A.A. Around The World
The growth of Alcoholics Anonymous around the world has been left almost to chance; or as A.A.’s prefer to think of it, to a Higher Power. By an undeniable grace, the movement which began with two men in Akron, Ohio, a half-century ago has leaped across all barriers of geography, language, religion, and culture to be found in 114 countries in 1985. A.A. did not spread as a result of a decision by some faceless executive in a headquarters office. It spread, as it always does, by one concerned and caring alcoholic, sober in A.A., reaching out to help a still-suffering alcoholic.
As the following pages will show, in the early days the message was sometimes carried overseas by a traveling member; at other times, by a member in the U.S. trying to share his recovery with a relative abroad. Or the message carrier may have been a magazine article such as the 1946 Reader’s Digest article that brought calls for help to the young service office in New York from as far away as South Africa and New Zealand.
By whatever means, in whatever country, usually a lone drunk got sober with the help of the A.A. program. Then he or she Twelfth Stepped another prospect. Soon a small group was formed, then several groups, and then some kind of service office to receive calls. In non-English speaking countries, Alcoholics Anonymous typically did not grow very rapidly until the recovery literature—especially the Big Book—was translated and published in the native tongue. Gradually a service structure would come into being: a service board, a conference, a national service office, an intergroup. Thus the Fellowship grew in every country from the bottom up, not from the top down. Just as the story of how any drunk gets sober is a miracle, so is the story of how A.A. began in another country. Space does not permit full national histories, but here are brief accounts of how A.A. spread to the far corners of the earth.
In 1943 Alcoholics Anonymous had spread to Australia, where an A.A. group was formed in Sydney. The same year, an Irish tavern¬keeper, Conor F., joined A.A. in Philadelphia. These two happenings led to the beginning of A.A. in Ireland three years later.
Fr. Tom Dunlea, an Irish priest running a Boys’ Town Home in Sydney, had been mightily impressed with the success of the A.A. group there. In 1946, he returned to Ireland on holiday, and while in Dublin was interviewed by the Evening Mail. Not only did Fr. Tom tell about Boys’ Town, but (obviously concerned over the drunkenness he had seen at home) he spoke at some length on the Sydney A.A. group. At this very time, Conor F. and his wife had come over to Dublin to visit their families. Conor had brought along four Big Books “just in case.” And when the report of Fr. Tom’s interview appeared, he at once determined to leave an A.A. group behind him in Dublin when he returned to the U.S. With his wife’s encouragement, he began visiting doctors, priests and others who might know of alcoholics.
Conor was met everywhere with denial, rejection and discouragement. He was assured that there were no alcoholics in Ireland! As he was nearing the point of conceding defeat, one morning at breakfast at his hotel he met a lady, Eva Jennings, to whom he confided his difficulties. She was sympathetic and advised him to contact a Dr. Norman Moore, head of St. Patrick’s Hospital, who might be interested. And indeed he was. Dr. Moore had some knowledge of A.A. from a Reader’s Digest article, and he told Conor he had a patient in his hospital whom he thought was hopeless. “If you can help this man, I’ll believe in A.A. a hundred percent,” he said. And he sent the patient, Richard P. from Co. Down, under escort to Conor’s hotel room.
The two men formed an instant bond, and Richard P. was released from the hospital. They collected four or five other men, and started meeting in the home of one of them. On November 18, 1946, they held the first Irish public A.A. meeting. About 45 people attended, of which some 12 joined up. This, then, was the beginning of the first Alcoholics Anonymous group in Ireland—and the first in Europe. The group met at the Country Shop, a restaurant on St. Stephen’s Green—where they continued to meet regularly until the restaurant closed in 1978.
Within weeks, the group had dwindled back down to four or five, who didn’t even have money for the rent of the room. As Conor had left for America, no one knew how to reach out to other alcoholics, so there was no growth. The first Group Secretary went back to the bottle, taking the postage money with him. At this dismal point, Sackville M. joined. Sackville was to prove one of the most extraordinary, almost legendary, figures in the history of the Fellowship. A retired British army officer, he was brilliant, charismatic, completely dedicated and tireless. He carried on an immense correspondence with Bill W., with the press, and with A.A.’s all over the world. At the St.Louis Convention, Bill W. said of Sackville, “When it comes to helping alcoholics by mail, he is without doubt the world’s champion.” He also became editor of The Road Back, the Irish A.A. magazine, which was circulated throughout the world.
In 1947, however, as Sackville took over as the first sober secretary of the Dublin group, he realized two things: a) either the Catholic Church in Ireland was made an ally or A.A. in Ireland was sunk; and b) either A.A. publicized itself in Dublin or it would “perish of dry rot.” So Sackville attacked both tasks. He sent letters every ten days or so to the Evening Mail with a point of interest at the start and always closing with a punch-line that an A.A. meeting was held every Monday at the Country Shop, to which people were invited to see what was going on. Gradually attendance picked up and news of A.A. began to percolate through Dublin. Two other Dublin papers asked for letters, too! The police were soon able to direct people to the meetings. A woman or two joined. Sometimes a doctor or judge would show up to listen. A.A. was becoming respected, but not yet by the Catholic Church to which the vast majority of the Irish population belonged. So Sackville succeeded in getting to know a Professor of Theology at St.Patrick’s College, Maynooth—the heart of the church in Ireland. This man was editor of the influential Maynooth College publication, The Furrows, and became a firm and valued friend of A.A. His first favor was to run a highly laudatory article about the program in The Furrows. The effect was that when a parish priest anywhere in Ireland was dubious about supporting the formation of an A.A. group in his parish, he could be referred to the approval given by Maynooth College.
Bill W. visited Ireland in 1950, giving A.A. a further boost there. He visited groups in Dublin, Belfast, Cork and Limerick, and everywhere the press was eager to meet him. Afterward, Bill expressed his astonishment—as have visitors in the 35 years since—at the genial intermingling of A.A.’s from Northern and Southern Ireland despite the death and violence between the two in the streets.
