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Should Germany keep its Nazi relics?

David Crossland
August 9, 2017

Over 70 years after Hitler's death, relics from his rule are still being discovered in churches and public buildings across Germany. Should they be demolished or preserved for posterity as eye witnesses dwindle?

Church bell with swastika in Herxheim
Image: picture-alliance /dpa/U. Anspach

When Sigrid Peters, the organist in a 1,000-year-old village church in southwestern Germany, heard that one of the church bells had a swastika and a Nazi inscription on it, she was appalled.

"You can't have a baby being christened and a bell with the writing 'Everything for the Fatherland' ringing out to mark the occasion," the retired music teacher said.

Brides and grooms from Herxheim, a picturesque winemaking village, have been getting married to the chimes of the bell, installed in the tower in 1934, for decades. "None of them knew about this," she complained.

They do now. The controversy over what to do with the Herxheim "Nazi bell" has made national and international headlines in recent months.

The church's pastor, Helmut Meinhardt, can't understand what the fuss is about. "As far as I'm concerned it's denazified in the sense that it's no longer associated with any reverence."

Read more: Former Nazi college reopens as museum

'Why change it if it works?'

Mayor Ronald Becker agrees and wants to keep the bell. "If something works well, why should you change it?" he said. Scraping off the inscription would lessen its acoustic quality, he argued. It was a historic bell, and the village should own up to its history.

The Herxheim church is not the only instance of Nazi-era references intentionally being kept. A church in the Bavarian town of Hof, inaugurated in 1939, has a painting that depicts Jesus next to a figure that bears a striking resemblance to Hitler with black boots under his robe. The church has decided to leave it there.

Hitler's birth house in Braunau
Hitler's birth house in Austra was seized by the government, but it's future remains uncertainImage: picture alliance/dpa/M. Röder

Austria, meanwhile, is divided over what to do with Hitler's birth house in Braunau. The parliament last year passed a law entitling the government to seize the building from its owner and it may now be used by a charity. The interior minister's call for it to be demolished triggered angry opposition from other politicians and historians.

Similar debates continue to flare up in towns and villages across Germany. Hitler's legacy remains surprisingly ubiquitous in churches, public buildings, streets and military barracks.

No more 'Wernher von Braun' schools

German Defense Minister Ursula von der Leyen just this year ordered that the small number of military barracks that still bear the names of officers from the Second World War, including Field Marshal Erwin Rommel, be renamed to make crystal clear that the Bundeswehr "is not rooted in the tradition of the Wehrmacht," the Nazi military.

Sign for Rommelkaserne barracks in Dornstadt
Germany wants to rename the barracks named for Nazi Field Marshal Erwin RommelImage: picture-alliance/dpa/S. Puchner

Controversies also rage over schools and streets named after Nazis. In 2014, the last "Wernher von Braun" school, named after the father of the V2 missile used by Nazi Germany, ditched the name.

Read more: How much Hitler is there in Wagner?

In the northern village of Tümlauer-Koog, the mayor was forced in 2011 to remove a bell that had been dedicated to Nazi Hermann Göring and was adorned with swastikas.

The bell, installed in a tower in 1935 to mark land on the North Sea reclaimed by the Nazis, was placed on a plinth next to a war memorial in 2008. The local council put up an awkwardly worded plaque next to it that made no mention of the Holocaust and praised the land reclamation program.

A tourist complained about the bell to the government of the state of Schleswig-Holstein, and the regional governor, Peter Harry Carstensen, responded swiftly, ordering its removal.

Nazi propaganda officially banned

It's a common dilemma even though Nazi symbols were banned in Germany when the post-war Allied denazification program ordered their removal. Footage of the gigantic swastika being blasted by the Allies off the main grandstand of the Nazi party rally ground in Nuremberg in 1945 symbolized the effort.

To help eradicate Hitler's legacy from the minds of the nation, all physical traces were to be wiped out. Hitler's mountain retreat near Berchtesgaden, the Berghof, was also blown up by the Allies, and his Reich Chancellery in Berlin was razed.

Bunkers were ordered to be dismantled, but there were so many of them, and they were built so strongly, that thousands remained intact, as did some significant Nazi sites that now house important exhibitions, such as the Nuremberg ground, Vogelsang college in the Eifel hills and Wewelsburg Castle.

While current German law continues to ban swastikas, it stipulates that they are forbidden when used in the context of Nazi propaganda, which leaves a grey area for historical artifacts. The law also concedes that minor infractions may go unpunished.

Read more: Chinese tourists detained over Nazi salute in Berlin

'Warning for future generations'

While some symbols of the era may have been kept as a quiet show of defiance by die-hard Nazis in the post-war period, others have survived not only by intent, but also because they were unnoticed, forgotten or too cumbersome to remove.

Eric Hass, 46, a local historian in Herxheim who gives guided tours of the village, thinks Nazi symbols should be preserved, as long as they aren't used to glorify the Hitler area, so that they can serve as warnings for future generations.

