In the tower of a church in a pastoral village in southwestern Germany, there is no mistaking the Nazi origin of one of its bells.
A swastika is displayed front and center on the weathered instrument. Above the symbol is an inscription in capital letters: “EVERYTHING FOR THE FATHERLAND,” it states in German. “ADOLF HITLER.”
Since 1934, the bell has hung in the Protestant Church of St. James in Herxheim am Berg, a tiny German municipality about 50 miles southwest of Frankfurt. For decades, its jarring inscription went unnoticed as the bell rang regularly alongside two other unmarked bells — for baptisms, for weddings or simply to mark the passage of 15 minutes — until a former organist at the church complained last summer, according to the DPA International news agency.
“It can’t happen that a baby is baptized and a bell with the words ‘Everything for the Fatherland’ is chiming,” Sigrid Peters, the former church organist, told the news agency. And she ventured that many who traveled to the church to get married had no clue about the bell’s history.
Almost immediately, the village of Herxheim, population 700 or so, was thrust into the global spotlight, as a debate emerged over what to do with the “Hitler glocke” or “Hitler bell.” Should it be torn down and melted, removed to a museum or allowed to remain in the brick tower behind a locked wooden door? For whom, if anyone, should the Hitler bell toll?
As it happened, the bell belonged to the community, and the community was divided. For anyone paying attention to debates about Confederate statues from the United States, arguments about the bell would fall into familiar ideological trenches: Despite outside offers to pay for replacing the bell, some said removing it from the church would be akin to erasing or rewriting history.
Others demanded the destruction of what they called a reminder of Germany’s shameful past, whose very existence (let alone continued ringing) was an affront to Holocaust victims and their descendants. They also feared that keeping the bell in place would turn the tiny church into a pilgrimage site for far-right groups seeking to honor Nazi leaders.
The Holocaust was a systematic genocide, led by Hitler, in which an estimated 6 million Jews were killed by the Nazi regime.
“For me, it is incomprehensible that such a bell was ever stuck in a church,” Josef Schuster, president of the Central Council of Jews in Germany, told DPA in September, as he pushed for the bell to be moved to a museum. “I have even less understanding that there are obviously still people who hold a positive attitude toward this bell.”
The controversy brought an early end to the tenure of Herxheim am Berg’s former mayor, Roland Becker, who argued that removing the inscription from the bell could harm its sound. Becker also gave interviews outside the church over the summer that were seen by some as defending the Nazis.
“When we talk about the name Adolf Hitler, it will forever be associated first and foremost with the persecution of the Jews and the time of the war,” Becker said, according to the Telegraph. “But when you talk about these things, you have to see the whole picture, and say, yes, there were atrocities, but there were also things [Hitler] introduced which we still use today.”
The backlash against Becker’s comments forced him to resign in September, though he maintained his quotes had been taken out of context.
Herxheim am Berg’s new mayor, Georg Welker, didn’t fare much better in his attempt to avoid controversy while advocating that the bell remain in the church belfry as a memorial to the Nazis’s victims.
“I can hear the victims; there were also German citizens, not only Jewish,” Welker told German public broadcaster ARD, according to the news outlet Deutsche Welle.
Welker later said he misspoke and didn’t mean to suggest that Jewish people then were not also German citizens.
According to a study commissioned by the village council, removing the bell would be “fleeing from an appropriate culture of remembrance,” the Associated Press reported. And so, on Monday, the governing body voted, 10 to 3, to keep the bell in place — precisely because of the reminder it served — but to install a plaque describing its significance.
The vote was met with some applause, according to Spiegel. The bell would continue to ring.
After World War II, Germany outlawed the Nazi salute, along with Holocaust denial and other symbols and signals associated with the Nazis. A conviction can carry a prison sentence of up to three years, although courts often impose fines instead.
Those laws, however, did not affect the bell, which is protected as a historic artifact, according to the Telegraph. The church belfry in Herxheim now joins a number of other German sites with some Nazi affiliation that have been converted to a makeshift memorial.
It’s all part of “Vergangenheitsbewältigung,” the German word for coming to terms with the past, that has taken place over several arduous decades, The Washington Post’s Isaac Stanley-Becker reported.
“It’s important to avoid making the mistake of thinking that now because every German city has some kind of memorial or museum to the Nazi past, that this was an easy process,” Jacob S. Eder, a scholar of German history and Holocaust memory at the Friedrich-Schiller-University in Jena, told The Post then. “It’s actually quite the opposite.”
Isaac Stanley-Becker contributed to this report.