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In the belfry of an ancient castle where it was mounted by supporters of Adolf Hitler in 1939, the bell has tolled on for nearly 75 years. This photo was taken in 2004.

Hitler-era bell raises Austrian controversy

VIENNA— Like many others in Austria's countryside, a tower bell above the red-tiled rooftops of Wolfpassing village marks the passing of each hour with a "bong." But this bell is unique: It is embossed with a swastika and praise for Adolf Hitler.

And official Austria apparently overlooked the bell up to now, unlike more visible remnants of the Nazi era.

The bell is in the belfry of an ancient castle, where it was mounted by supporters of the Nazi dictator in 1939. The bell has tolled for nearly 75 years, surviving the defeat of Hitler's Germany, a decade of post-war Soviet occupation in which Red Army soldiers lodged in the castle, and more recent efforts by Austria's government to acknowledge the country's complicity in crimes of that era and make amends.

Some of those efforts have focused on identifying relics of that time and ensuring they're either removed or put in historical context. As an example, officials often cite government moral and material support for the restoration of the Mauthausen concentration camp, where a museum documents atrocities.

The Wolfpassing bell pays homage to Hitler for his 1938 annexation of Austria, a move the vast majority of the nation's citizens supported at the time. It describes Hitler as the unifier and Fuehrer of all Germans and says he freed the "Ostmark" — Nazi jargon for Austria — "from the yoke of suppression by foreign elements and brought it home into the Great-German Reich."

A local historian, Johannes Kammerstaetter, says most villagers would have known about it. But the village mayor, Josef Sonnleitner, asserts villagers had no clue until the first media reports last month on the "Fuehrerglocke," or "Fuehrer Bell."

"Nobody cared until all this publicity," he said on the telephone. He refused a request for a longer interview, saying he was busy for the next two weeks with haying.

In any case, the government's recent sale of the castle, with all its historical trappings, has suddenly made the bell an issue beyond the village of 1,500 some 60 miles west of Vienna.

In a country sensitive about suggestions it has not fully faced its Nazi past, officials are scrambling for explanations why the bell evaded notice for so long. They also are under pressure to justify a ruling by the government agency in charge of historic monuments that it must remain part of the castle as part of its heritage, despite the refusal of the new owner of the castle to say what he plans to do with it.

Propagating Nazi values or praising the era is illegal in Austria. Kammerstaetter, the historian, has formally asked state prosecutors to examine whether the government sale of the bell is a criminal offense. He says the change of ownership could constitute a case of spreading National Socialist ideology on the part of the government agency in charge of state-owned property.

Raimund Fastenbauer, a senior official of Vienna's Jewish community, invokes other concerns, noting that other Hitler-era relics like the dictator's house of birth, in the western town of Braunau, have become a magnet for neo-Nazis.

"I think the best thing would be if the bell disappeared and was buried somewhere," he says.

For its part, the government said the sale was legal, along with the decision to keep the bell in the belfry as an integral component of the castle.

The economics minister, Reinhold Mitterlehner, said the agency overseeing the sale was not aware of the inscription. He noted in a letter to Kammerstaetter that "the bell up to now was neither publicly displayed nor generally accessible," adding that he did not see the sale as a criminal offense.

Ernst Eichinger, a spokesman for the agency responsible for government real-estate, says that with a portfolio of more than 28,000 buildings — many of them huge — "we cannot search every centimeter" before a sale.

Concerns are heightened by the lack of clarity about what the new owner, Tobias Hufnagl, plans to do with the relict. Two web domains linked to him or his holding company did not open. And Sonnleitner, the Wolfpassing mayor, says he has not been able to directly contact Hufnagl, despite weeks of trying.

In an email last week responding to numerous Associated Press queries seeking permission to film the bell and asking about its fate, Hufnagl said he had no interest in exchanges with the AP.