"We mustn't sweep our dark past under the carpet and suppress it. That would be the easiest way, but in my option the wrong way. Unfortunately many young people don't know much about the Nazi era in our villages," he told DW.

"Historical artifacts such as the so-called Herxheim 'Hitler bell,' or other Nazi relics can help to explain what the dark Nazi era was like. This is much easier to understand and more memorable than dry literature."

Hass said most villagers in Herxheim were in favor of keeping the bell, which chimes together with two others installed in 1951. He has called for the erection of an information panel explaining its history.

Johannes Tuchel, director of the German Resistance Memorial Center in Berlin, is skeptical about the value of Nazi relics for explaining how large parts of the German church succumbed to Nazi ideology.

"In my view, these relics aren't important. It's nothing new that there were adjustment processes in the church under National Socialism. You don't need this stuff to illustrate it," he said.

Read more: Unearthing the mysteries of the 'battle that created Germany'

Surprising ignorance among young people

But many younger Germans are ignorant of that chapter of their country's history, even though it is taught in schools and extensively covered in TV documentaries, films and the media, said Wieland Giebel, a publisher who devised a new permanent exhibition on Hitler that opened in the Berlin Story bunker this year.

Giebel said that, judging from the questions asked during tours, he was surprised at how uninformed many of the visitors were about the Nazi era, especially pupils in their teens. With eyewitnesses dying out, stone witnesses could help to convey the era to new generations, he said.

Chandelier in the form of an iron cross in entrance hall to Nazi-era Martin Luther Memorial Church in Berlin
A chandelier in the form of an iron cross hangs at the entrance to Berlin's Nazi-era Martin Luther Memorial ChurchImage: DW/D. Crossland

"Our experience shows that a large part of the population doesn't know that much about this history and has to be reminded about it time and again," he said. "These Nazi relics are like family history. If you try to keep this dark chapter hidden it can lead to bad things happening again."

Giebel and his fellow guides have been asked erroneous questions including how Hitler got to Argentina during the war, who drove the Nazis into the bunkers to gas them there, why the Jews financed Hitler, why the Reichstag was built so close to the Berlin Wall, and how Berlin's TV tower escaped destruction in the war.

"Having an information panel explaining the Herxheim bell makes more sense than keeping it secret," said Giebel.

An estimated 1,000 churches were refurbished or newly built after Hitler seized power in 1933, and the alterations reflected the force with which the country, including many of its clergy, embraced the ideology. Even Cologne's famous twin-towered cathedral contains some stones with swastikas engraved in them.

Berlin's 'Nazi church'

One church in Berlin is so replete with Nazi symbols that church authorities have agonized for years about what to do with it.

The Martin Luther Memorial Church, built between 1933 and 1935, has a Wehrmacht soldier carved on the wooden pulpit, a Nazi storm trooper on the baptismal font, and helmeted soldiers and eagles clutching wreaths on a massive stone arch above the altar.

Only the swastikas were removed, but the cold, defiant oppressiveness remains in the church, which is still occasionally used for religious services. Intriguingly, it was used for decades after the war without the parish being bothered about the symbols. 

"It never really played a role and as far as I know was never broached in any way by the church authority," Karl-Heinz Labitzke, who was confirmed in the church in 1953 and who still takes part in services, told German broadcaster Deutschlandfunk. "It was the parish church we congregated in."

The church only began attracting media attention a decade ago when the tower had to be repaired, triggering a debate over whether it should be saved in the first place.

'You can't offload your history'

"Nazi relics have to be treated with care like all forms of historical testimony. Unfortunately that doesn’t always happen in churches and local communities," said Manfred Gailus, a history professor at the Berlin Technical University's Center for Research on Anti-Semitism.

Carving of a Nazi Wehrmacht soldier is seen next to Jesus on the pulpit of Berlin's Martin Luther Memorial Church
This carving of a Nazi Wehrmacht soldier is seen next to Jesus on the pulpit of Berlin's Martin Luther Memorial Church Image: DW/D. Crossland

"Such relics should be preserved and presented in a way that meets today's requirements by adding information panels to explain them and by making their historical context clear. In serious cases such as in Berlin, the church should probably not be used for religious ceremonies any more."

Now, the parish and church authority have come up with a plan to redesign the interior of the church. 

"I couldn't celebrate a service there in its current state," said Marion Gardei, a pastor who is commissioner for remembrance culture of the Evangelical Church of Berlin-Brandenburg-Silesian Upper Lusatia.

"We want to preserve it because we believe that you can't offload your history by tearing things down; that would be completely wrong," said Gardei. 

Under the plan, a transparent room will be built inside the cavernous nave. It is to be made of glass or a transparent fabric that shields worshippers from the stormtroopers but doesn't hide the building's history from view. 

"The concept envisages a mixed use of the church. We want to have religious services there but also to use it as a location for events and exhibitions on themes such as the role of the church in the Nazi era," said Gardei. 

"For young people especially, history is palpable here; you get more of a sense of it than through books. Maybe these locations can't replace eyewitnesses, but they are a type of witness, too."