Canadian organizers of an international celebration of women in aviation are standing by their decision to honour the late Hanna Reitsch, who was the first woman to fly a helicopter — and, some historians say, an unrepentant Nazi.

"She was an amazing pilot," said Mireille Goyer, the founder and president of the Institute for Women of Aviation Worldwide (WOAW), the group co-ordinating a week of events now underway, timed to coincide with International Women's Day.

Goyer chose Reitsch, who died in 1979, as this year's pilot to be feted in videos and on posters. She said up to 50,000 women and girls are taking part in a variety of events on four continents, including 800 who will gather at an airfield in Lachute, Que., this weekend.

"I looked at everything [Reitsch] had accomplished in terms of piloting skill," said Goyer, who is based in Vancouver, explaining her choice to CBC News.

"If you're aiming to talk about her maybe controversial part in political history, to me, that's not relevant."


Hanna Reitsch bio on WOAW website

The biography of Hanna Reitsch on Women of Aviation Worldwide's website explains why the organization is honouring her, without any mention of her Nazi past. (womenofaviationweek.org)

'Star of Nazi party propaganda'

Reitsch's biographical sketch on WOAW's website makes no mention of her Nazi past, including her close relationship with Adolf Hitler, who awarded the Luftwaffe test pilot with the Iron Cross, first class — the only woman to receive that military distinction.

Hanna Reitsch greets crowds in Hirschberg, Germany. 1941.

Hanna Reitsch greets crowds in Hirschberg, Germany in 1941. (German Federal Archives/Schwahn)

The WOAW site does link to another website with a short biography of Reitsch that refers to her being a "star of Nazi party propaganda."

"She's remembered as the first woman to fly a helicopter, a jet, a rocket," concurred Jean Allman, a professor of history at Washington University in St. Louis and the author of a paper on Reitsch's Nazi past and her post-war colonial activity in West Africa.

"But notoriously, she is remembered for very close connections to Adolf Hitler — and being the person who flew the last plane out of Berlin at the close of the war."

Goyer said the details of her Nazi past were left off the website because WOAW is "not into making a political statement." She explained that Reitsch went on to do other things in her life, including opening an aviation school in Ghana.

But Allman said Reitsch did nothing to champion the rights of girls and women in Ghana, refusing to train women at the school. Moreover, she never accounted for the critical role she played in the Nazi regime.

 'Notoriously, she is remembered for very close connections to Adolf Hitler  — and being the person who flew the last plane out of Berlin at the close of the war.' - Jean Allman, historian

"She never said she was sorry," Allman told CBC News. "She never acknowledged that she had been a part of it. She just wiped the slate clean and moved on."

"Beyond any doubt, Reitsch is counted among the numerous public apologists of the Third Reich in postwar Germany," another historian, Bernhard Rieger, wrote in Hanna Reitsch: The Global Career of a Nazi Celebrity.

Hearing about the concentration camps, Rieger writes, Reitsch exhibited an utter lack of remorse.

Hanna Reitsch at a flight competition in 1936

Hanna Reitsch at a flight competition in 1936. (German Federal Archives/Heinrich von der Becke)

'Are we going to keep talking about the past?'

"Are we going to do something and change the world and make it a better world, or are we going to keep on talking about the past?" asked Marguerite Varin, the organizer of the Women of Aviation Worldwide Week event in Lachute, 80 kilometres northwest of Montreal.

Varin is passionate about getting young women into aviation, and she points out modern-day role models will be front and centre at the event.

Air Inuit is sending Melissa Haney, its first female Inuit captain. Quebec's first female helicopter pilot, Michèle Rivest, will be there, as will Capt. Stéphanie Pouliot, a helicopter pilot with the Canadian Armed Forces.

As part of the event, there will be videos of Hanna Reitsch flying a helicopter for the first time in 1937.

"You can see it on YouTube," said Varin. "She is explaining how to put the stick forward. It's really cute to watch her talk about it.

"It was amazing that a woman, 80 years ago, did such a thing."

She agrees with Goyer that one can celebrate Reitsch's aviation accomplishments without acknowledging her Nazi past.

"We want the girls to be flying and to get the best paying jobs that they can get, which is in the aerospace industry. That's what is important. The goal is not to talk about Hanna Reitsch's past, except that she was the first helicopter pilot," Varin said.

'Wildly inappropriate'

Informed by the CBC about the celebration of Reitsch's role in aviation history at this week's events, the national director of the League for Human Rights of B'nai Brith Canada, Amanda Hohmann, called it "very troubling."

"The idea of using a 'Nazi hero' — for lack of a better word — as a role model for young girls and for women is absolutely, wildly inappropriate," Hohmann said.

Amanda Hohmann

Amanda Hohmann, national director of B'nai Brith Canada's League for Human Rights, calls it 'absolutely inappropriate' to honour Hanna Reitsch. (Amanda Hohmann/LinkedIn)

"That is very insulting to the millions of people who were murdered at the hands of the Nazis. I don't think that they would think it was irrelevant that someone who was complicit in the genocide of millions of people is now being honoured."

Hohmann said she would like to see an apology — and a shift in the focus of this week's events.

"I realize it is probably too late for them to change who they are honouring," Hohmann said.

"This could be a very good opportunity to educate, especially in light of the climate of anti-Semitism around the world growing. In Canada, today, we saw two bomb threats against the Jewish community," she said Tuesday.

Air Canada reviews funding

The sponsors of the WOAW events include Air Canada, Tim Hortons and McDonald's.

Only Air Canada has responded to the CBC's request for comment.

"We believe it is important to celebrate and promote the role of women in aviation in Canada by supporting an event in Lachute," the airline said in a statement.

"We were not involved in the planning and choice of theme, or consulted and advised of any people being recognized. Our support is determined on an annual basis and we will be reviewing it."

Clarifications

  • An earlier version of this story said that Sennheiser was among the sponsors of the WOAW events, based on information provided to CBC by WOAW organizers. Sennheiser has since replied to CBC's request for a comment, saying it hadn't been aware its banner was still on the Women of Aviation website. Sennheiser said its sponsorship was part of a 2015 advertising campaign, adding, "We would like to distance ourselves from this particular content and have asked the website owner to put down the online banner immediately."
    Mar 08, 2017 12:34 PM ET