Nazis’ silence of the bells: Campus researcher speaks out

Since the early 1900s, the Campanile’s bells have been part of daily life on campus. Imagine if they were silenced, even stolen. On Feb. 25, a Campanile centennial lecture by Carla Shapreau will describe the Nazis’ World War II seizure of an estimated 175,000 bells from towers throughout Europe and its impact then and now. The lecture will be preceded by a special, 10-minute noon concert on Berkeley’s 61-bell grand carillon and followed by a tour of the bells.

Shapreau is on the faculty at Berkeley Law, teaching art and cultural property law, and a senior fellow at the Institute of European Studies, where she researches music-related losses during the Nazi era. Shapreau also is a violin maker. The NewsCenter recently chatted with Shapreau about this dark and remarkable chapter in the history of bells.

NewsCenter: Describe your research mission. Why it is important, and what is your goal?

Plundered bells on a dock in Germany, August 1945. (Photo courtesy of U.S. National Archives and Records Administration)

Carla Shapreau: As a result of the Nazi era, musical manuscripts, printed music, books, musical instruments and other musical objects were confiscated, stolen, lost, abandoned, sold under duress or otherwise displaced. Significant strides were made, and continue to be made, regarding fine arts losses, resulting in access to information, the return of objects and a meaningful understanding of this history, although challenges remain.

Progress in the field of music, which is the focus of my research, has developed more slowly. My efforts are directed at review and analysis of archival records and other information to better understand the nature, scope and gravity of these losses, and their impact on individuals, culture and society. This necessarily involves a focus on provenance – the history of ownership and possession, and its importance to contemporary transactions where transparency may be an issue. My research findings have been, and will continue to be, made publicly accessible online and through other publications.

How did you learn that bells were taken by the Nazis?

I first became aware of wartime bell losses while conducting research in the U.S. National Archives, and later in European archives. I initially focused on instruments of the violin family, but then discovered records of other musical losses that warranted analysis. I located bell maps and bell lists that a Canadian carillonneur had prepared in an effort to protect European bells during the war, which were utilized by the U.S. military. I also found records detailing postwar discoveries of plundered bells, postwar claims for missing bells and records reflecting the tremendous effort by the Allies to return the bells that survived.

Carla Shapreau at a 2014 Cal Performances Vienna Philharmonic Symposium. (UC Berkeley photo)

Carla Shapreau at a 2014 Cal Performances Vienna Philharmonic Symposium. (UC Berkeley photo)

Why did the Nazis target Europe’s bells?

The Nazis confiscated bells for their copper and tin, utilized by the German armament industry. Their motivation varied from the aesthetic and economic reasons that fine art and other cultural materials were looted. Bells generally were graded “A” through “D,” based on their historical and cultural value. Classifications varied by nation. In Belgium, for example, “A” bells were cast between 1850 and the present, “B” bells from 1790-1850, “C” bells from 1700-1790 and “D” bells before 1740. The

1907 Hague Convention, a treaty that addressed wartime conduct, was invoked by the Belgians to avert bell seizures, but ignored by the Nazis.

Generally, one small bell would be left in a bell tower to ring in emergencies. Bells typically were marked with identifying information. The Dutch marked their most valuable bells with the letter “M” and posted signs in their bell towers in Dutch,French, English and German declaring their bells’ monument status. Of the approximately 9,000 bells in the Netherlands before the war, an estimated 6,500 were seized, with approximately 1,840 returned after the war.

The Third Reich shipped the bells to several German refineries; two of the largest were in the Hamburg area. The newer bells were the first to the smelter. Wartime bell losses were tallied after the war for Austria, Belgium, Czechoslovakia, France, Germany, Hungary, Italy, the Netherlands, Poland, the USSR and Yugoslavia. Luxembourg, Denmark, Norway and much of France evaded bell confiscations.

What impact did the bells’ disappearance have on European towns and cities?

Bells can be heard throughout a community, just as our UC Berkeley carillon is heard on campus and in surrounding neighborhoods, including mine. They have marked the passage of time and sounded both the call to worship and the call to arms. Bells also have signaled emergencies and celebrations. Their wartime loss dramatically impacted the European soundscape. The threat to cultural heritage was implicated because culturally significant bells created during the peak of the art of bellfounding in the 17th century were at risk, and in some instances destroyed.

Postwar estimates indicated that approximately 175,000 bells were taken from bell towers in Europe, with about 150,000 destroyed during the war. These figures do not include statistics on damage from Allied air raids or Eastern European data, which are incomplete.

What attempts were made during the war to protect cultural objects and monuments?

During World War II, art historians, museum curators and others brought concerns about preservation in Europe to President Roosevelt’s attention. On Aug. 20, 1943, Roosevelt established the American Commission for the Protection and Salvage of Artistic and Historical Monuments in War Areas. The War Department’s Civil Affairs Division established the Monuments, Fine Arts, and Archives Division, whose members were known as the “Monuments Men” and engaged in significant wartime protection efforts, including the mapping of European cultural objects, including bells. After the war, tremendous postwar protection and recovery achievements were made, but today, many unanswered questions remain, including the whereabouts of still-missing cultural objects.

What happened at the end of the war to the bells that survived?

tower bells

Berkeley’s bells rang for two continuous hours at the end of WWII. (UC Berkeley photo)

Whole and broken bells, located in various Allied Zones of Occupation, generally were returned to their presumed country of origin for return to their owners. The discovery by the Allies of thousands of looted bells on the dock in Hamburg, Germany, represented the largest collection of bells on the ground in one place. This situation provided an unparalleled opportunity for scholars to document and acoustically test the bells, and their analysis contributed to a renaissance in bellfounding as European reconstruction took place.

What work remains to return pillaged works of art, including music and instruments?

This subject receives a great deal of ongoing attention internationally by art historians, museum curators, auction houses and dealers, and other experts. Much has been achieved, but much more needs to be accomplished. Access to archival records that relate to this era, and public dissemination of information, is essential for historical reconstruction. In some instances, this may lead to information that is relevant to the possible return of an object. In other cases, this may not be possible, but filling a gap in our historical knowledge increases historical accuracy, and with it a sense of justice.

You’ve engaged Berkeley students in the topic of World War II and the significant impact that the looting had on culture. What kinds of projects are they doing?

Through UC’s Undergraduate Research Apprentice Program, which pairs faculty with students on research projects, many students have had the opportunity to study, investigate and translate primary source material that I have obtained in various foreign archives. Through this evidence-based process, students learn about cultural losses during the World War II era and contribute directly to the growth of knowledge in this field.

It’s the Campanile’s 100th anniversary. What can the campus community learn from the story of the pillage of Europe’s bells?

Listening to UC Berkeley’s carillon played by our fabulous university carillonist Jeff Davis and his team is a great pleasure. In learning the history of the carillon and other bells in Europe, including tragic losses during World War II and postwar reconstruction, we can, perhaps, have a deeper and richer appreciation of our own carillon during this centennial celebration.

NOTE: University Carillonist Jeff Davis has composed a special piece of music that he will include in the Wednesday noon concert at the Campanile. It is called “Tocsin,” which is another word for “alarm,”  and was written in memory of Europe’s lost bells. Said Davis, “I imagined the bells themselves sounding the tocsin to warn each other.”