By 1957, there were about 1,200 members and the first All Ireland Convention was held in Dublin. Since then, it has rotated yearly between the provinces of Connaught, Munster, Ulster and Leinster. A General Service Conference was organized in 1968 and held in Dublin. Two years later a General Service Office was opened in Dublin. These events were followed with the formation of a General Service Board in 1968. From then until the present, A.A. in Ireland has enjoyed explosive growth—not only in size but in vigor and spirit. In A.A.’s 50th year – and Ireland’s 40th—there were over 600 groups the length and breadth of Ireland with members numbering about 9,000.
Great Britain: England. Scotland and Wales
Although for several years a few individuals in England had tried to achieve sobriety through correspondence with the A.A. service office in New York, it was a traveling American member’s need to find fellow-alcoholics that led to the first A.A. meeting in England. The American was Grace 0., who had obtained the names from G.S.O. and had written them in advance, arranging a meeting. Grace also met another woman member from California on the way over on the boat, and met a Canadian member by chance in a SOHO restaurant when she ordered coffee instead of a cocktail. The first meeting took place, with five people present, in Grace O.’s room at the Dorchester Hotel on March 31, 1947. Bob B., the Canadian, who was elected secretary of the newly-formed group, wrote New York, “Grace was the spark we needed.”
Meetings were held thereafter in cinemas, restaurants, coffee shops and members’ homes. The members decided to advertise and drew up a small ad:
“Alcoholism—A small body of anonymous ex-sufferers place themselves at the disposal of any requiring help; the offer is quite gratuitous.”
Then came the shock! Fifteen national newspapers refused to run the ad, thinking it a fraud! Even when one paper asked how requests for help would be dealt with, and received an explanation of the A.A. program, it was unconvinced. Only one newspaper, the Financial Times, accepted the ad. It brought only two replies, both from out-of-town.
In the autumn of 1948, the First London group was formed with about a dozen members and began meeting in a room on Cavendish Square. Soon afterward, they began to produce a monthly newsletter. Contact had by now been made with several Loners outside of London, and in December ’48, the first group of about five members commenced in Manchester.
Also in 1948, John M., a Britisher who had found A.A. while stationed in Washington, D.C., returned to the town of Mickleton, Gloucestershire, and held meetings with alcoholics seeking help. These included Donald from Stow-on-the-Wold, who sobered up; Tani W. (another returnee from U.S. A.A.); James R. from Tewkesbury; and Bill S. from Bampton. A group was set up in Cheltenham in 1951. Bristol organized its first A.A. group in 1953, with Dr. Jim, Freddie, Bob and Leslie (they were very anonymous in those days!). The group met first at the Full Moon pub, next at the Royal Hotel, and then at Berkeley Square. Notable early members were John M. from Bath, Teddy T., and Frank H.S. A public meeting, with press coverage was held in Bristol in 1954. ‘By 1957, the first woman member to stay sober, Daisy N., and Travers C. joined the Bristol group. A group formed in Bath in 1955.
Cheltenham was the site of the First English Convention in 1956, with Sackville M. and Richard P. of Ireland as speakers. Hospital groups and prison groups started in the west of England at about this time. A second Bristol group was formed in June 1964; secretary, Travers C., who was by now extremely active in A.A. affairs at the regional and national level, including the formation of the Southwest Intergroup (SWIG!) the same year. Four years later he was the moving force behind the launching of “Bristol Fashion,” a monthly unofficial journal for A.A.’s published by the Bristol Akron group. He was inspired by, and was assisted by, Sackville M., Travers’ sponsor and famous editor of “The Road Back.” “Bristol Fashion” has been enthusiastically received throughout the world ever since.
Bristol was the site of the first European Convention of A.A. ever attempted, September 22-25, 1971, with an attendance of about 500. Among the highlights were a reception by the Lord Mayor, the presence of Apostolic Delegate to Great Britain as an honored speaker, and a nondenominational memorial service for Bill W. at the Bristol Cathedral, at which Bob H., from G.S.O./New York gave a moving address. (As a result of the Apostolic Delegate’s participation, Sackville and Travers were invited to Rome in January for a private audience as A.A. members with Pope Paul.) Although not billed again as a “European Convention,” a “Reunion in Bristol,” a weekend get-together, has been held annually 1972-74 and 1981-present.
In March 1974, the Newcomers group was formed separately, an offshoot from the Bristol Akron group. Always an active and spirited group, it became a cause celebre in 1976 when it withdrew from the U.K. service structure because of disagreement with an action by the General Service Office that no member could hold group offIce or a service position if he was employed in the field of alcoholism. The group invoked their “right of appeal” under the Fifth Concept, but was denied by the General Service Board. So the Newcomers group continued on an autonomous basis without being listed in the U.K. directory. Ten years later, the General Service Conference for Great Britain revoked the restrictive and objectionable policy.
Meanwhile, A.A. had taken root in Scotland. An alcoholic from Glasgow wrote New York in 1946 and found sobriety as a Loner. The following year, a gentleman farmer from Campbelltown with a history of drinking traveled to the U.S. to attend a Christian Association Conference, hoping to find a solution to his problem. At the Conference, he met a woman who introduced him to A.A. Deeply impressed, he quit drinking. On returning to Scotland, he began to devote almost all his time to carrying the message, visiting hospitals, prisons and wherever he could find drunks. A few of those he contacted started small meetings in their homes in Glasgow and Edinburgh.
However, knowing little about the Fellowship, they had many difficulties. Early in 1949, they had a visit from an American member with longer sobriety, and between his experience and the undaunted enthusiasm of the gentleman farmer, the first two organized groups were established in May 1949. These were: Glasgow Central, meeting at St.Enoch’s Hotel; and First Edinburgh, meeting at Mackie’s Restaurant on Princes Street. Groups were then formed at Perth, Ayr, Dundee and Larbert, Stirlingshire –leading in time to the formation of the Scottish Intergroup Committee.
