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June 23, 2017

Nazi Bells, Confederate Monuments: Historical Symbols and Remembrance

Last week, controversy rang out in the German village of Herxheim am Berg over whether to remove a bell bearing a swastika and the inscription “Everything for the Fatherland – Adolf Hitler.” The episode comes on the heels of debate in the United States over removing Confederate monuments in New Orleans.

Allowing such monuments to remain in place sanitizes history and casts a shadow on the present. Removing relics that glorify Nazism or the proponents of slavery helps us confront the darkest parts of our history and demonstrates that we are committed to equality, justice, and inclusion today.

Located in St. Jacob’s Church in the state of Rhineland-Palatinate, the Herxheim am Berg bell rings for Christmas, Easter, confirmation services, baptisms, weddings, and other occasions of note. Although the bell hangs behind a stone tower and is out of view, its Nazi inscription is widely known among local residents. After more than 80 years of living quietly with this pro-Nazi artifact, many locals are ready to see it go.

The bell belongs to the municipality, which means that local politicians will ultimately decide its fate.  Herxheim am Berg’s mayor opposes removing the bell or its inscription, citing cost concerns and the possibility of damaging the bell’s pitch. According to him, the bell will remain in its tower for the foreseeable future.

The Nazi-era commemorative bell is something of an outlier in Germany. An expert called it a “rarity,” saying she knew of no other bell with a swastika. Though vestiges of the Nazi era clearly exist, Germany has taken its responsibility to confront its history extremely seriously since World War II. This national effort has included the installation of memorials and the incorporation of Holocaust education in school curriculum.

In terms of grappling honestly with historical remembrance, Germany may provide an example for the United States, which still struggles with truthful confrontation of slavery in its history. Over a century and a half since the end of the Civil War, the need to remember—and what, exactly, we are remembering—remains deeply contested. Despite fierce resistance, New Orleans removed its final four Confederate monuments last month. But just days after city officials took the brave step of confronting dark parts of their past, lawmakers in Alabama passed an act protecting similar memorials.

Those opposed to removing Confederate monuments claim to protect history and heritage. The “history” that they protect, though, is one devoid of reference to the immense human suffering that defined America’s pre-abolition years. While promoting this incomplete version of history, Confederate monument-defenders glorify a system of governance fundamentally centered on the institution of slavery.

In his moving speech marking the removal of his city’s last monument, New Orleans Mayor Mitch Landrieu explained the need to remove Confederate memorials. The monuments, erected after the Civil War, were intended to “rebrand the history of our city and the ideals of a defeated Confederacy” and send a signal about who still held power. They “purposefully celebrate a fictional, sanitized Confederacy, ignoring the death, ignoring the enslavement, and the terror that it actually stood for.” Though removing the monuments would not “solve all our problems at once,” Landrieu said, it would move the community toward healing and send a hopeful message to the next generation.

Removing racist historical symbols and making space for new memorials to those who suffered under racist and oppressive regimes are the first steps toward healing and reconciliation. Germany has over 2000 memorial sites dedicated to the victims of the Nazi regime. In the United States, memorials to the victims of slavery, or its later reincarnations in lynching, share cropping, Jim Crow, and segregation, are sparse. This is why the work of groups like the Equal Justice Initiative to install markers about slavery, build a national memorial to victims of lynching, and call attention to contemporary racial injustice is important.

These historical markers can also serve as a catalyst for action today. Historical remembrance is of little value if we do not use it to learn from the mistakes of our past. We can show a commitment to learning from the past by confronting racism and bigotry.

Nazi ideology promoted a return to traditional “German” values, which excluded Jews and other groups. Today, conversation around German identity is deeply divided on the inclusion of refugees. Germany can honor the victims of the Holocaust by continuing its welcoming refugee policy and embracing newcomers.

In the United States, the legacy of slavery manifested itself in lynching that continued into the 1960s, and continues into the present through disproportionate mass incarceration and racial disparities in the justice system. The United States should honor its history by continuing to advance the fight for racial equality and justice.