That time Hitler stole the Liberty Bell

Cablegram: May 6, 1940, 

To: Herr Hitler, Berlin

“Only accurate replica of the Liberty Bell in Independence Hall, Philadelphia, was donated to Czechoslovakia by Americans when that country became a republic.

We understand all bronze articles are being melted down and since we have use for this valuable bell we offer $3,000 if delivered at New York in good condition for use in the World’s Fair.”

Signed: Richard P. Brown, State Secretary of Commerce, Pennsylvania, USA


How did a Liberty Bell fall into the hands of the Nazis? And why seven months before America entered the Second World War, is a government official attempting to negotiate with Hitler?

This story starts twenty-two years earlier, just as the first World War is drawing to a close.

A new Declaration

October 26, 1918 | Independence Hall, Philadelphia: thick brown sycamore leaves crunch beneath the feet of men, women and children gathering on this brisk, overcast fall morning. Sixteen days from now Germany will sign the armistice to officially bring the Great War to an end, but the process of instilling world peace and implementing Woodrow Wilson’s plan for self-determination has already started here in the cradle of American liberty.

The city is at the same time celebrating the hard-won world peace and panicking over the worldwide influenza epidemic that has crippled the city.

Carrying an extremely virulent strain of the flu, returning service members are welcomed in the streets by large crowds, providing the perfect conditions for the virus to spread rapidly. The problem is exacerbated as local hospitals are dangerously under-staffed, their nurses and doctors still treating the wounded in France.

One-third of the city’s 1.6 million residents will become infected, 12,000 Philadelphians will die and 50-100 million worldwide will perish.

12 men filter into Independence Hall and climb the stairs to be seated around a large table in Council Chambers. They are delegates of the aspirationally-named Democratic Mid-European Union, a loose affiliation representing some of the world’s most oppressed peoples. Many more are gathered outside the building, awaiting their fate. Across the Atlantic, some 65 million Slavs, Greeks, Poles, Jews and Italians, represented by the 12 delegates in Philadelphia, are hoping the promise of the newly-won world peace will deliver liberty from their oppressors and opportunity for a better life.

Seated in John Hancock’s straight-backed colonial chair is Dr. Tomáš G. Masaryk of the newly formed Czechoslovakian Republic. Also present on this day is Gregory Zatkovich, an American citizen, and spokesman for the American National Council of Uhro-Rusyns, seeking autonomy for his homeland of Carpathian Ruthenia, a rural mountainous region between Central and Eastern Europe and bordered by Poland, Romania and Hungary.

If not for the 20th-century attire, moving picture cameras and two Bohemian guards standing watch on either side of Masaryk, this could be 1776. The delegates are gathered here to declare their independence; independence from the HohenzollernHapsburgs and Turks; independence for some of the world’s oldest nations; independence for nations whose borders have yet to be determined.

Among the local dignitaries gathered here today is department store magnate and marketing genius John Wannamaker. As the clock approaches noon, Wannamaker reaches into his breast pocket, pulls out the ceremonial signing pen and hands it to Masaryk. At this moment, the sun breaks free of the clouds, filling the room with light. Wannamaker then unfurls an Americal flag, which he presents to the signers.

Masaryk Independence Hall2Supporters of Mid-European independence gather at Independence Hall

Self-determination, American style

While the spirit of self-determination was to encourage the establishment of any type of nation and government the people choose, so long as the people choose it, the proceedings this day have a decidedly American flavor.

As a symbol of American support for their self-determination, and a lasting reminder of the historic significance of this day, the people of the Mid-European Union are given a full size, functional Liberty Bell, minus the crack. Raised letters on the side of the bell read in English, a language foreign to all the delegates, “Proclaim LIBERTY Throughout all the Land unto all the Inhabitants Thereof”

Cast in 1918 by the Meneely Bell Foundry in West Troy, New York, the bell might have been the nearest proximity to the real thing, which sits silently just inside Independence Hall, but it was not the first or only Liberty Bell replica. Meneely cast the Justice Bell, also known as the Women’s Liberty Bell, in 1915. The foundry had also produced two supersized replicas; the Centennial Bell in 1876, and the Columbian Bell in 1893 — both tipping the scales at an impressively symbolic 13,000 pounds.

Outside Independence Hall on this day of Mid-European independence, the brand new bell is christened by children representing the oppressed peoples. While the bell would have an incredible journey, the rope used to toll it did not travel far. It can be seen in the library of Dartmouth College in New Hampshire.

