HERXHEIM AM BERG, Germany — After she discovered there was a swastika on the church bell, Sigrid Peters refused to proceed taking part in the organ throughout companies.
Shielded from public view, excessive up a rickety picket staircase contained in the yellow church tower, the bell continues to be suspended the place it was first hung in 1934 by an enthusiastic Nazi mayor in Herxheim am Berg, a hilltop village of 750 individuals in Germany’s southwestern wine nation.
It’s smaller than the 2 different bells flanking it and is roofed in pigeon droppings. However the swastika is clearly discernible and so is the inscription: “Every part for the Fatherland — Adolf Hitler.”
“Folks have been getting married below the swastika they usually didn’t even comprehend it,” Ms. Peters stated.
When Ms. Peters, a retired music instructor, first spoke up final yr, the “Hitler bell” turned nationwide information. Jewish organizations demanded it’s taken down. The native church council banned it from ringing and the regional church physique even provided to pay for a substitute.
Some two dozen different cities in Germany, which subsequently checked and found swastikas on their very own church bells, swiftly removed them.
In a single case in northern Germany, the place the authorities prevaricated, native residents took issues into their very own arms, broke into the church tower and eliminated the swastika with an angle grinder. A observe was nailed to the church door: “Spring clear 2018,” it read.
In Herxheim, the questions raised by the bell have split this otherwise sleepy village, which overlooks a vine-covered plain. Ms. 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.
Mr. 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,” Mr. 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.”
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.
When the bell first became an issue, Mr. 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,” Mr. 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.”
Mr. 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.
Mr. Welker, who used to teach at the same school as Ms. 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,” Mr. Welker said, “by saying that his dad was not treating Jewish shopkeepers as badly as others. I find that disgusting.”
The Peters point to Mr. Welker’s grandfather, who was a senior military commander under the Nazis.
“No one is responsible for their grandparents, of course,” Ms. 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, Mr. 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,” Mr. 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 Ms. Peters, some have known about it for years. As village pastor in the 1980s and ’90s, Mr. 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.
Mr. 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.
“A lot of taboos have been broken,” Mr. 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, Ms. 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?
Mr. 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 Ms. Peters says she hears “the voice of Adolf Hitler” when the bell rings.
Mr. 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,’” Mr. 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 Ms. 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.”
Follow Katrin Bennhold on Twitter: @kbennhold
Christopher F. Schuetze contributed reporting from Berlin.