In 1953, a Loner in Dumfries, Scotland, wanted to establish a group there. At his request, a number of English members from Midland and Manchester decided to hold a meeting in the town. Invitations went out to Scottish groups in the form of a mock challenge, saying the English were once more invading Scotland, and asking the Scots to rally to the old border war cry, “Bluebonnets over the Border!” As a result, an amazing weekend of sharing took place and has been repeated annually until the present time as “The Bluebonnets Gathering”. It was the forerunner of all other English and Scottish Conventions. Perhaps the best known ambassador for the Bluebonnet Gatherings and for Scottish A.A. was Jack McG. from Glasgow. A former vaudeville hoofer, small, dapper and bursting with enthusiasm, Jack McG. visited the U.S. annually and attended A.A. conventions and get ¬togethers wherever he could find them. He was particularly proud to have spoken, replete in his kilts, on the “A.A. Around the World” meeting during the 40th Anniversary International Convention in Denver.
The first known meeting of a group in Wales took place April 13, 1951, in a room in Cathedral Road, Cardiff. Four alcoholics from South Wales and one from Ireland attended. The group did not last, but a new Cardiff group formed in ’60, closely followed by a group in Caerlon. By ’54, there was a nucleus of a group in North Wales meeting in members’ homes in Corwen, Berngor and Llanduduo.
Bill and Lois W. visited groups in England and Scotland in the summer of 1950, speaking at several meetings. At a specially convened meeting of group representatives, Bill presented 1,500 copies of the Big Book as a gift from the Alcoholic Foundation, the sale of which was to assist in the growth and development of A.A. in Great Britain. This triggered a succession of salutary moves. To manage the distribution of the books and the resulting income, a separate Pre-Foundation committee was formed, consisting of five of the very early members. By 1952, this committee was expanded to include well established members from England, Scotland and Ireland. The following year the committee was incorporated as the Publishing Company. To provide necessary services to the growing Fellowship, a Group Representatives’ Committee was formed March 16, 1951, with broad responsibilities. Within this body, a Central Committee of five members was given specific responsibility for upholding the Traditions, the functioning of the London Service Office and liaison between groups in Britain and the Alcoholic Foundation in New York. The London Service Office opened at 11 Redcliffe Gardens, London, in February 1952 (having previously operated out of the office of one of the early members at the London Fruit Exchange).
The rate of growth that followed was: 1954, 45 groups in England; late ’50’s, 100 groups in England and Wales, 30 in Scotland; ’64, 250 groups; ’68, 300 groups. As the number of groups multiplied, the first Intergroup formed in 1957 in Northwest England and a District Intergroup was established in Glasgow. Great Britain Intergroups are an integral part of the General Service Structure and the General Service Conference, a system which has encouraged a wide base of support from the groups and has served A.A. well. Great Britain’s first General Service Conference was held in October 1966. A national A.A. magazine in the general format of the Grapevine, called Share, began publication in October 1972.
In 1985, there were 2,000 groups in Great Britain with a total estimated membership of 27,000.
Almost simultaneously with the beginnings in Ireland and England, events were taking place that would lead to the establishment of Alcoholics Anonymous in Norway. The story –which Bill W. called “a classic”—started in a coffee shop in Greenwich, Connecticut, owned by a quiet Norwegian, George F., and his devoted wife, Alice. He had found sobriety in the Greenwich group and his shop had become a popular rendezvous for them. George, long out of touch with his family during his active drinking, was now inspired to write them about his recovery.
He soon received an anguished reply, telling him of the awful plight of his brother, a typesetter on an Oslo newspaper, who was about to lose his job and perhaps his life to the bottle. What could be done? George took counsel with his wife and they decided to sell their coffee shop and buy two round trip tickets to Oslo. Hurrying from the airport to the family house outside Oslo, they found the brother desperately sick, as had been reported –but he also obstinately refused help.
George told and retold his story. He translated the Twelve Steps and a small pamphlet he had brought along. It was no use; Brother would have none of it. George and his wife, running out of money and sick at heart, prepared to return to America. Suddenly, the impossible happened. The brother called out, “Wait, tell me more about those anonymous alcoholics. Explain again their Twelve Steps to me.” He sobered up in time to see George F. and his wife to the airport.
As soon as he was able to return to work, he started running modest ads daily in his own newspaper. The first response was from the wife of an Oslo florist, asking for help for her drunken husband. The brother shared with this prospect in the most simple and honest way how he had been helped through the Twelve Steps, and the man became member #2. Thus the first A.A. group in Norway was started in late 1947. Among those who followed was a patient of Dr. Gordon Johnson, Oslo’s leading psychiatrist. A deeply religious man, the doctor at once saw the implications of A.A.’s Twelve Steps and immediately threw his weight behind the little group. (Back in Greenwich, George F., the quiet Norwegian, somehow managed to start another coffee shop. Four years later, he suffered a heart attack and died—but not before he had seen A.A. in Norway grow to several hundred members. His wife, Alice, survived into the ’80’s, when she was honored at a huge anniversary gathering for her own role in spreading A.A. abroad.)
At almost the same time, in late ’47, an A.A. group sprang up in Bergen. An alcoholic there who had tried everything to stay sober met a seaman at a health resort. The seaman, Hans H. a Scandinavian-American, had obtained some A.A. literature in New York, which he turned over to the Bergen man. The latter immediately wrote to New York himself, and was put in touch with a Norwegian-American group in Brooklyn. With their help by mail, a group was started in Bergen which grew into more than a dozen groups by 1955.
The Oslo group held its first open meeting (i.e., public meeting) in 1948, with 30 alcoholics present. The press gave liberal support. Development in outlying areas began in earnest in ’49 and growth was phenomenal. When Bill and Lois W. visited Norway in ’50 they were met at the airport by a crowd of about 50. Three years later, it was reported that there were 83 groups in Norway with a membership of more than 1,125. At that time a Central Administration for A.A. (i.e., a General Service Board) was created, consisting of five A.A. ‘s and two nonalcoholics, Dr. Gordon Johnson and Andreas Stoylen, an attorney. The groups had also established a Landssekretariat (i.e., an Intergroup).
