces-had an explanation for his success: the “hunting fever.” But in the end, the consummate hunter would allow himself to become the hunted.
Almost eight decades after the end of the Great War, the aces who fought and died in the sky continue to fascinate us. This is understandable. Living in the world we do, we look back in wonder at romantic wars in which heroic deeds could be carried out at relatively low human costs. It is difficult to idealize the dehumanized slaughter in the trenches between 1914 and 1918, the confused colonial wars of the 20th century or, for that matter, even the Second World War–remembered by many as an unambiguously “good” war–in which as many as 60 million people died and civilian casualties were higher, more visible, and often more gruesome than those of combatants.
By contrast, we can repress the more unpleasant aspects of the first air war and thrill vicariously to the exploits of the aces, as we imagine what it would be like to fly a single-seater biplane and blaze away with twin machine guns at a chivalric adversary, the roaring wind in our face, our white scarf waving in the slip stream, and the smell of gasoline and oil in our nostrils. The war in the air, as it was fought between 1915 and 1918, makes for great romance, as Hollywood quickly came to realize in the 1920s and 1930s.
Among the aces of the Great War, Baron Manfred von Richthofen’s fame has proved more lasting than that of any other. This was no doubt in part because he downed more enemy aircraft than any other First World War pilot, with a total of 80 victories officially recorded. But the fascination with Richthofen has other sources as well. There are his noble birth, his photogenic features, his piercing blue eyes, his passion for collecting trophies to commemorate his victories, his apparent disdain for death, his bold-faced effrontery in painting his aircraft bright red, the uncompromising standards he set for the fighter pilots in his squadron and later his wing, the controversial circumstances of his death, and the bright, unsullied legend he left behind him. We think we know him from the many photographs that have come down to us. But do we really understand him? What drove Germany’s “Red Knight of the Air ” (the name came from the color of his aircraft) to do what he did? Love of country? Prussian dedication to duty? Sporting spirit? A Nietzschean urge toward excellence? Simple bloodlust? Or just the sheer excitement and fun of it all?
Manfred von Richthofen was born in May 1892, which placed him solidly in the middle of that cohort of young men who came to be known as “the generation of 1914.” His birthplace, Breslau, now lies well to the east of present-day Germany’s Polish border and is called Wroclaw, some indication of the massive territorial changes that have occurred in Central Europe during the last hundred years. Where young Manfred differed from most members of his generation (and from most World War One aces) was in the aristocratic title his family had borne since 1741, when Frederick the Great had rewarded the Richthofens for their support in his effort to wrest the province of Silesia from the Habsburg dynasty with the right to designate themselves barons and baronesses. His father, Albrecht, a retired major in the Prussian cavalry, placed him in a prestigious military academy, where he was an indifferent and unhappy student who excelled in athletics, especially gymnastics. Graduated as an officer candidate, he was posted to the First Uhlan Regiment, where he was commissioned as a lieutenant in 1912. As a cavalryman, Richthofen was able to indulge his passion for riding. The victim of frequent falls and injuries, he showed the measure of his courage and determination when he won the Emperor ‘s Prize Race, a cross country event, after having been thrown by his horse and breaking a collarbone. Picking himself up from the ground and remounting, he rode the remaining 42 miles to victory before seeking medical treatment. The will to win in the face of daunting obstacles would remain throughout his short life one of his outstanding characteristics.
Like other young men of the generation of 1914, Richthofen welcomed the outbreak of war as a test of his mettle and an opportunity to prove himself. His main ambition at the beginning of the war seems to have been to win medals and not to be overtaken by his younger brother, Lothar, who also belonged to a cavalry regiment. Richthofen’s war started in auspiciously. Stationed on the Russian border of Poland, he narrowly escaped capture by a troop of Cossacks and was then transferred to the Western Front in August 1914. There he survived an ambush by a force of French dragoons, in which the majority of the men he led were not so lucky. Of the 15 in his patrol, only four returned. This debacle, however, was quickly forgotten after he participated in General Otto von Below’s successful attack against a superior French force at the Belgian town of Virton and experienced the exhilaration of victorious combat.
