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 DPA. 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?
As it happened, the bell belonged to the community, and the community was divided. 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.
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 the news agency Spiegel. The bell would continue to ring.