Yet Norway A.A. was to suffer from disunity, leading to stagnation and decline from the late ’50’s through the ’60’s and ’70’s, due to a cleavage or schism which developed. From the beginning, Norway A.A. had been involved with clinics, public periodicals, acceptance of outside support from The Alcoholic Beverage Commission, permanent salaried secretaries, etc. The Central Administration tried to lead A.A. groups to follow the Twelve Traditions with emphasis on anonymity and self-support. Many of the groups attempted faithfully to follow this course and function as A.A. did in the U.S. However, there was another faction, led by the Oslo Intergroup (which was itself also a government-sponsored Antabuse clinic), which maintained that A.A. in Norway is different from A.A. in the U.S. and that the Twelve Steps and Twelve Traditions are not applicable. Membership in these groups included doctors, social workers and other alcoholism professionals. They solicited outside grants, sought publicity, and expressed A.A.’s opinion on public issues. (This same kind of cleavage occurred in other Scandinavian countries where A.A.-type movements were government supported.) In 1955, both factions held their own national conventions.
In the last decade, many groups in Norway have “rejoined the fold,” and Traditional A.A. is gaining ground with 75 groups in 1985 having 550 members. Norway was one of the first countries to translate and publish the Big Book in its own tongue. About half of the first edition was sold before sales slacked off drastically. In 1985, work was underway on an improved translation and the publication of a second edition.
Holland is another country where the persistence and growth of Alcoholics Anonymous is all the more remarkable in the face of schisms, vacillation over the Traditions and other assorted obstacles. A.A. observers and visitors have attributed many of the difficulties to the combination of the alcoholic’s “self-will run riot” with the famous Dutch stubbornness, resulting in a resistance to direction and a determination to do things their own way.
Bill W., at the St.Louis Convention, recalled visiting Holland with Lois on their 1950 European trip. “We remember Henk Krauweel,” he said, “a social worker and nonalcoholic [who] was engaged by the city of Amsterdam to see what he could do for the drunks there. He had been able to do very little until one day he ran across A.A.’s Twelve Steps. Translating them into Dutch, he handed them to some of his charges. To his astonishment, several tough cases went dry.” The time of this occurrence was the summer of 1948, and Henk had obtained the Twelve Steps by writing the General Service Office in New York. One of the “tough cases” was John V. and the other was Carel A. They began Holland’s first A.A. group in 1949, meeting in Henk Krauweel’s clinic. (When G.S.O. manager Bob P. visited Amsterdam in 1978, the original group was still meeting there.)
Adrian F., a Dutch-American A.A. member living in Long Island, New York (and later a Director of AA. World Services) visited Holland periodically from 1953 to the mid-1960’s and reported to Bill W. at the latter’s request. He noted that in ’53 A.A. had spread, with groups in Amsterdam, Rotterdam and The Hague. Although a good translation of the Twelve Steps had been made, a younger faction was violently opposed to mention of God and a Higher Power in the Steps and elsewhere in the program, and used their own translation substituting “Life” and “Nature.” Antabuse was “eaten like candy,” with a jar of the tablets on the speaker’s table at A.A. meetings. Using Antabuse was virtually a requirement for membership in A.A. A.A. in Holland has had an attitude toward the Traditions that can best be described as casual, especially in the areas of anonymity and self-support.
A.A. membership suffered from the stratified society that existed in the rest of Holland, with sharp religious differences. Priests and ministers alike viewed the phrase “God, as we understood Him” as sheer heresy. Doctors and psychiatrists scorned the program as a bizarre American concoction. Finally, from the earliest time and continuing into the present, there is an unusually heavy stigma attached to alcoholism in Holland. Far from being accepted as a disease, it is regarded as a moral weakness.
In spite of all these obstacles, A.A. continued to grow in numbers in Holland. In 1955, a General Service Board was organized. Three years later, a Tenth Anniversary Convention was held in The Hague, with several hundred A .A.’s and their families in attendance. A highlight of the meeting was an address by Bill W. Adrian F. reported in ’63 that relations with the press, radio and TV were excellent. The Ministry of Justice continued to permit A.A.’s to carry the message into jails and prisons, and the Ministry of Health permitted them to do the same in general and mental hospitals.
(MORE HERE ON RECENT HOLLAND HISTORY, INCLUDING CURRENT TRANSLATION OF BIG BOOK, ETC.).
In 1985, Holland had 120 groups with a membership of 2,250.
Belgium is really two countries, divided by language – i.e., French and Flemish – and therefore divided in culture, social structure and politics as well, along the language lines. So Belgium really has two A.A.’s: French-speaking and Flemish-speaking. The A.A. literature exists in both languages, and there are two G.S.O.’s. This situation perhaps slowed the progress of Belgian A.A. in the early years—and it certainly caused some confusion at G.S.O./New York. But it has not detracted from the vigorous, serious and dedicated brand of A.A. that has grown up there.
Jean L. – who was French-speaking – is credited with starting Alcoholics Anonymous in Belgium. In Brussels, in 1953, he contacted the Belgian Anti-Alcoholism Committee, a government body which, in turn, depended on the Red Cross as the contact point for alcoholics. Mr. DeBoe, chairman of the committee, was very interested in what Jean told him of A.A. (we don’t know where Jean learned of it), began to attend the meetings and immediately tried to merge A.A. into his committee, using the A.A. name in the press to try to get alcoholics to contact the Red Cross. Obviously this led to many difficulties until A.A. broke away and became independent. Jean L. was a tireless worker in carrying the message and he also was instrumental in forming the first organized Board in Brussels. Unfortunately, all this was too much for his alcoholic ego, and he slipped.
Marc M. was invited to take Jean’s place on the Board. He declined, wary of Jean’s experience and also uncomfortable because the Board seemed not accountable to the A.A. members, but went off on its own, holding open meetings with religious speakers, etc. So, by 1955 there were three French-speaking groups in Belgium: the one run by the Board; the Brussels group very ably led by Helene C.; and the Brabo group in Antwerp. The first cooperative effort among the groups was a newsletter, “Allo a l’Eau,” created by Helene. Further cooperation came in 1959 with a move to start a French-speaking intergroup, which finally came into being in August 1964 serving groups from Brussels, Anvers, Liege, Malmedy, Antwerp and St. Vith. Further structuring took place in 1967 with the formation of regional committees or intergroups and a French-speaking G.S.O.; and soon afterward, a Board of Trustees.
