The Hitler Bell and a small German town’s missteps in trying to re-contextualize their past.

The Hitler Bell should be silenced and moved to a space where it can be preserved in the proper context, like a museum.

By Bing

Over the past couple of years, there has been heavy debate about whether monuments to controversial historical topics, like the Confederacy, should be altered or removed and if doing so would be “erasing history.” In 2017 Herxheim am Berg, a small village of around 700 in southwest Germany, became a focal point in this ongoing discussion when it was brought to public attention that their church belltower contained a bell with Nazi-era inscriptions. The bell had Hitler’s name, a swastika, and the phrase “ALLES FÜRS VATERLAND” (everything for the fatherland) inscribed on it. The ensuing controversy raged for quite some time and even resulted in a former mayor resigning after arguing that removing the inscription would alter the bell’s sound. In February 2018, the town’s council decided in a 10 to 2 vote to keep the bell in place, a decision that was reportedly met with applause.[1] The village council concluded that removing the bell would be “fleeing from an appropriate culture of remembrance,”[2] instead, they decided to put up a plaque and keep the bell as “an impetus for reconciliation and a memorial against violence and injustice.”[3]

                The actions taken by the Herxheim town council were the wrong ones. While their wishes to keep the bell intact to preserve it for history as an artifact from 1934 is reasonable, the way they have chosen to memorialize it and their decision to leave it in its original context are deeply problematic. They show that there are still people who have positive feelings of Germany’s National Socialist past, resist re-examinations of their history, and do not understand the effects and implications of public history.

                One of the reasons to keep the bell was due to the resistance shown by Herxheim’s citizens. Take, for example, former mayor Roland Becker, who resigned after making positive comments about the actions of the Nazi regime. He said that he is proud to have a bell with those inscriptions on it because, “when you talk about these things, you have to see the whole picture, and say yes there were atrocities, but there were also things he introduced which we still use today.”[4] He backtracked after that statement, insisting that the statement came from a conversation with an elderly village resident and not his own opinion. While he said this to protect himself, it reveals that his constituents are at least partially motivated to keep the bell because of lingering positive feelings towards Hitler and the Nazis. In cities like Berlin, the constant re-examinations of Germany’s history are impossible to ignore.  Unfortunately, it seems like this critical re-examination is not important in Herxheim. As Becker himself said, “some of the new citizens who moved here later on might not know about [the bell], but the majority of the [town’s] inhabitants have known that this bell is hanging here.”[5] That the bell was known by the older generations and long-time town residents, but never addressed even amongst Germany’s de-Nazification and critical self-examination of its history, speaks volumes. The town’s residents listened to the bell ring every fifteen minutes for the 70+ years since the fall of Nazi Germany, content to leave it as a semi-secret but ever-present reminder of those years.

The bell tower where the “Hitler bell” continues to hang between two other church bells. Out of public view like this is no way to have a memorial.

                The way that the council decided to memorialize the bell is misguided—context matters. If the intent of keeping the bell is to preserve history, it should be in the proper context. Statues and public monuments like this are supposed to provide the community around them with a sense of collective memory and influence their feelings about the subject of the memorial. This bell was created to commemorate the greatness of Adolf Hitler and the fervent nationalism of the 1930s. Without a doubt, those who originally installed it did so for the purpose of it ringing out in support of Hitler and his ideas for generations to come. Leaving this bell in place allows it to serve the same function it was created for, and every time it rings, it is still ringing for the ideals it was meant to represent. No matter what plaque they put in the church, leaving it in place makes it a touristic destination for any neo-Nazi’s who want to see a remainder of the Third Reich still performing its duty.

                The bell would be much better memorialized in a museum or another spot on church grounds outside the bell tower. This has been done with other historical bells, like the liberty bell, allowing for preservation and encouraging historical reflection. Other churches in Germany with similar bells have done so,[6] and it shows a much greater understanding of the politics of memory than the actions taken by the Herxheim town council. They were happy to keep it hidden away for years, but it is public now, and the way they treat it sends a message about their relationship to its history. Leaving the bell in place to keep ringing shows that there are still those who, while they admit Nazi atrocities are wrong, are content letting nostalgia and underground support for their fascist past simmer below the surface. The bell and the past that created it may be hidden away from public view, but they are still there to be heard if you listen.


[1] “Herxheim: ‘Hitler-Glocke’ Bleibt Hängen,” Der Spiegel, February 26, 2018, sec. Panorama, https://www.spiegel.de/panorama/gesellschaft/herxheim-hitler-glocke-bleibt-haengen-a-1195540.html.

[2] Isaac Stanley-Becker, “Rewriting History or Attending to the Past? Monuments Still Confound Europe, Too.,” Washington Post, August 19, 2017, sec. Europe, https://www.washingtonpost.com/world/europe/rewriting-history-or-attending-to-the-past-monuments-still-confound-europe-too/2017/08/19/1bbaf734-8413-11e7-9e7a-20fa8d7a0db6_story.html.

[3] “‘Hitler Bell’ to Remain in German Church as a Memorial,” BBC News, February 27, 2018, sec. Europe, https://www.bbc.com/news/world-europe-43210993.

[4] Justin Huggler, “German Mayor Resigns in Row over Nazi Bell,” The Telegraph, September 7, 2017, https://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/2017/09/07/german-mayor-resigns-row-nazi-bell/.

[5] Margaret Evans · CBC News ·, “Church Bell Inscribed with Hitler’s Name Prompts Soul-Searching in German Town | CBC News,” CBC, September 14, 2017, https://www.cbc.ca/news/world/nazi-bell-germany-controversy-1.4287318.

[6] Deutsche Welle (www.dw.com), “German Church Replaces Controversial Nazi Bell | DW | 29.09.2019,” DW.COM, https://www.dw.com/en/german-church-replaces-controversial-nazi-bell/a-50635389.

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