When the Berlin Wall fell, Rotary was there
Enthusiasm for Rotary's role in a soon-to-be reunified Germany was scrawled onto the Berlin Wall before it was dismantled in 1990. Photo courtesy of Rotary Magazin
On a November 1989 evening, hundreds of Rotarians participating in an International Institute packed the foyer of the Hilton in West Berlin. They anxiously waited for taxis to take them to a host hospitality event, but none arrived.
Finally, a hotel employee walked to a microphone and made an announcement, as organizer Peter Lorenz, of the Rotary Club of Berlin-Spree, recounts:
“He said, ‘We have to ask for your patience because the taxis we called can’t make it to the hotel. As you will see, thousands of visitors from the eastern part of the city are on the streets, blocking access to the hotel. We have been waiting for these guests for 28 years, and we ask you to wait with us. The [Brandenburg] gate and wall are open.’”
The fall of the Berlin Wall 20 years ago this month marked the beginning of monumental political changes in Europe, but also the start of a new era in Rotary. The event is largely seen today as the launching pad for the rebirth of Rotary across Eastern Europe.
German Rotarians, stunned by the events of 9 November, rejoiced in the prospect of a reunified Germany and what it would mean to Rotary. They also wasted no time in getting involved, even as the wall itself was coming down. Members of the Rotary Club of Berlin-Tiergarten welcomed visitors coming through the wall from East Berlin with tea and coffee. The Rotarians also donated street maps of West Berlin, which the visitors needed because their East German maps didn’t indicate any West Berlin streets. “The coffee went cold, but the maps went in a flash,” recalls Berlin-Tiergarten club member Jürgen Thormann.
In the weeks and months that followed, West German Rotarians developed strategies for reestablishing clubs that had once existed in the eastern part of the country, in cities such as Chemnitz, Dresden, and Leipzig.
District governors from the Austrian and German districts discussed plans for expanding Rotary into East Germany and neighboring countries, including Czechoslovakia, Hungary, and Yugoslavia. Clubs and districts also began conducting seminars with communities in East Germany, many of which helped establish twin city programs or led to Rotary club projects that are still ongoing, 20 years later.
Even though the concept of service clubs was foreign to an entire generation in what had been East Germany, within a year after the German reunification, 49 new clubs were chartered there.
In March 1990, Hugh Archer, who was RI president at the time and attended the International Institute in West Berlin when the wall came down, traveled to the Kremlin to discuss the concept of service organizations with Soviet officials. Three months later, the Rotary Club of Moscow was chartered.
By the autumn of 1995, the reunified Germany had 91 new clubs, and the Rotary movement was rapidly expanding into Eastern Europe.
Adapted from Rotary Magazin, the certified regional magazine of Austria and Germany.