Several Flemish-speaking alcoholics sought help through the Red Cross in Brussels in the mid-’50’s, and finding only French-speaking A.A. in that city, they attempted to form a Flemish-speaking group, which fell apart. In other parts of Belgium where Flemish was predominant, groups formed, however. And by 1960 the Flemish-speaking groups formed a service structure roughly patterned after that of the U.S., with a Service Board, a Conference and a Flemish-speaking G.S.O. The Big Book and several A.A. pamphlets were translated into Flemish. Also, a monthly magazine was begun, called “De Boi.”
The French-speaking A.A.’s in Belgium at first relied on French-language literature from Montreal. However, finding the French-Canadian translation different from their own, they eventually published themselves. Joseph Kessel’s articles about Alcoholics Anonymous in France Soir in 1960 (see below) brought many inquiries.
Belgium, both French-speaking and Flemish-speaking, had 162 groups in 1985, with 3,240 members.
Paris had an English-speaking group from 1950 until the present time, antedating French-speaking A.A. by about a decade. The English-speaking meeting at the American Church on the Quai d’Orsay was a familiar goal for thousands of American A.A. tourists and visitors. It owes its start to Jim F., a young American in Paris, who placed an ad in the European Herald Tribune on May 7, 1948. He received a response from Jeff K., a Swiss-American living in Paris. Also that summer, he was contacted by two tourists who had obtained his name from the G.S.O. in New York: Bob M., a newspaperman from Miami; and the famous Marty M., the first woman to stay sober in A.A. Other tourists came and went, and finally, on April 21, 1950, six persons met in a room off the lobby of the Hotel Bedford, France’s first organized A.A. group. Present were: Jim F.; Jeff K.; George L., an American Air Force Sergeant; Martin H., from Miami; Albert M. from Massachusetts; and Bill S. from Los Angeles. At the very first meeting, one of those present wondered if it “wouldn’t be all right to drink wine with his meals, this being France and all.”
Bill W., after his visit with Lois to Paris in June, 1950, commented on this problem of convincing the proverbial 50 million Frenchmen that wine was really alcohol and therefore had to be avoided by alcoholics. The visit was an inspiration for the handful of newcomers in Paris.
Jim F. returned home in 1952, but by then the group was strongly enough rooted to keep going. Jim reminisced later about the mistakes and problems of those first two years. After the first meeting, the group met in his hotel room, which he felt was a mistake; it should have been a more “neutral” place. Yet it was hard to find a “dry” meeting place in Paris! Also, the early meetings were extremely informal, lacking any format or ritual like other A.A. meetings. There was a problem running an ad. A new advertising manager at the Herald Tribune refused it because of the touchy political atmosphere at the time. And no collection was taken, since there were really no expenses—which deprived members from feeling involved.
The English-speaking group had French-speaking visitors occasionally, but the latter never successfully got together to form a group. A French psychiatrist at St.Anne’s Hospital, Pierre Bensonsan, took a trip to the U.S. in ’55 and learned of A.A. Returning to Paris, he enlisted the help of A.A. members there to bring the program to his alcoholic patients. Upon their release, some of these patients started meeting together, but they had no literature in French and little knowledge of the A.A. principles and soon scattered.
It was not until 1960 that the major breakthrough came for A.A. in France. Joseph Kessel, a French journalist, came to the U.S. to study this A.A. phenomenon in depth—with the close cooperation of G.S.O. Upon his return, he wrote a series of articles on Alcoholics Anonymous which were published in the French newspaper France-Soir and then published as a book which was so extraordinarily successful it was translated in many other languages. Joseph Kessell did for A.A. in France—and other European countries as well—what Jack Alexander did in America.
Nick H., secretary of the English-speaking group at the time, had come into A.A. in 1937 and was an old friend of Bill W. Nick remembers that a few days after the first Kessel article appeared in July, a bundle of some 30 letters was delivered by France-Soft to his apartment—all in French, of course. And Nick’s French was inadequate to answer them. What to do? At this point, Nick remembered that before Fred S., a member of the group, had departed for summer vacation, he had suggested that some kind of overtime arrangement might be possible with his French secretary, Odette Gerth. So Nick contacted her at once, and, though she was not an alcoholic, Odette went to work and began a collaboration that lasted through the summer as the inquiries poured in—and for several years thereafter. At first, Nick dictated the replies, but later Odette was able to answer the letters herself – just as Ruth Hock had done at the first A.A. service office in New York.
A supply of the Big Book and several pamphlets in the French language had been obtained from Quebec, which helped enormously. Inquiries from outside Paris were referred to existing French-speaking groups in Belgium or Switzerland when possible. In Paris, the first French group formed in the latter part of July. They met at one end of the same room in the American Church where the English-speaking group met. They were aided by “Mac” MCD. whose French was fluent enough to carry the message. The first few French prospects disappeared after a few meetings, but slowly a solid group formed. An old A.A. friend of Nick’s, Fuller P., appeared on the scene at this time, intending to spend the winter in Paris. He spoke fluent French and knew the A.A. program thoroughly. By the time he departed a year later, the French group was so firmly grounded in the Twelve Steps, the Twelve Traditions, and the other A.A. basics that they were ready to grow.
By 1963, active membership in France approached 200 (of these, 15 members had three years’ sobriety; 20 had two years; and another 60, one year.) Three meetings a week were held in Paris and there were groups in Roubaix , Rouen, Marseilles, Tourcoing and Bordeaux. A General Service Board was formed in 1961 and the first General Service Conference was held in Paris in October 1971. Under direction of the Board, a General Service Office, with Ann-Catel. B. as manager, handles A.A. publishing, public information, policy, relations with other countries and other functions. France reported to the 1972 World Service Meeting (See Chap. 17) that there were eight groups in Paris and nine more in the suburbs. In the provinces, A.A. was organized in only a few towns (Rouen, Nancy, Strasbourg, etc.) but with 70 Loners in France, a Loner & Provincial Coordinating Committee was formed to help groups get started. The Committee thought there were good possibilities in 22 towns and cities. There were also three Intergroups—in Paris, the suburbs, and Strasbourg.
