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.

Evolving politics of the ‘Other’ in Europe

By Bing

What stood out to me from all these readings is how the ‘Othering’ of different groups of people has been used for political purposes. Events like the migrant crisis are used to stoke fear of racial and religious others damaging the mythical idea of being ‘European.’ This fear can be potent politically. As shown in the readings, it can even be used to influence more left-leaning issues. For example, portraying Muslims and migrants as anti-Semitic and anti-LGBT mobilizes people who care about those issues to pay attention to parties pushing immigration politics when they may not have before. It can turn groups who may have otherwise supported each other politicly against each other. Having an ‘Other’ is a strategy for political power. The more it is “us vs. them,” the better.

I found the article about the ‘Soros plot’ especially fascinating because it shows how this type of politics has evolved. For obvious reasons linked to its collective memory of the last century, overt anti-Semitism has become vary taboo in Europe. Popular memory depicts the Nazis as evil, and their most evil act is the holocaust and their anti-Semitism. These powerful associations mean that when people think about anti-Semites, they think of Nazis and evil. Anyone in the public sphere will naturally want to avoid these comparisons and try to stay far away from saying anything anti-Semitic. As a result, anti-Semitism’s role in politics has changed. The ‘Soros plot’ shows that anti-Semitism still exists but has ether shifted focus to become more subtle, like the focus of George Soros instead of a general focus on all Jews. Alternatively, it has moved underground and into the realm of conspiracy theories.

            These “us vs. them” politics are a seemingly essential part of populism. And, unfortunately, Covid has only strengthened the link between these ideas and populism with the rise of anti-maskers and anti-vaxxers and the popularity of the Q conspiracy theory in America and Europe.  

The Growing Problem of Anti-Vax Holocaust Comparisons

Anti-lockdown and anti-vaccination protests have become commonplace in Europe and North America. While the reasons, slogans, and strategies for these protests can be varied, some distressing trends have emerged. One disturbing trend is the appropriation of Holocaust imagery to express the victimhood of anti-vaxxers. These comparisons are inaccurate, offensive, and harmful to real victims and the history of the Holocaust. This hyperbolic manipulation tactic needs to stop.

This imagery, including protesters wearing a Star of David with “unvaccinated” written on it, is primarily used to decry the supposedly fascist behaviours of the government and to compare it to the Nazi regime. This misrepresentation of the narrative of Holocaust victims is used purely for aggressive politics at the expense of the history and lived experiences of actual survivors of the Holocaust. Anti-vaxxers have taken this story of victimization away from its historical context and transplanted it onto themselves without the trauma or complexities of the actual events. They leverage the representations of Holocaust victimization to garner a similar visceral reaction. They plucked these narratives out of time simply because of their emotional and political resonance. They wish to extend the feelings of horror and empathy associated with the Holocaust onto their narrative of perceived persecution.

An image from an Anti-Vax protest that inspired me to write this Op/Ed

To portray anti-vaxxers like holocaust victims and their local governments like Nazis is a false equivalency. These protestors focus on surface-level similarities to argue that their experiences are alike. For example, some argue vaccine passports equate to the forced identification and segregation of a minority group by a totalitarian regime, much like how the Nazis marked Jews with the Star of David. However, this comparison is inaccurate as it ignores the realities and intricacies of both history and the present social conflict. History is complex. Insinuating that any event is the same as something that happened in the past is reductive. While circumstances may seem similar on the surface, a closer look at the details will reveal just how different they are. A significant difference between these two situations is the importance of choice and circumstance. Unlike victims of the Holocaust who were victimized for things they could not change, anti-vaxxers feel persecuted because of a conscious decision. Furthermore, anti-vaxxers made this choice at the expense of the safety of those around them, knowing full well the consequences of rejecting the vaccine. This is not a case of a victimized minority group. Instead, it is a group that wishes to make a personal decision to the detriment of the rest of society. They want to avoid the consequences of this decision by framing those consequences as persecution instead of the result of their own selfishness.

These comparisons have been condemned by Holocaust survivors. By coopting holocaust victimhood narratives, anti-vaxxers lessen the real experiences of actual Holocaust survivors. Not only do victims have to see representations and symbols that could trigger traumatic memories, but they have to witness people equating the terrible things they went through with the simple act of getting vaccinated. Even if the vaccines were as harmful as anti-vaxxers tout them to be, it’s still incomparable with the trauma people endured during the Holocaust. And while it is often unhelpful to argue about who suffered more in history, there is still a clear difference in severity between public health measures and genocide. It’s offensive to the memories of all those affected by the Holocaust that anti-vaxxers would reduce their experiences so much that they think the current public health measures are at all comparable. It is incredibly offensive, especially because many of those protesting public health measures also subscribe to anti-Semitic conspiracy theories, like blood libel or suggesting that Covid-19 and the actions taken to combat it are part of a Jewish-led conspiracy.

This absurd and harmful comparison between the current political discourse surrounding public health and the Holocaust needs to end. The comparison doesn’t further the actual arguments put forward by anti-vaxxers—it only serves as hyperbole intended to trigger emotional reactions to stoke fear and outrage. If anti-vaxxers want to be taken seriously, they should do so by using their own arguments and experiences instead of appropriating and weaponizing the suffering of others for political gain.