How Bell Ringers Defied the Nazis

It was August 1934 and Paul Ludwig Hans Anton von Beneckendorff und von Hindenburg was dead. A national hero, von Hindenburg had led the Imperial German Army through World War I, then became the second elected president of the German Weimar Republic – a post he held from 1925 until his death. To many, he represented the glory of Germany over her enemies. To others, he was an increasingly manipulated old man who paved the way for Adolf Hitler’s rise to power.

Hitler meets von Hindenburg in Potsdam

Image: Adolf Hitler (left) and Paul von Hindenburg at the Garrison Church in Potsdam, Germany, on March 21, 1933. Courtesy: German Federal Archives (Bundesarchiv).

While records suggest von Hindenburg disapproved of Hitler, he nevertheless appointed the despot as chancellor and facilitated the radical cultural changes Hitler proposed. As Hitler amassed more and more authority, disposing of his enemies and consolidating his influence, von Hindenburg and the presidency became the only check on his power. That ended when von Hindenburg died.

Not in my bell tower

Following von Hindenburg’s death, Hitler announced the abolishment of the office of the president and merged its powers with his own to become the absolute dictator of Germany. He worked to persuade the German public that it wouldn’t be appropriate to use the title of president again, out of respect for the late von Hindenburg. He lavished praise on the statesman, directed he be interred in a magnificent ceremony, and commanded the ringing of all church bells for three days following von Hindenburg’s death: August 2-4, 1934. Unsurprisingly, some bell ringers failed to comply.

Across the nation, but particularly in the southern state of Bavaria, bell towers remained silent. Documents prepared for the International Military Tribunal at Nuremberg following World War II recount the aggression that befell defiant bell ringers and recalcitrant clergy. The papers quote a Bavarian police report that detailed three such cases: 

“The Parish priest, Father Johann Quinger of Altenkunstadt, BA Lichtenfels. He was taken into protective custody on 3 August on the express order of the State Ministry of the Interior, because he assaulted SA leaders and SA men who were ringing the bells against his wishes. He was released from custody on 10 August 1934. 

“The Parish priest, Father Ludwig Obholzer of Kiefersfelden, BA Rosenheim. For his personal safety he was in police custody from 2400 hours on 2 August 1934, till 1000 hours on 3 August 1934. On 5 August 1934, he said sarcastically in his sermon, referring to the SA men who had carried out the ringing of the funeral knell on their own account, 'Lord forgive them, for they know not what they do!’ 

“The Parish priest, Father Johann Nepomuk Kleber of Wiefelsdorf, BA Burglengenfeld. Refused to ring the church bells on the 2nd and 3rd. He is badly tainted politically and had to be taken into protective custody from the 5th to the 8th of August 1934 in the interests of his own safety.”

It wouldn’t be the only time that bell ringers defied the Nazis. To feed the Reich war machine and keep their armies outfitted, the Nazis needed vast quantities of metals – and like plucking fruit from a tree, they turned to peaceable, defenseless bell towers to pillage their scrap. Between 1939 and 1945, over 175,000 bells were confiscated from towers throughout Europe, to be smelted for the enrichment of the German armament industry. 

Some communities attempted to hide their bells, often by burying them in surrounding grounds or on parishioners’ land. This, however, had to be completed before Nazis took a local inventory and in collusion with the presiding clergy. It was a grave risk that carried the punishment of imprisonment or forced labor. For many, bells were too important, too intrinsically linked to a sense of community, to acquiesce to the belligerence of Nazis. 

Cover image: A woman stands under the chimes of Stuttgart City Hall overlooking the Stiftskirche (Collegiate Church) in Stuttgart, Germany, circa 1934.