Authorities weigh criminal charges on German churches with Nazi bells

Prosecutors in the central German state of Thuringia are deliberating on whether to bring charges against several churches in the region that continue to use bells inscribed with Nazi insignia.

Authorities weigh criminal charges on German churches with Nazi bells
A Nazi-era bell hangs in the bell-tower at a church in Herxheim am Berg. Photo: DPA

The bells, which were installed in the lead up to and during the outbreak of the Second World War, feature a number of reminders of the Nazi regime including swastikas and Third Reich slogans.

The unidentified concerned resident who brought the criminal complaint alleged that attempts had been made to contact the churches directly for some time to have the bells removed, but had been ignored. 

Erfurt’s Mittledeutscher Rundfunk reported that a criminal complaint was brought on Tuesday against Ilse Junkermann, the state bishop of the Evangelical Church in the region. 

The complaint alleges the existence of six bells across five churches in the state of Thuringia bear Nazi insignia. Although the bells are not accessible to the public, they remain in continuous use. 

READ MORE: Artist on Germany's Stolpersteine: “They are needed now more than ever”

While there are no publicly available photos of the bells, media reports suggest that they contain a number of engraved inscriptions illustrating ties to the Nazi party.

Thüringen 24 reported on Wednesday that the bells are embossed with the inscription “Cast in the second year of national elevation (nationalen Erhebung) under the Führer and Chancellor Adolf Hitler” which is placed next to a swastika. 

Regardless of whether or not the criminal charges go ahead, authorities have announced a plan to hold a series of talks in April regarding the existence of the bells and whether or not they should have the insignia removed or be replaced completely.

Representatives of the Jewish community in the region have been invited to attend the talks. 

Nazi symbols including the swastika are banned across Germany. Under Criminal Code (Strafgesetzbuch) 86a, “symbols of unconstitutional organizations” – which include Nazi symbols – are banned unless they are used in an educational, scientific or research context. 

While the continued use of the bells may be in contradiction of the constitution, their removal may also pose problems for adherence to laws safeguarding the preservation of historical monuments. 

23 'Nazi bells' remain in use in Germany

Der Spiegel estimated that 23 bells with Nazi insignia remain in use in churches across Germany. In addition to Nazi insignia, the bells have been embossed with slogans indicative of the time.

A bell in Mehlingen, near Kaiserslautern, from 1933 is inscribed with “Born in the Third Reich” while another in Baden-Württemberg says it was “Cast in the year of greater German unification” referring to Germany’s annexation of Austria. 

Last year, several German news outlets reported on the so-called “Hitler-bell” in the village of Herxheim am Berg in Rhineland-Palatinate. The bell, which shows Nazi insignia and contains the phrase “Everything for the Fatherland – Adolf Hitler”, is over 80 years old and remains in regular use. 

SEE ALSO: Church's 'Hitler bell' strikes duff note in tiny German town

In a vote of ten to three, the councillors decided to keep the bell, arguing that it would serve as a force for reconciliation and as a reminder of the injustices of the Second World War. 

Herxheim mayor Georg Welker told the media that it was better that the bell remained in the church – where it was not accessible to the public – rather than “hanging in a museum where someone could stand in front of the bell and take a selfie”. 


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Austria: Newly discovered letters from Hitler’s father reveal dictator’s ‘genius complex’

Letters found stashed in an Austrian attic sent by the father of Adolf Hitler have shed light on the tyrant's upbringing.

Austria: Newly discovered letters from Hitler's father reveal dictator's 'genius complex'
Photo: Alex Halada/AFP

When he was first contacted by a woman claiming to have discovered letters written by Adolf Hitler’s father, Roman Sandgruber was understandably wary.

“Given all the forgeries and self-proclaimed ‘eyewitnesses’ who’ve come forward in the past, you think: ‘There can’t be much to it’,” the Austrian historian says.

“But then when I went down there and actually had a look at them, I realised straight away: ‘This is a sensation’.”

The original seals, the vintage postmarks, the authentic signature — left him with little doubt the letters were genuine.

Before the accidental discovery, sources about Hitler’s father Alois had been so scarce that, to Sandgruber’s knowledge, no biography of him has ever been published.

Along with other new sources, these 31 letters have helped Sandgruber write the first such volume — “Hitler’s Father: How The Son Became A Dictator” — and bring new insights into the milieu the Nazi tyrant grew up in.

The letters were written by Alois Hitler to a road maintenance official called Josef Radlegger, concerning the latter’s sale of a farmhouse in the village of Hafeld to Alois in 1895, when Adolf was six years old.

“They aren’t just letters about business, there’s a very familiar atmosphere between the two correspondents and there’s a lot of family gossip,” Sandgruber tells AFP in the University of Linz’s history library, while carefully removing the letters from the bundle they were kept in for decades.

Though Alois was known to be a “very tyrannical head of the family”, Sandgruber says the letters also offer an occasional glimpse at congeniality in his home life.

To Alois, his wife Klara was more than the “silent housewife” later described by Adolf in Mein Kampf.

One of the few people Alois had anything positive to say about, Sandgruber believes her to have been “a thoroughly emancipated woman, as we would put it today”.

“One can assume that she certainly had a say in the household,” Sandgruber notes, and particularly when it came to money matters.

“My wife… has the necessary enthusiasm and understanding for finances,” Alois writes in one of the letters.

Moreover, the letters are testament to Alois’s rise through Austrian society and his dream of becoming a country gentleman with his own farm. 

‘Genius’ complex 

The new treasure trove of documents may never have seen the light of day had pensioner Anneliese Smigielski not decided to clear-out and insulate her attic a few years ago.

She had always known that her great-great-grandfather Radlegger had sold property to Alois Hitler, and wasn’t particularly surprised to find the letters among more than 500 others, all meticulously kept in boxes.

But after a few attempts to follow Alois’s irritable messages — “he seemed to get annoyed about everything” — Smigielski found the sloping Kurrent script too hard to decode and thought it needed the attention of an expert.

Smigielski knew of Sandgruber’s previous work on the history of Upper Austria and got in touch with him in 2017, thinking he would be able to make some use of them.

While Alois is known to have made anti-Semitic statements when he himself dabbled in politics later in life, Sandgruber is wary of making too many direct connections between the father’s politics and those of his son.

He says the important influence on Adolf was the racist and anti-Semitic currents of thought which were present more generally in the Austria of his childhood.

However, Sandgruber says the one trait which undoubtedly united the two of them was “the very strong influence of being self-taught”.

“The result of that is as with the father, the son despised all those who had been through a regular school career — academics, notaries, judges, and later even military officers,” he says.

“He thinks that he alone is the genius,” Sandgruber adds.

He has been taken aback by the international attention his book from an Austrian publisher has received, garnering press coverage as far afield as Peru and China.

Smigielski herself also confesses to being a little overwhelmed by the press attention which has followed her attic discovery, saying it feels like “being a hare in the middle of the hunt”.

“But it will die down,” she says hopefully.

Perhaps not anytime soon though, such is the interest in the book that it entered its second print run just one week after publication on February 22.