The next nine months were a period of increasing frustration for Richthofen. Transferred to the German Fifth Army, which had positioned itself opposite the French fortress of Verdun, he saw himself consigned to the role of a communications officer who approached the front lines not heroically, in a cavalry charge, as he had been taught to do, but ignominiously crawling through mud-filled trenches where he stood a chance of being killed by an errant shell. Not even the award of the Iron Cross, Second Class, for his repeated trips to the front lines under heavy fire succeeded in raising his spirits for long. He hungered after even more prestigious decorations and despaired of winning them in a place where his embryonic heroism was confined to taking potshots at the French and tossing an occasional grenade in the direction of the enemy trenches. Here, he complained in a letter to his mother, there was no chance of winning the Iron Cross, First Class, unless he succeeded in entering the fortress of Verdun disguised as a Frenchman and blowing up a gun turret.
Richthofen’s boredom only in creased when he was appointed ordnance officer of an infantry brigade. Assigned in May 1915 to an administrative position in supply services, Richthofen lost his patience and wrote the commanding general of his division, requesting a transfer to the flying corps. “At first people took offense,” Richthofen later wrote, “but finally my request was granted, and so at the end of May 1915 I entered the Air Service. Thus was my greatest wish fulfilled.”
Not quite. Richthofen’s greatest wish was to distinguish himself, and he still had far to go before fulfilling it. Curiously, the young Uhlan lieutenant did not at first choose to become a pilot. Pilots did not yet have the prestige they would soon acquire–they were, after all, little more than chauffeurs–and to become a pilot Richthofen would have had to commit himself to a three-month training course. Eager to get into combat at the earliest possible moment, he instead opted to become an observer, an objective he achieved in a mere four weeks of instruction.
By the end of June, Richthofen was already flying combat missions on the Russian Front. This was the kind of war he had longed for. “Now we are once again in a pure war of movement,” he wrote his mother in July 1915. “Almost daily, I fly over the enemy and bring back reports.” Richthofen was transferred to Flanders, and on the way back, he stopped by his family’s estate at Schweidnitz, south of Breslau. His mother found him looking “splendid.” He “was radiant and told of his experiences at the Front, each one more interesting than the other.”
In September 1915 Richthofen got his first taste of blood in aerial combat. Flying as Paul Henning von Osterroht’s observer in an Aviatik C I, he shot down a French Farman two seater on the Champagne front but was not given credit for the victory because the machine went down behind the enemy lines and the kill could not be documented. In October 1915 he was posted to Rethel. On the train going there he met Oswald Boelcke, who had already achieved fame as a flying ace after downing four enemy planes in the new Fokker E single seater monoplane. Richthofen sought Boelcke out, drank and played cards with him, and asked him for his secret. Boelcke replied that if Richthofen was really serious about scoring victories, he should become a fighter pilot and learn how to fly a Fokker. Richthofen took Boelcke at his word and persuaded a pilot friend, with whom he had flown in Russia, to teach him. After 25 hours of instruction he soloed, and by Christmas 1915 he had passed the three examinations required of German military pilots–more, it seems, through determination and perseverance than through his natural ability for handling an airplane in the air.
Richthofen served briefly at Verdun during the great battle of the spring of 1916, shot down another French plane (for which–again–he was not given credit because once again it came down on the other side of the lines), and was transferred in June with his squadron to the Russian Front. There, in the absence of Russian aircraft and strong antiaircraft defenses, he enjoyed himself bombing railroad stations and strafing Russian infantry and cavalry. Yet the glory he sought still evaded him; it could only be found in the kind of aerial combat that had developed on the Western Front.
Richthofen’s chance came in August 1916. Forbidden to fly combat missions because of the death of Germany’s other great ace, Max Immelmann, in an accident while flying the Fokker E fighter, Boelcke had been sent on a tour of Turkey and Bulgaria, Germany’s allies in the Balkans. But British air superiority during the battle of the Somme and anxieties about the morale of German infantrymen, who had begun to complain about the lack of German aircraft above the battleground, overcame the High Command’s concerns about the possible loss of Boelcke’s life. While stopping at the German Army’s Eastern Front headquarters in Kovel, where his brother Wilhelm was stationed, Boelcke received orders to return to the west with all possible haste to organize and lead a fighter squadron on the Somme front.
