Our Letter to the Editor of The Economist

A recent article printed in The Economist tells of the movement of bronze bells during World War II and ongoing efforts to correct 80-year-old wrongs through bell diplomacy. There is much to applaud in the article, particularly the resurgence of interest in bells of historical and cultural significance, as well as a desire to get more bells ringing in more places.

We couldn’t be more excited to see bells ringing communities to life across the globe. Giving bells purposeful use in a new setting is certainly to be commended over smelting bells for base metals. We felt, however, the article doesn't adequately consider the loss of German national heritage as bells increasingly flow out of the country.

In a follow-up letter to the editor, National Bell Festival director Paul Ashe cautioned that, if bells must travel to find use as German churches and bell towers shutter, then they should be sent with an understanding of provenance and all the guarantees afforded artifacts of equal age and significance. His words are reprinted below.

Cover image: A woman laments two fallen bells, likely from Trinity Church, uncovered during clearance work on the Thälmannplatz (Wilhelmplatz) in post-war Berlin, Germany, on August 16, 1950. Courtesy: German Federal Archives (Bundesarchiv).

Reprinted from The Economist

Published: October 20, 2022

Regarding your article on the global trade in church bells (“Going for a bong”, October 1st), although repurposing bells from scrap heaps should be celebrated, treating bells like commodities risks a more enduring loss. The staggering number of bells lost during the second world war speaks to the plundering of identity and soul that made the Nazi occupation so catastrophic.

Bells aren’t chunks of bronze waiting to be plucked like fruit from a tree for a more industrious purpose. They are the very heartbeat of towns and villages the world over. The exact tone, timbre and resonance of a single bell or chime cannot be replicated once lost. Bells are an intrinsic part of cultural heritage, an aural and artistic link to an exact moment in history.

In an age where Benin bronzes, Italian marbles and Cambodian sandstones are being repatriated, and rightfully so, it seems incongruous that bells should be shuffled around without considered pause. Where possible, bells should be rehoused in the communities they have served for centuries.

Volodymyr Zelensky enjoined the audience at this year’s Grammy Awards to fill the silence left by bombs with music. A silence lay on Germany after 1945. The bells that survived should remain to give witness to the indefatigable human spirit, regardless of whether church attendance may wax or wane.

National Bell Festival
Washington, D.C.