Nazi pilot won't be honoured at Quebec event celebrating women in aviation

Organizers of a weekend event in Lachute, Que. which was to honour the first woman to fly a helicopter have bowed to pressure from the mayor after CBC raises questions about Hanna Reitsch's Nazi past.

Lachute, Que. threatens to pull plug on aviation discovery day for girls and women if Hanna Reitsch feted

Adolf Hitler awards Luftwaffe test pilot Hanna Reitsch the Iron Cross, 2nd class, in March 1941. Reitsch was later awarded the 1st-class distinction, becoming the only woman to ever receive it. (German Federal Archives/photographer unknown)

There will be no mention of the first woman to fly a helicopter, Hanna Reitsch, at a celebration of women in aviation in Quebec this weekend, after the mayor of Lachute announced Thursday his town wouldn't allow the event to proceed if it glorified someone with a Nazi past.

As many as 800 women and girls are expected to gather at a municipal airfield in Lachute, 80 kilometres northwest of Montreal, on Saturday for the Women of Aviation Worldwide (WOAW) event — just one of many events taking place across four continents.

This year marks the 80th anniversary of Reitsch's first helicopter flight, and as CBC first reported Wednesday, organizers planned to celebrate that accomplishment with videos of Reitsch in action and posters about her.
Hanna Reitsch greets crowds in Hirschberg, Germany in 1941. (German Federal Archives/Schwahn)

Reitsch, who died in 1979, is remembered not only as a pioneering female pilot, but as a star of Nazi party propaganda.

"Notoriously, she is remembered for very close connections to Adolf Hitler," said Jean Allman, a professor of history at Washington University in St. Louis, who has written about Reitsch.

Allman and other historians have described Reitsch as an "unrepentant" Nazi.

In an interview on CBC's Daybreak, Lachute Mayor Carl Péloquin said when the town heard about the event, they contacted the promoter and made it very clear they wanted no part in it.

"We told them that we wouldn't be accepting or tolerating any kind of events in relation with Nazism or any other kind of extremist movement," he said.

Saturday's event is to take place at a municipal airport on municipal land. Péloquin said the city received a letter from the organizers guaranteeing there won't be any mention or tribute to anyone linked to the Nazis.

Marguerite Varin, the event organizer, wouldn't comment on what discussions took place between herself and the city.

She said simply that anyone who had questions about it were invited to attend and find out for themselves.

'I take my hat off to the city of Lachute'

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

B'nai Brith's national legal counsel, Steven Slimovitch, said Thursday honouring Reitsch shows "a complete misunderstanding on how the fight against racism needs to be approached."

"I take my hat off to the city of Lachute, to have come forward and taken a principled stance," Slimovitch said.

Reitsch's bio still up on website

This biography of Hanna Reitsch remains on Women of Aviation Worldwide's website. (womenofaviationweek.org)

It's not clear if Reitsch will be honoured at other events in Canada and elsewhere in the world organized by the Institute for Women of Aviation Worldwide.

The Luftwaffe test pilot's photograph and a brief biography remain up on the  website, linked to another website with a longer biography that describes Reitsch as a "star of Nazi party propaganda."

With files from Saroja Coelho, CBC's Daybreak