The bell would travel to the nation’s capital, then to the American Uhro-Rusin national congress near Pittsburgh before crossing the United States. Next, the bell was shipped to Europe, ultimately arriving in the city of Uzhorod in Carpathian Ruthenia.

Children representing the Mid-European Union ring their new Liberty Bell

A tale of two leaders

Masaryk and Zatkovich, two of the 12 signers of the Mid-European Declaration of Independence, would follow separate paths as leaders of their people, but both would play a part in the fate of their shared Liberty Bell. 

Less than a month after the ceremony in Philadelphia, Masaryk was elected the first president of the new Czechoslovak Republic. By December he was ruling his nation from Prague Castle. Masaryk served for 17 years before resigning in 1935 at the age of 85. He died two years later. In 1997 he mysteriously appeared on the cover of the alternative metal band Faith No More’s Album of the Year

The George Washington of Carpathian Ruthenia

While the new Czechoslovakian Republic would have a long history — first as a self-determined nation, next as part of the USSR, then as two self-determined nations, the Chech Republic and Slovakia — there is a reason most have never heard of Carpathian Ruthenia.

While the ultimate goal of Gregory Zatkovich and his people was to become their own nation after 1,000 years of foreign rule, he was willing to settle for autonomy as part of another nation. And so Carpathian Ruthenia came to be included as a state within Masaryk’s Czechoslovakia.

Zatkovich was elected governor but was hesitant to move to his new state for fear of losing U.S. citizenship. Woodrow Wilson and the state department assured the new governor his citizenship would not be in jeopardy.

Upon his arrival in the state capital of Uzhorod, Communists threatened to assassinate him. Zatkovich snuck in, in one of his nation’s two automobiles, disguised as the chauffeur. His family followed in the nation’s other car. 

As leader of his newly autonomous homeland, Zatkovich ruled from Zatkovich square, had his likeness carved in stone and painted in oil and proudly brought the Mid-European Liberty Bell to Uzhorod. He resigned less than a year into his tenure over a border dispute with the state of Slovakia and returned to his law practice in Pittsburgh. There he continued to appoint knights, advocate for his people, and could often be heard at the piano playing the national anthem of Carpathian Ruthenia, which he wrote.

Zatkovich holds the unique distinctions of having been the first person to head a foreign state while holding American citizenship and the only American to govern a region that later became part of the USSR. 

Carpathian Ruthenia would get another shot at nationhood in 1991 when the Soviet Union collapsed. While 78% of residents voted for autonomy, self-determination eluded them once again, and the state was made part of independent Ukraine.

A break in the case

While it wasn’t a return cablegram from Hitler, Brown did get some leads on his missing Liberty Bell. On May 9 — three days after he publicly made his offer — it was revealed the Liberty Bell replica was not quite within the Führer’s grasp.

The clue came from Gregory Zatkovich. The former governor claimed the bell was still in Uzhorod, which was now under Hungarian control. When Germany invaded Czechoslovakia, Hungary wasted no time and swiftly reclaimed Carpathian Ruthenia.

Not so fast … 

A week later, Zatkovich’s claim was refuted by former New York Times correspondent Edward T. Heyn. Heyn detailed how in 1928, with the support of president Masaryk, he brought the bell from Uzhorod to Prague, where it was placed on display in Prague Castle. There is was seen by thousands of visitors, especially Americans. 

Heyn had a credible source. Emanuel Voska, who was both a founding father of Czechoslovakia and a U.S. Army Captain, fled Prague for America just as the Germans invaded his homeland. He assured Heyn the bell was still in Prague when he left.

Evil at the castle gates

On March 15, 1939, Germany invaded Czechoslovakia with relatively little opposition. From Prague Castle Hitler declared the Czechoslovakian regions of Bohemia and Moravia were now the Protectorate of Bohemia and Moravia, a semi-autonomous part of the Third Reich. The Führer would spend one night at the castle before turning it, and control of the region, over to Reinhard Heydrich. Called “the man with the iron heart” — by Hitler — the brutal Heydrich was the chief architect of the Holocaust and sought to crush opposition by suppressing Czech culture and executing members of the resistance. In 1942 Heydrich became the highest-ranking Nazi to be assassinated by resistance forces anywhere in Europe.

Bundesarchiv Bild 183-2004-1202-505, Prag, Burg, Besuch Adolf HitlerHitler at Prague Castle, March 15, 1939

Other affairs

Just as Heyn made his claim, the state of Pennsylvania officially abandoned their effort to buy the Liberty Bell from the Nazis. “Mr. Hitler is too busy with other affairs,” said Brown.