By 1985, A.A. was expanding and doing well in France. There were 271 groups with an estimated membership of about 3,000.
A.A. members among the American military occupation forces were responsible for bringing the program to Germany. In 1953, an A.A. group meeting at the Army post in Munich went out looking for drunks among the native Germans to whom they could carry the message. They found Max, who became A.A.’s first German member. Max then found Harry, and Harry in turn found Eugene from Hamburg. Eugene traveled back and forth from Hamburg to Munich until he got sober. Thus the first German-speaking group began. By 1958, there were closed meetings for German alcoholics in Wiesbaden, Heidelberg, Baden Baden, Worms, Stuttgart and Karlshrue, and enough meetings in Frankfurt to make an Intergroup office a practical move.
(NEED MUCH MORE DETAILED INFORMATION HERE ON A.A.
IN FRANKFURT, HAMBURG, BREMEN, ETC. WHEN
G.S.B.FORMED, AND WHEN FIRST G.S.CONFERENCE.
ALSO, HISTORY OF ENGLISH-SPEAKING INTERGRP
One of the best known A. A. members in Germany, Uli Z., was from Poland but had found sobriety in Germany in 1973.. Fluent in English as well as German, Uli worked at the Frankfurt Airport, the hub for international flights, where he was a contact for traveling A.A.’s. He also traveled frequently to the U.S. himself and brought back helpful ideas from G.S.O. He served actively in the Frankfurt Intergroup and the English-speaking Intergroup for Europe.
When G.S.O. manager Bob P. attended the National Convention for German A.A. in 1978, the magnificent convention center in Hamburg was crowded with 5,000 members and their families. In 1985, there were nearly 2,000 groups in Germany.
( to come)
The A.A. message reached Finland through a hopeless, broken alcoholic seaman named Usko. Coming off a binge in late 1948 in faraway Los Altos, California, shaking and foggy, Usko was taken to an A.A. meeting by a friend. He never drank again, and as his health returned, he had a burning desire to practice the Twelfth Step by helping drunks back in his native Finland. He wrote letters to two or three of his old drinking buddies, including Veikko K., whom he knew was in as bad shape from booze as he had been.
Unbeknownst to Usko, Veikko had been desperately trying to stop drinking. Along with several other skid-row drunks, he was meeting weekly at the home of a husband and wife who worked at the Helsinki Welfare Office and who were trying to make a dent in the city’s severe alcoholism problem.
The men were mostly dry and had declared themselves opposed to alcohol, but had no program other than their mutual support. So Usko’s letter to Veikko fell on unbelievably fertile ground.
“It was like an answer to a prayer,” says Veikko. “I knew instantly that I could stay sober.” He showed the letter to his friends and to other Helsinki drunks, and replied enthusiastically to Tjsko. Since there was no A.A. literature available in Finnish, Usko continued to write long, long letters from America, week after week, translating the Steps and Traditions and passing along what he had seen and learned as he attended Alcoholics Anonymous. (The letters are still preserved intact in the Finnish A.A. Archives.) In Finland, where nicknames are often used to protect members’ anonymity, Usko was nicknamed “Link”, for obvious reasons, while Veikko K. came to be called “Kolumbus” because he was the discoverer of American A.A.
A.A. grew rapidly in Finland. Soon they needed a national service office to handle the mail and phone calls and, eventually, to publish A.A. literature in Finnish. Who better to serve as its secretary than “Kolumbus”? Veikko K. was to serve in that capacity for 36 years. Thanks in part to the thorough, methodical and efficient nature of the Finnish people, A.A. in Finland is perhaps better organized and more viable than anywhere else in the world. In 1963, when it was only 15 years old, it had 125 A.A. groups in 42 places, including 16 prison groups and 4 hospital groups. There were 213 weekly meetings of the regular groups plus 23 institutional meetings. Membership was 2,000. Uniquely, the Finland G.S.O. keeps records of individual members: when they attended their first meeting; whether they stayed; whether they’ve slipped; and when they die, did they die sober? Every A.A. book and pamphlet is published in Finnish. A local version of the A.A. Grapevine has been published since 1951. A General Service Board has existed since 1961, but there is no General Service Conference. Finland has always sent delegates to the World Service Meetings and has contributed generously to their support. It played host to the WSM in 1978 (See Chap. 17). The annual Finnish A.A. Conventions attract thousands.
Work in jails and prisons has been especially important to Finland A.A. because the severe laws regarding drunkenness – and especially drunk driving – result in many alcoholics coming into A.A. while incarcerated. (Valter L., a prominent A.A. member, casually recalls that he was jailed 73 times for public drunkenness and drunk driving before he finally got the message “inside.”)
In 1985, Finland counted over 400 A.A. groups with 7,000 members.
The first A.A. group in Sweden was apparently formed in February 1947, consisting of two men: W.F., a Swedish alcoholic, and an anonymous American. In a 1949 letter to G.S.O./NewYork, W.F. related how it had happened. A manager in a textile firm, W.F. traveled extensively and drank heavily, ending up in a state alcoholic ward in 1943. He became a secret drinker for the next three years, absent from work more than he was there and becoming sicker all the time. He was sent to a psychiatrist for six weeks, during which period he lived in a boarding house. There he became friends with a preacher, who also tried to help him. Between the two, W.F. was able to stay sober for a month or two and to return to his home and his job. Then he went on a real bender.
His wife helped him get in touch with an Oxford Group, where he found real help at last (as had U.S. alcoholics before him.) The Oxford Groupers told him, “We cannot get anything from God if we do not give anything ourselves.” So he decided to try to help other alcoholics, and in the process, went to a club called Saliskapet Lankarna (Friendship Links) which also sought to help alcoholics. At this point, God intervened and sent W.F. an American drunk who had been in A.A. in New York for two years but was now living in. Sweden, where he had returned to drinking with a vengeance! Having heard that W.F. was trying to help alcoholics, the American sought him out.
