Rotarians and Nazis

Rotarians and Nazis

German historians talk about the organization’s track record in the 1930s

Charlotte Bennett Schoen, left, and Lisa Wisotsky
Charlotte Bennett Schoen, left, and Lisa Wisotsky

Most Rotarians in Nazi Germany did not behave well.

That’s not particularly surprising. It became increasingly hard for Germans in general to behave well as the Nazis’ immorality and active evil rooted itself firmly in their culture, although some did. Including some Rotarians.

You might think that members of Rotary International, the 120-year-old suburban-Chicago-based service organization, might be willing to let that ugly truth go. World War II ended more than 75 years ago. No one involved in Rotary today has any personal responsibility for what the club did then.

But Rotary’s ideals and their own sense of what’s right — its mission statement is about serving others and its vision statement talks about people around the world working together to create lasting change — didn’t allow a group of German Rotarian historians to let their predecessors’ grotesque abandonment of those principles slide. Instead, they’ve worked to uncover the stories of the Rotarian Jews and freethinkers who were mistreated by their movement, and to make amends for the harm the Rotary did to them.

On Tuesday, April 13, at noon, two of the members of Rotary International’s 60-odd member history committee — both German, one a historian by profession, the other an engineer who has become a historian by avocation — will join Englewood’s Rotary chapter on Zoom to talk about the history of Rotary Clubs in Germany and Austria from the 1920s to the 1950s. (See below.)

“We have been talking about what’s going on around us,” the chapter’s president, Lisa Wisotsky, said. Because Rotary takes a keen interest in injustice, both around the world and close to home, its members have had a lot to talk about recently (as always, to be fair). As Rotary International takes on issues of diversity, equity, and inclusion, “the president of Rotary International has been talking about history’s hard lessons,” she continued. “He’s been talking about issues of racism and discrimination in the past — and now — in Germany and Austria. The issue came out at around the time of the insurrection at the U.S. Capitol, and it resonated with me.” So Ms. Wisotsky and a board member to whom she frequently looks for advice, Charlotte Bennett Schoen, “invited the German Rotarians who are researching what happened to come to our club to speak to us.” Because one of the pandemic’s few positives is the ability it gives the community to overcome barriers of time and space, that meeting was arranged quickly.

“I specialize in economic and social history, and for 20 years I was running a museum on contemporary German history,” Hermann Schaefer said. That explains why he was drawn to fill in a gap he saw in the Rotary. “I thought that we should deal more with Rotarian history in the Third Reich,” he said. “Germany only started to do research on it in the 60s, but we failed. We had researchers work on it in the late 90s, but we are the first to do it using our archives.

“We are taking a deep look, and our aim now is to identify those Rotarians who were dismissed from the clubs. They were thrown out after 1933, and we want to build up a digital memorial to them.”

Dr. Schaefer and his colleague, amateur historian Wilfried Gehart, presented the research they have done at Rotary’s world convention in 2019. Dr. Schaefer, who lives in Bonn, has been a Rotarian since 1989; Mr. Gehart joined in 2006, when he became one of the founding members of his Black Forest-area chapter.

Both feel strongly that the organization’s history has to be explored, examined, made public, and overcome.

In the 1930s, the Rotary clubs in Germany, like “Germans in general, were enthusiastic about Hitler,” Mr. Gehart said. When Rotarians were told that Jews no longer should be included in their clubs, they followed orders.

Members — only men, no women were allowed — joined Rotary chapters by invitation. Now, many Rotarians— both women and men — are leading members of their professions or in some other way prominent in the business world; then they had to be. Although the Rotary never was a guild, club members were invited only because of their professional or business affiliations. If they lost their jobs, they lost the reason why they were Rotarians. They could and often were expelled. That’s how Jews and political dissidents were dismissed from their Rotary clubs — it was a result of an earlier and bigger loss, of their livelihoods.

“The interesting question is how the clubs dealt with those members, and what happened to them,” Dr. Schaefer said.

In 1933, there were about 1,200 members of Germany Rotary clubs. “In the 1920s, between 10 and 20 percent of them were Jewish,” Mr. Gehart said. That was a slightly higher percentage than of the Jews in the country.

There were two Rotary clubs — one in Heidelberg, the other in Mainz — that dissolved rather than throw out their members. “It took courage to do that,” Mr. Gehart said. “They had some members who already were Nazis. But they made the decision to stand with their friends.

“Rotary cared more about protecting the clubs than protecting individual members.”

The Rotarians who were expelled from Rotary for free-thinking included the writer Thomas Mann and the politician Konrad Adenauer, who became the first chancellor of West Germany. The Rotarians’ history committee tells their stories, along with the stories of the Jewish members who were expelled; some survived the war but many did not.

“The Munich club kicked out Thomas Mann along with 14 other members, in April of 1933,” Dr. Schaefer said. “That was more than 20 percent of the membership.”

In 1937, Rotary was dissolved in Germany and Austria.

“After the war, there were a few former Rotarians who wanted to rebuild it as soon as possible, but Rotary International did not want it to happen that quickly,” Dr. Schaefer said. “They expected that first Germany would become a democratic society and state. The state was rebuilt in 1949, and then Rotary allowed new clubs to be founded and the former clubs to be re-founded.

There are lessons to be learned from Rotary’s history, Dr. Schaefer and Mr. Gehart said. “We should learn that we are not political” — not partisan, that is — “but we should have an awareness. Dismissing members who have a different political opinion would never be correct. It would be against our principles.”

Another lesson is that while it might not be possible to earn the forgiveness of the Rotarians who have been harmed, it is possible to tell their stories. That’s where the historians come in. Starting in the 1990s, Rotary opened its archives to researchers — before then the data was in East Germany, on the other side of the Iron Curtain — and now the historians have begun to compile a relational database, open to the public, that displays the biographical data they have found. “We now are writing biographies of those Rotarians who had been discriminated against,” Mr. Gehart said. It’s an ongoing project.

The two of them do this work because they feel that it is both important and fascinating. Both feel personally compelled by it. “I have a professional interest as a historian,” Dr. Schaefer said. He got the idea from “a member of my club who was more than 90 when I met him. His name was Friedrich von Wilpert.” His mentor was a journalist and historian who undertook to write his own history of the German Rotary world, but it was too early for such work then.

Mr. Gehart’s interest came from his election as governor of a Rotarian district. “You have to visit all the clubs in the area, so I did, and I met some fascinating people, with fascinating histories, and I started to ask very straightforward questions about could you as a Rotarian be involved in a system that is totally neglecting what happened in 1920 and 30 and 40? They pushed me forward more and more with these questions.”

They’ve put together a booklet, “Rotary Under Nazi Rule: Learning From the Past for a Better Future,” and they’ll discuss these questions and more with the Englewood Rotary on Wednesday.

Who: Englewood Rotary’s president, Lisa Wisotsky, will talk to German Rotary historians Hermann Schaefer and Wilfried Gehart

When: On Tuesday, April 13, at noon

How: On Zoom

How much: Free

To register or for questions: Email

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