Richthofen happened to be at Kovel when Boelcke passed through. Unknown to him, Boelcke recommended Richthofen as a good addition to the squadron his brother was assembling. When “the great man” appeared at Richthofen’s door early one morning, he was wearing the Pour le Merite, Germany’s highest military decoration. Asked by Boelcke if he would like to become one of his “pupils,” Richthofen leaped at the offer. As he wrote in his autobiography: “I almost hugged him when he asked me if I wanted to go with him to the Somme. Three days later I was on the train traveling across Germany to my new post. My fondest wish was fulfilled, and now began the most beautiful time of my life.”
Richthofen turned out to be an unusually gifted student.
On September 17, cruising behind Boelcke in a just-introduced twin-gun Albatros D II, he caught sight of a group of seven British two-seat bombers crossing the German lines in the direction of Cambrai. Richthofen succeeded in getting behind one of the bombers, closed to the point where he was afraid of ramming the enemy machine, and fired a short burst at point-blank range. The British plane began to sway, the observer disappeared from sight, and the British pilot brought his plane down at a nearby German airfield. Richthofen could not contain himself with joy. He landed close to the crippled British aircraft, jumped out of his machine, and ran toward his fallen prey. “Arriving there, I found that my assumption was correct. The engine was shot to pieces, and both occupants were severely wounded. The observer had died instantly, and the pilot died while being transported to the nearest field hospital. Later I placed a stone in memory of my honorably fallen enemies on their beautiful grave.”
That night, to celebrate his victory, Richthofen wrote to his jeweler in Berlin and ordered a two-inch-high silver cup engraved with the numeral 1, the type of aircraft he had downed, the number of its occupants, and the date of his victory. He would eventually accumulate 60 such cups before Germany’s shortage of silver forced his jeweler to interrupt the production of these trophies, 20 victories before Richthofen himself ran out of luck.
Richthofen was flying with Boelcke on October 28, 1916, when “the great man” collided with Erwin Bohme and plunged to his death while both were attacking a British plane. Though Richthofen was deeply shaken by Boelcke’s death and thereafter always kept his photograph in his bedroom, once his leader was gone he set out consciously to take his place as Germany’s premier fighter pilot and greatest Fliegerheld-ace. He later expressed annoyance at the fact that whereas in Boelcke’s and Immelmann’s time it was sufficient to have downed eight enemy planes in order to win the Pour le Merite, he had been required to accumulate twice as many victories before receiving that honor. Downing enemy aircraft in 1916-17, he insisted, was more demanding than it had been the previous year.
Leaving aside the accuracy of Richthofen’s perception about the relative difficulties of winning victories in 1915 and 1916, he clearly had little to complain about when it came to gaining official recognition and public fame. In November 1916 he was decorated with the Saxe-Coburg Gotha Medal for Bravery and the Order of the House of Hohenzollern with Swords. The following January, after downing his 16th plane, Richthofen was awarded the Pour le Merite and given command of his own fighter group, Jasta 11. It was at this point that he had the ingenious idea of painting his Albatros D III bright red, yet another way of setting him self (and eventually his pilots, who insisted on following his example) apart from the British planes they relentlessly pursued. Three months later, in recognition of Jasta 11’s successes, Richthofen was promoted to Rittmeister (cavalry captain), a reminder of the arm in which he formerly served, though the mounts he rode now carried him aloft on wings. Reporters came to the front to interview him; his photograph was reproduced in newspapers and on postcards in hundreds of thousands of copies; and fan mail, especially from admiring young women, arrived by the bagful. He was ordered on leave in April 1917 after scoring his 52 victory twelve more than Boelcke. He shot down the last four in a single day. He was given a hero’s welcome in Cologne, and invited to breakfast by the Kaiser, who presented him with a life-sized bronze bust of himself. No honor Germany had to offer seemed beyond his reach.
Richthofen’s biographers like to dwell on his famous dogfight with Major Lanoe Hawker on November 23, 1916, which resulted in his 11th kill. Considered Britain’s leading ace, Hawker had nine victories to his credit and was the first airman to receive Britain’s highest military decoration, the Victoria Cross. Richthofen’s account of their epic struggle emphasizes the masterly manner in which Hawker managed his plane an d the sporting nature of their encounter:
He opens fire with his machine gun. Five shots rip out , and I change my course quickly by a sharp turn to the left. He follows, and the mad circle starts. He is trying to get behind me, and I am trying to get be hind him. Round and round we go in circles, like two madmen, playing ring-around a-rosie almost two miles above the earth.