Pennsylvania and the rest of the country would be busy with other affairs for the next five years. The Mid-European Union Liberty Bell had little chance of surviving the war. During World War II the Germans melted down 150,000 bells, cast between the twelfth and twentieth centuries. 14,000 of those were taken from Checkoslovakian locations. As bells are easy to find and hard to hide, few were spared.

As the depths of Nazi atrocities came to full light, Hitler stealing the Liberty Bell became a trivial footnote, and the plight of the missing bell was largely forgotten.

A bell named Václav

1985, Czechoslovakia, USSR | At the church of Saint Anthony of Padua in Prague, a mysterious bell the clergy have named Václav finally gets its chance to ring out.

Without explanation, the Soviet state has just granted the church permission to raise the bell to one of its two bell towers.

The bell was sent there by the state in the mid-1950s to replace one of the two bells that were pillaged during the war. However, the church was not permitted to call the bell into action, so it sat silently in the church hall for nearly 30 years.

As Václav swings into action and is about to peal out for the first time in decades, the inscription on its side catches the light of the sun. 

“Proclaim LIBERTY Throughout all the Land unto all the Inhabitants Thereof”

The Soviet empire would soon crumble, and Václav’s true identity would come to light.

So did Hitler really steal the Liberty Bell?

In the broader sense that Hitler took Prague and the Liberty Bell was in Prague at the time, then yes, Hitler absolutely stole the Liberty Bell. Did the Nazis know they had stolen the Liberty Bell? Not likely.

It’s doubtful they knew anything about the bell — until a cablegram arrived from Pennsylvania, that is. Though it’s hard to know what, if any, effect Richard Brown’s stunt had on the fate of the Liberty Bell replica. 

Did Hitler read the cablegram and send a squad out find the bell? Surely the propaganda value of melting down the Liberty Bell was worth more than $3,000. Did a ragtag group of resistance members sneak a one-ton bell from one hiding place to another, staying just one step ahead of the enemy? As much as I’d love to write that story, I don’t think it happened that way.

Had the bell been sitting on display at Prague Castle when the Nazis rolled in, it certainly would have been melted down and turned into arms, as so many bells were. 

As it was not melted down and there is no evidence of the Nazis knowingly possessing the bell, the most plausible scenario is that it was placed in storage sometime before the German invasion.

Based on my research and my best-guess analysis of sometimes-conflicting accounts, this is the likely provenance of the Mid-European Liberty Bell

1918: Meneely casts the bell. After the Independence Hall ceremony, it tours the country and is shipped to Europe. The cost is $2,000. It’s unclear who paid for it.

1919: The bell arrives in Europe.

1921: The bell is brought to Uzhorod, Carpathian Ruthenia by Gregory Zatkovich.

1928: By Edward Heyn’s account, he discovered the bell in Uzhorod, lost and dust-covered. He then brought it to Prague where it was placed on display in the hall of estates at Prague Castle. It’s unclear how long the bell was on display. Heyn left Prague in 1934, and while he does not say explicitly, it can be inferred that the bell was still on display when he left Prague. Other accounts claim the bell was stored in a warehouse between 1920 and the mid-1950s.

Sometime in the ’50s, The Czechoslovakian Monument Preservation Institute discovered the bell in a warehouse, determined its tone, and sent it to the church of Saint Anthony of Padua in Prague to replace one of their two bells stolen by the Nazis. 

1985: the state administration allowed the bell to be hung. Václav, as it’s now known, can be regularly heard ringing out in the streets of Prague, but is rarely seen by visitors. Along with the Annecy Liberty Bell, it is one of only a few replicas to be regularly used as a bell.

The luck of Liberty

I think the bell was ultimately saved, not because it was revered, but because it was neglected. Like other Liberty Bell replicas, the Mid-European Union bell was cast with no permanent location secured. Once it arrived in Uzhorod, the other Declaration singers likely paid it little mind. 

I think it was revered in Carpathian Ruthenia during Zatkivich’s brief tenure and then mothballed. 

Likewise, I think it was admired upon its arrival in Prague for some period of time, then stored away. It’s reasonable to think the castle would rotate displays. A 1,000-year-old castle has a lot of history, after all.

Liberty works in mysterious ways, and while the story of the Mid-European Union Liberty Bell is little known, and the bell now known as Vaclav receives little adoration, it’s mere existence is a testament to the spirit of those who gathered at Independence Hall in 1918 to proclaim liberty throughout all the land, unto all the inhabitants thereof.

 

 

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