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A Swastika on a Church Bell: A Village Splits on How to Confront Nazi Past

HERXHEIM AM BERG, Germany — After she found out there was a swastika on the church bell, Sigrid Peters refused to continue playing the organ during services.

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A Swastika on a Church Bell: A Village Splits on How to Confront Nazi Past
Katrin Bennhold
, New York Times

HERXHEIM AM BERG, Germany — After she found out there was a swastika on the church bell, Sigrid Peters refused to continue playing the organ during services.

Shielded from public view, high up a rickety wooden staircase inside the yellow church tower, the bell is still suspended where it was first hung in 1934 by an enthusiastic Nazi mayor in Herxheim am Berg, a hilltop village of 750 people in Germany’s southwestern wine country.

It is smaller than the two other bells flanking it and is covered in pigeon droppings. But the swastika is clearly discernible and so is the inscription: “Everything for the Fatherland — Adolf Hitler.”

“People have been getting married under the swastika and they didn’t even know it,” Peters said.

When Peters, a retired music teacher, first spoke up last year, the “Hitler bell” became national news. Jewish organizations demanded it be taken down. The local church council banned it from ringing and the regional church body even offered to pay for a replacement.

Some two dozen other towns in Germany, which subsequently checked and discovered swastikas on their own church bells, swiftly got rid of them. In one case in northern Germany, where authorities prevaricated, local residents took matters into their own hands, broke into the church tower and removed the swastika with an angle grinder. A note was nailed to the church door: “Spring clean 2018,” it read.

In Herxheim, the questions raised by the bell have split this otherwise sleepy village, which overlooks a vine-covered plain. Peters has been called a “traitor” and worse. The local pizzeria has been getting orders for “Nazi pizza.”

Amid the cacophony, many villagers have dug in their heels. They want to keep their bell, even though — or perhaps because — for more than a year now, Herxheim has been mocked as the “Nazi village.”

“We will not allow the rest of the world to dictate what we do with our bell,” said the mayor, Georg Welker, who was elected last December as an independent on a promise to keep the bell.

Welker, 72 and a former village pastor, is planning to affix a plaque to the church wall explaining the history of the bell.

“It’s a monument of history,” Welker said during a recent tour of the village. “We shouldn’t forget that history or pretend it didn’t happen. That is why the bell should stay.”

But for others here, that is precisely why it should come down.

“We’re talking about a bell that was hung during National Socialism and is dedicated to a mass murderer,” said Markus Krauss, a metal worker who lives in the village with his wife and four children. “Our whole postwar identity in Germany is built on a break from that history.”

History is never far from the surface in Germany, a nation that, under the Nazi regime, murdered 6 million Jews and has long prided itself on taking on its troubled past with unsparing honesty. But with a far-right party now the main opposition in Parliament, that has become harder. One leader of the party, Alternative for Germany, recently referred to the Nazi era as a “mere bird poop” in history. Another called for a “180 degree” change in the way Germans look at their history.

This past week, an angry mob, some flashing Nazi salutes, rampaged in the eastern city of Chemnitz, chasing in packs after dark-skinned immigrants.

When the bell first became an issue, Welker’s predecessor as mayor, Ronald Becker, suggested that not everything Hitler had done was bad. “There were also things he engineered that we still use today,” Becker told the public broadcaster ARD.

He was forced to resign.

But his views are voiced liberally on the village square. Sitting on a bench one afternoon this summer, a group of residents listed local infrastructure created under the Nazis: the autobahn between Heidelberg and Mannheim, a housing estate in nearby Freinsheim.

“Should we destroy all that?” asked Roland Pox, who lives adjacent to the church and was walking his dog. “It’s absurd.”

Welker, a former left-wing student rebel, has made his own gaffes. In one instance, he said that “German citizens” had been victims under the Nazis, too, implying (unintentionally, he says) that Jews were not Germans.

Some of these reactions have shocked villagers like Bettina Heberer, a biologist and writer. “I was disturbed by some of the comments,” she said. “I’d call them far-right comments.”

“These are people I know,” she added, “and I wonder, can I still sit next to them at the next wine fete?” In Herxheim, history has become personal.

Welker, who used to teach at the same school as Peters and was once friendly with her, likes to mention that her father-in-law was a prominent Nazi mayor in a neighboring village, something her husband, Manfred, has written about.

“But then he qualifies it,” Welker said, “by saying that his dad was not treating Jewish shopkeepers as badly as others. I find that disgusting.”

The Peters point to Welker’s grandfather, who was a senior military commander under the Nazis.

“No one is responsible for their grandparents, of course," Sigrid Peters said, “but Mr. Welker likes to make public references to his grandfather. It makes you wonder.”

When the village council invited a regional historian, Roland Paul, to give a lecture about Herxheim under the Nazis, Paul was instructed not to “name any names,” a request he declined.

The descendants of the Nazi mayor who hung the bell still live in the village.

“Enough time has passed,” Paul said. “We name the victims of the Nazi time. We should be able to name the perpetrators, too.”

As for the bell, it needs to come down, he said, “otherwise the village will never get its peace back.” Although the swastika bell was a revelation to Peters, some have known about it for years. As village pastor in the 1980s and ‘90s, Welker often took teenagers up the tower during confirmation lessons to see the bell.

One of them, Eric Hass, a local wine worker and hobby historian, curated an exhibition in 2005 about the 60th anniversary of the end of World War II that showed a photo of the bell. But few noticed, he said, or thought it merited a debate.

Hass — whose own grandfather, he said, shook Hitler’s hand and did not wash it for three weeks afterward — thinks the muted response then might have been because Germany’s ugly history seemed so safely in the past that a hidden-away relic like the bell was not seen as carrying much symbolic weight. At the time the Alternative for Germany did not even exist. Now it is the third-largest party in the country.

“A lot of taboos have been broken,” Hass said. “You can say things today that you could not say then.”

As the far right has gained influence, many feel that a swastika on a church bell is no longer something that can be ignored. Neo-Nazis already organized one march in Herxheim since the bell became news, calling for it to stay.

Villagers mobilized against the intruders and far outnumbered them. But some remain scarred by the experience.

“It was scary. They were very professional,” recalled Sandra Morsch, who came to the counterprotest with her 2-year-old son and 90-year-old father.

There is history, and then there is memory.

Some here want to keep the bell because of emotional ties — because they married under it or their children were once baptized under it.

Dora Jotter has lived in Herxheim all her life. She was 12 when she wrote a school essay about the arrival ceremony for the bell in 1934.

“All village streets were resplendent in flags,” she wrote. Now 96, Jotter calls the day a “meaningful” event in her childhood.

And so the other day she called the mayor. Would he please ring the bell during her funeral?

Welker reassured her. But it is not strictly up to him. The bell belongs to the village, but the tower that houses the bell belongs to the church, which refuses to ring it — for now.

The current pastor, Helmut Meinhardt, said he believed the debate about the bell had become somewhat hysterical, for example, when Peters says she hears “the voice of Adolf Hitler” when the bell rings.

Meinhardt was once asked whether he, too, hears the voice of Hitler when the bell rings.

“No,” he had replied. “I hear a C.”

“The next day, I was reading online that I was the ‘Nazi pastor,'” Meinhardt said.

Some residents have changed their minds about what should become of the bell.

“I used to think we could keep the bell and have a plaque and annual events,” said Heberer, the biologist. “But the victims and family of victims of the Nazis find this bell intolerable, and that’s enough for me.”

“The bell has to come down,” she said. “It’s our moral obligation.”

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