Richthofen’s narrative makes for stirring drama, as he takes us through what seems to be an eternity of twists and turns, zigs and zags, and ever tighter circles. Finally, Richthofen positions himself for the kill. “The gun pours out its stream of lead. Then it jams. Then it reopens fire. That jam almost saved his life. One bullet goes home. He is struck through the back of the head. His plane jumps and crashes down. It strikes the ground just as I swoop over. His machine gun rammed itself into the earth, and now it decorates the entrance over my door. He was a brave man, a sports man, and a fighter.”
But contrary to his legend, the “Red Knight of Germany” did not compile his long list of victories primarily by engaging adversaries of Hawker’s caliber in single combat. On the contrary, whenever possible, he pounced on slow two-seater British reconnaissance biplanes, catching them unawares and attacking their blind spot. More typical of his methodical approach to air combat was the report he wrote when requesting acknowledgment of his 57th victory against a British reconnaissance plane on July 2, 1917:
I attacked the foremost plane [R.E.] of an enemy formation. After my first shots, the observer collapsed. Shortly thereafter, the pilot was wounded mortally, I believe, by my shots. The R.E. fell, and I fired into it at a distance of fifty yards. The plane caught fire and dashed to the ground.
By this point in his career, however, Richthofen had be gun to think seriously about the construction of his legend. While visiting Air Service Headquarters on his way home to enjoy his triumphant leave in April 1917, Richthofen was persuaded to write his memoirs. The suggestion came from one of Germany’s most successful publishers, Ullstein, but the German High Command clearly liked the idea because it offered a means of capitalizing on Richthofen’s growing celebrity and of stiffening morale at a moment when the German people’s willingness to carry on the war effort was beginning to weaken. The first draft of Th e Red Combat Flyer was dictated by Richthofen to a stenographer furnished by the publisher in May and June 1917. It was revised and completed in October during another period of leave, edited and censored by the press office of the Air Service, and published first in the form of magazine articles, then as a small book in late 1917. Though many have dismissed The Red Combat Flyer as propaganda, and though the hand of the Air Service censorship office is often visible, it seems to be a faithful enough representation of the way that Richthofen wanted to appear before the German public.
He began his memoir by distancing himself from the profession of arms. This is curious in view of the fact that his father was a retired army officer recalled to active duty; that he was named after a great-uncle who commanded a cavalry corps; and that he himself had spent almost his entire life in the army. While he mentions these military connections, Richthofen prefers to present himself as the product of a family of gentleman farmers whose only concerns had been the cultivation of their lands, riding horses, and hunting game. Hunting, in fact, is the master metaphor that runs throughout the 49 chapters of Richthofen’s autobiography and unites the carefree prewar youngster with the incomparable flying ace of 1917. How otherwise are we to understand the long account of a hunting expedition on the Silesian wildlife preserve of the prince of Pless that Richthofen dates exactly for us to May 26, 1917.
To be sure, one of Richthofen’s aims in narrating this story is to place himself on the same level with “the many crowned heads” and famous generals (including General Paul von Hindenburg) who had earlier traveled this “famous road.” But beyond mere name dropping, Richthofen was also seeking to describe an emotion that hunting inspired in him. When a mighty bison comes into sight 250 paces away and begins to move in his direction at high speed, he experiences “the same feeling, the same hunting fever that grips me when I sit in an airplane, see an Englishman, and must fly toward him for five or so minutes in order to over take him.” The “giant black monster ” disappeared into a gathering of thick spruce before Richthofen could take a shot, and he elected not to pursue the beast because searching for it would have been a difficult task and missing it, once the hunt had been engaged, would have been a disgrace. Before long another bison, equally powerful, appeared and offered a better target. When it was at a distance of about a hundred paces, Richthofenshot, then shot again, and finally brought the animal down when it had come within 50 paces of the platform on which he was standing. Richthofen reports his satisfaction. “Five minutes later the monster was finished…all three bullets had lodged just above his heart. Bull’s eye.”