“He had an A.A. Big Book and gave it to me,” W.F. related in his letter. “We made a translation of the 12 Steps [into Swedish] and our society had its Program.” That was in February 1947.
W.F. and his friend probably continued their association both with the Oxford Group and Lankarna, and thereby sowed the seed for many of A.A.’s future problems in Sweden. For Lankarna, a club officially sponsored by the government and funded in part by them and part by private contributions, was comprised not only of alcoholics but of temperance workers and other nonalcoholics. Nevertheless, Lankarna took over some (but not all) A.A. principles and practices and “borrowed” liberally from A.A. literature in pamphlets which it published itself. It therefore had some success in helping alcoholics recover. But at the same time, it operated comfortable convalescent facilities, promoted itself aggressively, and ignored most of A.A.’s traditions—particularly those of anonymity, self-support, and non¬affiliation. Lankarna was much better known than A.A. (though not always in a favorable or uncontroversial way), and for some time A.A. was thoroughly confused with Lankarna. This not only held back the formation of a separate, Traditional Alcoholics Anonymous in Sweden, but the energies of the recovered alcoholics dedicated to this objective were spent on attempting to oppose or change Lankarna rather than focusing on their own “primary purpose.”
This was the situation which Ralph B. found when he began spending time in Sweden on business in the mid-50’s. This was the same Ralph B. who had joined A.A. in 1946 and was the writer/consultant to the General Service Board and G.S.O.; who had written the first General Service Conference reports; and who handled press relations for the ’55, ’60 and ’65 International Conventions. Ralph, who had his own international public relations firm, had as his principal client a multi-national company with headquarters in Sweden. In order to service this account effectively, Ralph had learned Swedish and made frequent trips to Sweden. (Through the recommendations from his principal client, he was eventually engaged by other Swedish companies, opened an office in Stockholm as well as New York, and spent up to half his time in Sweden.) Needing to go to A.A. meetings while there, he began working with Traditions-minded A.A.’s to form a “real” A.A. group.
Ralph B. was able to report to the 1963 General Service Conference for US./Canada (which he attended as an observer) that a lasting group dedicated to Traditional A.A. had been in existence for about seven years. Total membership, he said, stood at about 75 to 100 in Stockholm and perhaps another 100 throughout the remainder of the country. A Central Committee was formed in 1962 with representatives from the various groups, with the objective of serving as a reliable clearing house of information on Traditional A.A. both within and outside the Fellowship. “The Committee has already been effective in acquainting press, clergy and medicine with basic A.A. principles and practices,” he reported, “and in broadening understanding of the recovery program.” That year (1963) an All-Swedish Conference was held at Hallsberg, halfway between the principal cities of Stockholm and Gothenberg.
The Central Committee proved to be a viable and effective body for policy making and for service. With the adoption of “working guidelines” (i.e., “by-laws”) in February 1971, it became to all intents and purposes the combined Service Board and Conference for A.A. in Sweden. It meets three times a year, with two representatives (with only a single vote) from each group. Other Scandinavian countries are asked to send observers and take part in the A.A. meetings held in connection with the Committee meeting. The Committee is also responsible for the small central service office in Stockholm, which functions as a G.S.O. The office carries a limited stock of literature in Swedish, Finnish, Norwegian and English, including the Big Book in Swedish. It publishes meeting lists and directories as well as an A.A. bulletin. The office also coordinates the P.I., CPC, and hospital work.
The Big Book was translated into Swedish by Inga-Britt S., who joined A.A. in California in 1967 before returning to her native country just in time to become active in all aspects of service work including a term as delegate to the World Service Meeting.
In A.A.’s 50th anniversary year, Sweden had 54 groups and 1,800 members. There were also portents that A.A. in Sweden might be on the threshold of a new era of growth. Due in part to the dominance of Lankarna, with its comfortable convalescent homes supported generously by the state, there were no independent, autonomous treatment centers for alcoholics. But in 1984, under the auspices of the Swedish version of the National Council on Alcoholism, a seminar was held bringing together Swedish professionals in the field of alcoholism with U.S. professionals, including Dr. Dan Anderson of Hazelden. The purpose of the meeting was to learn about the so-called “Minnesota model” for treatment centers, which has strong A.A. orientation. An effective part of the program was testimony by invited guests from Iceland which had itself gone through the same transition. An A.A. member in Sweden who participated in the seminar as a professional reported privately to G.S.O./New York that if “Minnesota model” treatment centers were to be established in Sweden—which looked likely—then the “graduates” would swell the ranks of A.A. groups in that country.
A.A. in Iceland got off to a very slow start, but has exploded in the last 15 years. Gudrun C., an Icelandic woman married to an American and an active A.A. member in New York, visited her home country in 1948 and held a public meeting. As a result, Icelanders were occasionally sent to the U.S. for detox and rehabilitation. Two of these in the early ’50’s were Jonas G. and Gudni A. When they returned to Iceland recovered, they were given newspaper publicity in which A.A. was given much credit—but no group formed.
Meanwhile, however, Gudmunder J., a drunk in Reykj avic, stopped drinking on his own in 1950. When he read Gudni’s interview in the paper, he contacted him. Together, they got in touch with Jonas C. and on April 15, 1954 (a Good Friday), the first Icelandic group had its first meeting.
For many years thereafter, Iceland had one group whose members stayed sober but engaged in no public information or contact with doctors or other professionals and did little Twelfth Stepping. Moreover, there were few pieces of A.A. literature in Icelandic. Then, in the early ’70’s the government began an active program of sending alcoholics to the U.S. for rehabilitation—and initial contact with A.A. in America. These newcomers returned fired up to get A.A. moving and with revolutionary ideas of reaching out. Finally, in 1976, the Big Book was published in Icelandic and the truly explosive growth began.
By then, a service office had been established in Reykjavic and General Service Board was functioning. This was followed soon afterward by a General Service Conference. Both at the group level and in general service, the influx of new members caused turmoil and conflict with the oldtimers. (In some large meetings, two years’ sobriety was rare.) But in the end, Iceland has a remarkably strong and sound Fellowship for such a small country, with 70 groups and at least 2,500 members in 1985.
