Shrill Bell Ringing

Contemporary Church History Quarterly

Volume 24, Number 2 (June 2018)

Shrill Bell Ringing

With “Hitler Bells,” Protestant churches backed the “Führer.” Many still ring today.

By Manfred Gailus, Technical University of Berlin; translated by Kyle Jantzen, Ambrose University

This article was originally published in Der Tagesspiegel, Nr. 23425, Wednesday, March 28, 2018. It is reprinted here with the kind permission of the publisher. You can view the original German article with images here.

How many “Hitler bells” still ring on German church towers and when will they stop? For almost a year, the idyllic wine village Herxheim am Berg (Rhineland-Palatinate) has experienced an unprecedented media hype: since 1934, in St. Jacob’s Church, a so-called “Hitler bell” has been ringing, on which a swastika is emblazoned, along with the political slogan “All for the Fatherland – Adolf Hitler.” Newspaper reporters, TV journalists, and onlookers have been visiting the community on the romantic wine route since summer 2017. Also, ring-wing political party members interested themselves in this bell and a village in which it could ring freely until September 2017. The mayor, an electrical engineer, was reduced to making awkward and somewhat questionable comments which forced him to resign.

Since December 2017, Herxheim has a new mayor—a retired pastor—but his statements are questionable too. Since then, there has been a dispute in the village and in the region: the bell must go, say some; the bell should stay, say others. Startled by the battle of Herxheim, other parishes began looking more closely at their church towers. In the meantime, five problematic bells from the Hitler era have been discovered in the Protestant Church of the Palatinate alone. And elsewhere, too, there were “Hitler bells”: one in the Saarland, two in Lower Saxony, and, amazingly, two more in the oh-so politically correct city of Berlin.

A large swastika—not easy to miss.

It is already a bit much that church bells with swastikas and corresponding Nazi slogans could even remain in use up to 2017. In Essingen (Rhineland-Palatinate), until September 2017 there rang a bell consecrated in 1936 with the inscription: “As Adolf Hitler gave sword and freedom to the German country. Cast by the Master Pfeifer, Kaiserslautern.” From the tower of the Church of the Cross in Schweringen (Lower Saxony) a bell with an oversized 35-by-35-inch swastika has rung for worship since 1934. This cannot be easily overlooked. The inscription on the bell is stamped on: “Germany has awakened out of misery and out of night – This cross gave success, helped to conquer discord – Thanks be to God.” Since September 2017, this bell has been silent. In the face of public agitation, the mayor professed he knew nothing about it.

In the Wichern Chapel in Berlin-Spandau, in October 1934, Rev. Johannes Rehse consecrated a bell bearing a Christian cross and a swastika, as well as the Bible verse (1 John 5. 4): “Our faith is the victory, which has overcome the world.” It is obvious that this creed was conceived differently in 1934 at the consecration ceremony designed by Nazi pastors. After the confirmands chanted “Under the flag we walk,” the bell consecration closed with a triple “Sieg-Heil” to Hitler and the singing of the German national anthem and the Horst Wessel song. The Spandau bell, the existence of which was acknowledged from time to time in the post-war period by the parish as well as by the church leadership in Berlin-Brandenburg, fell silent in November 2017 and has now been replaced by a new bell.

The Protestant milieu was comparatively far more infused with the Nazi zeitgeist than the Catholic Church.

In total, about a dozen bells were discovered in the 2017 Reformation commemoration year with dedications and symbols from the Nazi era that ranged from politically questionable to completely unacceptable. In all cases, these are Protestant churches. Currently, there is no Catholic Church involved, which would be similarly affected. An accident? Or perhaps Catholics have not yet looked closely at their church towers? No, no coincidence. Rather, in this finding we see an echo of the historical fact—a confirmation of the thesis that, in the “Third Reich,” the Protestant milieu was comparatively far more infused with the Nazi zeitgeist than the Catholic Church.