The message is clear: Enemy air men and bison can sometimes be difficult to kill. Patience is required. Better to break off combat if the conditions are not right. Another, equally tempting prey can be counted on to appear. Then, if the hunter is skillful, he will have his game. Whether hunting men or beasts, the emotions are the same: excitement at the prospect of the kill and, afterwards, satisfaction with a job well done.
Reading The Red Combat Flyer is enough to shake anyone’s faith in the idea that the air war between 1914 and 1918 was a chivalric contest free of those aspects of technological mass murder that alienated and numbed a generation of men. Richthofen leaves no doubt that his job is killing. He writes with evident relish of bombing and strafing large bodies of soldiers. If he prefers one-to-one combat, it is be cause success in a single-seater fighter is the road to fame. He has nothing but disdain for aviators who fly for the fun of it and engage in aerobatics. Flying upside down or looping the loop are not necessary to bag your game. Richthofen identifies himself as a sportsman, to be sure, but he is the type of sportsman who likes to load the deck against his quarry. When he hunts bison, he does so from an elevated platform. If you elect to play his game, you can expect to die.
The jaunty tone Richthofen adopted in his memoirs contrasted sharply with his real feelings about the war and his own future at the moment they were published. The best of Germany’s pilots and the closest of his friends had been killed, one after another. He himself was shot down and suffered a serious head wound in July 1917. Though he returned to combat flying a month later–it was at this time that Richthofen began flying his trademark red Fokker triplane–he suffered from headaches and depression and was ordered by General von Hoeppner, head of the German Air Service, not to fly in combat unless it was absolutely necessary. Restricted in his flying–between September and November, he shot down only four enemy aircraft–he fretted about being overtaken in his score of victories by his rival Werner Voss and losing his position as Germany’s ace of aces. (As it turned out, Richthofen needn’t have worried: Voss was shot down in September 1917 after he took on five British SE-5s, his score cut short at 48.)
In January 1918, after observing the peace talks with the Bolsheviks at Brest-Litovsk and hunting bison again, this time in the primeval forest at Bialowicz, where he was invited to stay at the tsar’s former lodge, Richthofen went home on a brief leave. The young hero had no illusions about the future. His mother found him transformed, almost beyond recognition. He lacked the carefree playfulness that had given him his boyish charm. “He was taciturn, distant, almost unapproachable.” There was something hard and painful in his eyes. She was convinced that he had lived too long in the presence of death. Reminded of a dental appointment, he was overheard by his mother to say: “Really, there’s no point.”
On March 21, 1918, the great German “Peace Offensive” began. Richthofen’s tally of victories, which had been halted between late November and mid-March, once more began to mount. In a month, his total would rise from 67 to 80, including two Sopwith Camels on April 20. The magic figure of 100 stood within his grasp, and perhaps yet other decorations. Whatever reservations Richthofen had about his future now seemed to evaporate in the exhilaration of combat and the sweet taste of his kills.
On the morning of Sunday, April 21, Richthofen and his squadron waited for the fog to rise at their airfield at Cappy in the valley of the Somme. The Rittmeister was in excellent spirits, playing with his dog and joking with his men. “Again and again, the Baron’s laughter rang across the airfield,” his adjutant Karl Bodenschatz recalled. Then, at 10:30, came a report that British aircraft were approaching the German lines. Richthofen and his men sprinted for their Fokker Dr I triplanes and took off in two flights to intercept the British, eager for combat and sensing the possibility of further victories.
What happened during the next minutes has become the subject of great and unresolved controversy. Everyone agrees that there was a strong wind blowing from east to west, in contrast with the usually westerly wind that worked to the advantage of the German flyers, and that Richthofen broke off from his squadron to pursue a British Camel, flown by Lieutenant Wilfred May, a Canadian novice who had been ordered to stay on the periphery if a fight developed. Tempted by a German triplane that seemed an easy target–thought to be flown by Richthofen’s cousin, Wolfram von Richthofen, later notorious for ordering the raid against the Basque town of Guernica–May attacked, only to find himself pursued by Richthofen’s bright-red Fokker. Already tasting his 81st victory, Richthofen followed May westward along the Somme River valley at low level, thus violating one of the key precepts of his own air combat operations manual: “One should never obstinately stay with an opponent whom, through bad shooting or skillful turning, he has been unable to shoot down when the battle lasts until it is far on the other side [of the lines].”