A.A. was also very slow to get started among the Italians. Like Paris, Rome had an English-speaking group in the early 1960’s, which has continued until the present. But repeated attempts to reach the Italians met with failure except for a few bi-lingual individuals. Then, in the early ’70’s, a member of the Italian parliament now known as Carlo #1, a big, imposing man, was such a bad drunk that he was in danger of losing his post. He heard of the English-speaking A.A. group in Rome and began attending meetings—even though he did not understand English. The message was carried to him through an interpreter. Carlo absorbed enough of the program to get sober, stay sober, and carry the message to other Italian alcoholics. This had to be done verbally, since there was no literature in Italian.
One day in March 1975, a doctor called on Carlo #1 to speak with a patient in the hospital who had alcoholic neuritis so severely he was confined to a wheelchair and was feared near the end. The patient was Roberto C., who was to become the father of Italian A.A. Roberto—the only son of the Helen Hayes of Italian theater, film and TV, and her producer-husband, who were constantly on the road—was reared by an uncle in a villa in Florence and educated in private schools. After serving in the war, he became a noted journalist, living for eight years as a correspondent in the U.S., where he became completely fluent in English. He also progressed into raging, desperate alcoholism, which got him deported back to Italy. There, despite periodic flashes of success on newspapers and national television, he continued to sink into sickness and eventual repeated hospitalization, which left him with a noticeable limp today. As soon as he was able after meeting Carlo, Roberto began attending the English-speaking A.A. group. With a consuming desire to stop drinking and as at home in English as in Italian, Roberto literally immersed himself in Alcoholics Anonymous. He read, re – read and absorbed every word of the Big Book and the other literature. With a deep spiritual base to his fractured life, he was awed by A.A.’s message of the need for spiritual change. And he began forthwith to carry the message to Italian alcoholics.
When he had been sober less than two years, Roberto’s renowned but aged mother became ill. Roberto, who had squandered a sizeable amount of his mother’s money during his drinking, now felt he owed her great amends, so he went with her to a family villa in the country, where he remained at her side until she died. During these two years of isolation and devotion, Roberto says, “What did I have to do, but translate the Big Book into Italian?” With the help of other fledgling A.A.’s, Roberto then spearheaded an effort to publish the Italian Big Book (with financial assistance from A.A. World Services). He brought the first copy with him to the International Convention in New Orleans in 1980, where he presented it to Lois W. In his brief presentation talk, he announced proudly that Italy then had seven A.A. groups.
Upon his return, he went through his native country like a Johnny Appleseed, sowing A.A. groups everywhere. In Rome, Carlo E., a wealthy businessman, joined up and used his own money to underwrite the translating and publishing of all the A.A. literature into Italian and the opening of a General Service Office to augment the intergroup which had already been established. A General Service Board was formed in October 1979, and after a great deal of controversy and several false starts, the first General Service Conference was held in 1984. By 1985, with appropriate gratitude for his part in getting Italian A.A. off to a flying start, Carlo E. was persuaded to halt his personal financial support and make the groups more reliant on their own contributions.
In the autumn of 1985, Italian A.A. held its own convention to celebrate the 50th Anniversary of A.A.’s founding. About 700 spirited A.A.’s and their families turned up for the gathering, which was held in the Adriatic resort town of Rimini, where they heard Bob P., G.S.O. general manager, with Roberto C. translating the talk. At that time, there were over 100 A.A. groups in Italy, with new ones forming almost every day, and membership totaled over 4,000.
The latest European country to experience explosive A.A. growth is Poland. This development has been greeted with particular joy not only for the sake of the Polish alcoholics themselves, but also because of Poland’s symbolic significance as the first country behind the Iron Curtain to embrace Alcoholics Anonymous. When the small Polish delegation to the 50th Anniversary International Convention in Montreal marched onto the field on Friday night—the first time the Polish flag had ever been at an International Convention flag ceremony—they were greeted with a prolonged and deafening ovation.
In 1957, a Polish physician named Zbigniew Wierzbicki traveled to the U.S. to learn more about treating alcoholics in his care. He was impressed with the success of Alcoholics Anonymous; and, once back home, he started his country’s first A.A. group, in the city of Poznan. Because Dr. Wierzbicki was a nonalcoholic, he was unable to share with the Polish alcoholics, so the first group remained under the strong influence of the medical profession and ultimately ceased to exist. Not until the ’70’s did another two or three groups slowly form in Poznan.
In the late ’70’s, the spread of A.A. into various parts of the country led to a stirring toward coordination and exchange of information and experiences. The first national meeting of A.A. took place in April 1980 in Poznan. Continued growth and the appearance of groups in the regions produced a Temporary National A.A. Service in 1982 – a working body to promote the integration of A.A. throughout the country. The TNS charged the Poznan Intergroup with the organization of a National A.A. Congress to meet in 1984.
The First Congress was a landmark event. In the planning stage, the existence of 16 groups was known. The day before it began, it turned out there were 19 groups. At the Congress itself, representatives of 34 groups showed up! The information gathered there indicated that more than 500 alcoholics were regularly attending A.A. meetings in Poland, and 200 of these were at the Congress.
But that marked only the beginning of the explosive growth. The Congress adopted electoral procedures and selected a seven-member Board of Trustees. The group representatives then began meeting on a quarterly basis in each of four regions. Many new A.A. get-togethers were organized and enjoyed. An array of A.A. literature was made available in Polish, ranging from a translations of The Twelve Steps and Twelve Traditions and Living Sober (but not the Big Book, as yet) to locally written pamphlets. Public information work achieved more than 100 articles in the press, plus many radio and television programs. By the end of 1985, there were nearly 100 Polish groups, with a membership “conservatively” estimated at more than 1,500.
Other European Countries
Alcoholics Anonymous is present in nearly all other European countries outside the Soviet bloc: Greece, Spain, Portugal, Gibraltar, Malta, etc. In some instances, it is in the form of English-speaking groups or Loners; in others, a small number of groups of local inhabitants. But in none of these places – with the possible exception of Spain – is A.A. as yet organized with a structure, a service office or its own literature.