Erhard Milch, a prominent figure in Nazi Germany, played a significant role in the development and management of the Luftwaffe, the German air force during World War II. However, his background and heritage were shrouded in controversy, with investigations into his Jewish ancestry causing intrigue and speculation. This article delves into the early childhood of Erhard Milch, his parents, the investigations surrounding his Jewish heritage, and his subsequent rise and fall within the Nazi regime.
Early Childhood and Parentage: Erhard Milch was born on March 30, 1892, in Wilhelmshaven, then part of the German Empire. His father, Anton Milch, was a Jewish pharmacist who had served in the Imperial German Navy, while his mother, Clara, was of non-Jewish descent. In 1910, Milch joined the German Army and quickly rose to the rank of lieutenant in the Foot Artillery Regiment.
Military Career and World War I: At the outbreak of World War I in July 1914, Milch commanded an artillery unit in East Prussia. In 1915, he was trained as an aircraft observer and saw action on the Western Front, participating in battles such as the Somme and Flanders. Despite lacking pilot training, he was promoted to captain and appointed to command a fighter wing, Jagdgruppe 6.
Post-World War I and Civil Aviation: Following the end of World War I on November 11, 1918, Milch resigned from the military and pursued a career in civil aviation. In collaboration with Gotthard Sachsenberg, a squadron colleague, Milch established a small airline in Danzig (present-day Gdańsk), connecting the city to the Baltic States. In 1926, he became a technical director and board member of Deutsche Luft Hansa, the predecessor of Lufthansa, Germany’s national airline.
Rise to Power within the Nazi Regime: In January 1933, Adolf Hitler and the Nazi Party came to power in Germany. In April of the same year, the Ministry of Aviation was established, headed by Hermann Göring. Erhard Milch, appointed as State Secretary, played a crucial role in the establishment and development of the Luftwaffe, overseeing the planning and production of advanced aircraft, including the iconic Messerschmitt Bf 109.
Investigations into Milch’s Jewish Heritage: Rumors and doubts about Milch’s ethnic origin arose in 1935, suggesting that his father, Anton Milch, was Jewish. The Gestapo initiated an investigation, but it was eventually halted by Hermann Göring, who coerced Erhard’s mother, Clara, to sign a document falsely stating that Anton Milch was not Erhard’s biological father. The document alleged that Erhard’s uncle, Karl Brauer, was his true father. These claims of adultery and incest, made without credible evidence, served to absolve Milch of any Jewish heritage.
Involvement in War Crimes and the Luftwaffe’s Decline: As the war progressed, Milch’s power waned. Following German defeats at the Battle of Stalingrad and the Battle of Kursk in 1943, the Luftwaffe’s strength diminished, and Allied air raids took a toll on German territories. Milch was held responsible for the insufficient production and strategic failures. He was sidelined by Hermann Göring, who removed him from his positions as State Secretary and Chief of Procurement and Supply. Milch’s attempts to regain influence by joining forces with Joseph Goebbels and Heinrich Himmler proved unsuccessful.
Post-War Trial and Legacy:
After Germany’s surrender, Erhard Milch attempted to flee the country but was captured by Allied forces on May 4, 1945, on the Baltic coast. During the subsequent Milch Trial, which commenced on January 2, 1947, Milch faced charges related to war crimes and crimes against humanity. He pleaded “not guilty” to all charges and denied any knowledge or involvement in mass deportations and extermination camps.
However, the evidence presented during the trial, including testimonies from witnesses and documented exhibits, painted a different picture. Milch’s role in the procurement and supply of the Luftwaffe, along with the exploitation of slave labor, became apparent. The tribunal found him guilty on counts one and three, sentencing him to life imprisonment.
In 1951, Milch’s sentence was commuted to 15 years, and in June 1954, he was granted parole. He spent the remainder of his life as a free man in Düsseldorf. Erhard Milch passed away on January 25, 1972, at the age of 79.
Milch’s legacy is one of controversy and complicity in the Nazi regime’s crimes. His involvement in the development and management of the Luftwaffe, as well as his utilization of slave labor, remains a dark chapter in his career. The investigations into his Jewish heritage and subsequent falsification of documents demonstrate the extent to which individuals went to hide or deny their connections to Jewish ancestry during the Nazi era.
While Milch’s achievements in aviation before his affiliation with the Nazi regime cannot be ignored, his collaboration with the oppressive regime tainted his reputation. His attempts to distance himself from responsibility during the Nuremberg trials only further emphasized his complicity.
Conclusion: Erhard Milch, a controversial figure in Nazi Germany, played a pivotal role in the establishment and management of the Luftwaffe. However, investigations into his Jewish ancestry, the falsification of documents, and his involvement in war crimes and the exploitation of slave labor have forever marred his legacy. The Milch Trial held him accountable for his actions, although his sentence was later commuted, allowing him to live out the rest of his life as a free man. The case of Erhard Milch serves as a reminder of the moral compromises and atrocities committed during the dark period of the Nazi regime.