While in pursuit of May and now well over the British lines, Richthofen was in turn attacked from above by another Canadian, Captain Roy Brown, who succeeded in firing a long burst in the direction of the German triplane before he broke off his pursuit. At the same time, Richthofen was being fired at from the ground by the 53rd Australian Field Artillery Battery and the 24th Australian Machine-Gun Company, both of which later claimed credit for bringing the red triplane down. Whatever the source of the fire–and no one will ever know for sure because the bullet was later “souvenired ” and then disappeared Richthofen was hit on the right side by a projectile that then exited through his chest near the left nipple, causing his death within minutes. He evidently had time to rip off his goggles and make a sharp bank to the east before losing control of the plane and plunging into a cattle-beet field nose-first, just off the north side of the Bray-Corbie road.
Brown was given credit for the victory–though he was always careful not to claim it–and his squadron later took as its insignia a red hawk falling to the earth. After the Nazis took power, the official Luftwaffe interpretation of Richthofen’s death was that he had fallen “undefeated in his element, in which he so often staked his life for his earthbound comrades.” That would seem to imply that Richthofen was brought down by the Australian gun battery. But having weighed the evidence, Richthofen’s most recent biographer, Peter Kilduff, concluded cautiously that he could have been killed either by ground fire or by Brown. Which it was, we will never know.
On the afternoon of April 22, around 4:00, Richthofen was given a formal military burial by the Australian Flying Corps at the cemetery of Bertangles in the valley of the Somme. A chaplain read from the Church of England service for military funerals, Richthofen’s coffin was then lowered into the grave, three volleys were fired, and “Last Post” was played. That night, under cover of darkness, French civilians from the vicinity entered the cemetery and vandalized the grave, tipping over the cross that had been fashioned by the men of the No. 3 Squadron of the Australian Flying Corps and tearing apart the wreaths. They were falsely under the impression that it was Richthofen who had bombed their villages by night.
Richthofen’s remains were interred in France until November 1925, when they were retrieved by his youngest brother, Bolko von Richthofen, and returned to Berlin for a state funeral of the sort reserved for heads of state and victorious generals. As the private train bearing Richthofen’s coffin made its way across Germany, solemn crowds gathered at every stop, flags were flown at half mast, and airplanes flew escort. From the Pots dam station, a torchlight procession accompanied the bier to Berlin’s Gnadenkirche, where it lay in state for two days, guarded by an escort of highly decorated officers. The next day, on November 19, the official ceremony was held. Richthofen’s coffin was placed at foot of the altar, beneath the cross; upon it lay four of the Spandau machine guns with which the fallen ace had vanquished his foes, and on one end hung an enormous wreath from which projected a broken propeller, symbol of his tragic fate. Upon completion of the ceremony, the coffin was loaded onto a black horse-drawn carriage by eight pall-bearers, all holders of the Order Pour le Mérite; from there the procession made its way past immense crowds, gathered to pay their last respects, to Berlin’s Invaliden Cemetery for the burial. It was attended by the surviving members of Richthofen’s family and the dazzling array of military and civil dignitaries. Field Marshal Paul von Hindenburg, the victor of Tannenberg and recently elected president of the Weimar Republic, tossed the first handful of dirt into his grave.
For the German public, Richthofen was a hero and a patriot, a figure who transcended the political divisions that had already begun to set German against German by the time of his death. Such views extended from the Nationalist Right to the Social Democratic Left. “There is and always will be,” the Socialist newspaper Vorwärts wrote in April 1918, “something magnificent about the way a Richthofen dared hundreds of times to fight man-to-man for his Fatherland; it is a heroism always to be honored. Such action would be impossible without greatness and firmness of character.”
Richthofen’s mother always insisted that her son was driven by a sense of solidarity with the unheralded infantrymen fighting on the ground. “Why do you risk your life like this every day?” she once asked him. “Why do you do it, Manfred?” After pausing to reflect for an instant, he responded: “For the man in the trenches. I want to ease his hard lot in life by keeping the enemy flyers away from him.”