As a tightly centralized church and part of a global church governed by Rome, German Catholicism was less susceptible to the völkisch ideology of the era. In the Catholic Church, there was no inner-church mass movement led by theologians like the Protestant “German Christians” (DC). This is the most striking difference from the Protestants, where the German Christian Movement, which was as Christian-völkisch as it was antisemitic, conquered many of the 28 regional churches completely, and many others, like the large Prussian regional church, to a considerable extent. Certainly, there were also Catholic “brown priests” who were party members or who took up Nazi ideology. However, they accounted for less than one percent of all priests. As a number of recent studies have shown, on average, about 15 to 20 percent of the pastors in Protestant state churches belonged to the NSDAP. Of the more than 400 Protestant parish clergy in the capital, about 20 percent had joined the Hitler party and more than 40 percent were involved (at times) in the “Faith Movement” of the German Christians.

Alongside Christian motifs, diverse Nazi symbols.

Therefore, it is not surprising that church bells that are still in use today are discovered to be relics from a past, when many Protestant churches “turned brown.” Inspired by German Christian pastors, Nazi ideas, images, and symbols found their way into churches, parish halls, and permeated sermons and church newspapers. The swastika was omnipresent: on flags, firmly carved in stone on church buildings, and stamped hard into the metal on church bells. The Tempelhof Faith Church, which was renovated in 1933, bore a large swastika hewn in stone on a main pillar in the interior. The “Fatherland Bell” of the newly built Charlottenburg Gustav Adolf Church, which bore the dedication “For Our Fatherland” in addition to the Nazi symbol, may well be considered the first “swastika bell” installed in Berlin. In the entrance hall of the Mariendorf Martin Luther Memorial Church, visitors were greeted by relief portraits of Hindenburg and Hitler, and in the church itself various Nazi symbols adorned a mighty triumphal arch alongside Christian motifs. On the Mariendorf “Fatherland Bell,” consecrated in 1935, were emblazoned a swastika and the Hitler quote “May God take our work in his grace, make our will right, and bless our insight!” Swastika and Christian cross, as the Friedenau German Christian pastor Bruno Marquardt and many of his pastor colleagues said in 1934, were not opposites: “As the cross of Christ expresses our Christian convictions, so the swastika adds to our completely German-völkisch attitude.”

How to deal with the “Hitler bells” today? The reactions in Herxheim am Berg and elsewhere revealed astonishing uncertainties and at times much worse. Many “citizens” thought the bell could stay in operation. Not everything was bad back then—that too was heard. And the bells—you cannot see them when they ring. The new mayor of Herxheim, a retired pastor, ultimately argued that the bell could also be understood as a memorial and so continue to operate. His statement [about the ringing bell – Ed.] during a TV interview—”I hear the victims: these were German citizens, too, not just Jews”—aroused a considerable sensation.

At the request of an indignant Jewish citizen, the District Court of Bad Dürkheim ruled on February 6, 2018, that Mayor Welker was not allowed to repeat this statement. At the end of February 2018, the village council of Herxheim, which was responsible for the bell, decided to leave the “Hitler bell” in the church tower. Josef Schuster, President of the Central Council of Jews in Germany, responded that this decision stunned him and testified to a deep disrespect of all victims of National Socialism: “How a church bell dedicated to one of the greatest criminals in human history is compatible with Christianity is a mystery to me.”

The regional churches most affected by the bell affair, in the Palatinate and in Hanover, should not idly observe the unacceptable events on the ground for too long. And the “Hitler bells” of today also affect the Protestant Church in Germany (EKD) somewhat, in light of its many assurances about a Protestant “history of learning” during the 500th anniversary of the Reformation. Significant damage to the church’s image has already occurred and more damage still could follow. The relevant church authorities have signalled a willingness to remove the contaminated bells and replace them with new ones. That would certainly be the minimum and needs to happen immediately.

And, above all, more attention is required to the church’s coming to terms with the past locally. As current events illustrate, even 70 years after the Nazi disaster, things are often in disarray. In the affected Spandau parish, on the occasion of the 2017 (re)discovery of a “Hitler bell,” a working group was formed immediately to come to terms with the past.

Postscript, May 2018: According to recent press reports, so-called “Hitler bells” have now been discovered in 21 Protestant churches and one Catholic church. In the area of the Protestant Church of Central Germany alone (Thuringia and Saxony-Anhalt) there are still six problematic bells in the church towers.