On another occasion, when pressed by her to give up flying, Richthofen replied irritably, coming closer to revealing his real feelings: “Would it please you if I were in some safe place and resting on my laurels?” As emerges clearly from this question, what was at stake for the German ace of aces was not so much “the man in the trenches” as the Richthofen honor.
There is also a suggestion in the recollections of Baroness Richthofen, published in 1937, that during his last months of life her son begun to fear for the social order into which he had been born and which was now showing its fragility. If the professionals faltered in their duty, Richthofen remarked to his mother, what would happen to the country? Germany would soon follow the example of Russia. The implication was that the masses might seize power. It was up to aristocrats like the Richthofens to set an example for ordinary Germans.
Richthofen’s posthumous testimony adds yet another dimension to a personality that would soon be lost beneath layers of myth. In “Thoughts from a Shelter,” fragments he wrote down shortly before his death, he insisted that the “insolent” person portrayed in The Red Combat Flyer did not correspond to the real Richthofen, the one he knew, and he then went on to say:
From high places, I have been allowed to understand that I myself should give up flying, for one day it will catch up with me. I would be extremely miserable with myself if now, burdened with fame and decorations, I would vegetate as a pensioner of my own dignity in order to save my precious life for the nation, while every poor guy in the trenches does his duty as I do mine.
There seems little doubt that, like other aces, Richthofen felt that the Faustian bargain he had struck with fate required him to risk his life in order to continue to merit the celebrity and recognition he had won and intensely enjoyed. War, for him, was not primarily a means to a patriotic end but more the precondition for his own ascension and the realization of those preeminent qualities that he perceived within himself. Then, too, he enjoyed the hunt and the satisfaction that came with the kill. It amused him to regale his squadron with stories about the Englishmen he had “for break fast.” In every respect a “war lover,” he was drawn inexorably to the flame of combat and a “tumult in the clouds.”
But Richthofen was more than a seeker after celebrity and a cold blooded murderer. If his eagle’s eye, his coolness under fire , and his methodical approach to the tactics of air fighting explain much of his personal success in downing enemy aircraft, it was his extraordinary self-discipline, his Nietzschean determination to impose himself and his men on his adversaries, and the standards he set for himself and his pilots that made him more than a great fighter pilot. During the last year of his life he excelled as a leader and a teacher. In that sense, he was truly Boelcke’s heir. After every battle, Richthofen would gather his officers for a conference and discussion of aerial tactics. He was as critical of reckless and overly aggressive pilots as he was of those whom he judged too quick to break off combat. Some measure of his achievement as a mentor is to be found in the fact that of the 59 fighter pilots who received the Order of Pour le Merite, 14 were his pupils. These were the qualities that caused him to be chosen lea er of a fighter wing at the age of 25. Although not liked personally in the way that Boelcke was, he was respected and admired, and ambitious pilots vied with one another to enter his squadron, knowing that it was the royal road to victories, decorations, and possible fame.
Given his accomplishments as an ace, theorist of air combat, leader, and technical adviser, it is easy to forget how young Richthofen was when he died. Yet the young Uhlan of 1914 had changed almost beyond recognition in less than four years of almost continual combat. By April 1918, as he himself noted in lines never meant for publication, war was no longer fun, no longer a matter of shouts and hurrahs. Nothing remained of “that fresh and joyful war” with which the conflict had begun. Things had become “very serious, very grim.” And for all his bravado and his antics with his men, Richthofen admitted that he returned depressed after every aerial combat. “When I put my feet on the ground again at the airfield, I go [directly] to my four walls, I do not want to see any one or anything.” He knew that Germany was on the verge of being vanquished and that, having lost his sense of invulnerability after being shot down in July 1917, he too could–and probably would–die, the victim of an enemy he would never see. MHQ
ROBERT WOHL is the author of The Generation of 1914 (Harvard University Press, 1979) and A Passion for Wings: Aviation and the Western Imagination, 1908–1918 (Yale University Press, 1994). He is currently at work on a cultural history of aviation during the years 1919-1945.
This article originally appeared in the Summer 1997 issue (Vol. 9, No. 4) of MHQ—The Quarterly Journal of Military History with the headline: The War Lover
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