70 Years of Liberty Bell in Berlin - The history of the Berlin Freedom Bell

Berlin Post-war Years and the Division of the City

Germany and especially its capital Berlin as the former centre of the Nazi dictatorship were confronted with the immense task of recovering from the war damages and rebuilding the architectural, societal and political structures after the end of the Second World War.
In 1945, about 2.8 million inhabitants still lived within the city area of the formerly four million people counting metropolis. During July and August of the same year, the four allied powers concluded the division and administration of Berlin according to the London Protocols.

With the establishment of the Allied Command in Berlin- Dahlem and the Allied Control Council in the former Supreme Court building in Elßholzstrasse in Schöneberg, the victorious powers initially still pursued the goal of working together on an all-German solution for the capital and the state structure. Principal disagreements between the East and the West as well as the conflict about power and zones of influence revealed the incompatibility of the political agendas of the western Allies and the Soviet Union for the following years and finally led to the end of any cooperation, when the Soviet commandant left the conference of the Allied Kommandatura on 16th June 1948.

The division of Berlin and Germany became irrevocable reality for more than 40 years.

The Berlin Blockade and the Berlin Airlift

The discrepancies between the two power blocs tapered drastically on 19th June 1948 with consequences for Berlin and its population when the Soviet Union initiated the blockade of land routes and waterways between the western sectors of the city and the western zones of the country. West-Berlin was cut off from the supply of food, energy, fuels and almost all goods of everyday life that came from or went through the Soviet occupation zone.

On behalf of the military governor of the American occupation zone, General Lucius D. Clay, an airlift for the supply of the West-Berlin population was established and maintained for more than 13 months until 12th May 1949. The airlift can be described as an unprecedented major effort with more than 550.000 return flights and 2.3 million tons of transported goods. Hanging on during the blockade changed the awareness and the solidarity of the West-Berlin population immensely and influenced a transformed reception towards the former occupants as allied protectors. This was particularly true vis-à-vis the United States, because they established themselves as an active supporter of the infrastructural and economical rebuilding of the later Federal Republic of Germany and West-Berlin with their European Recovery Program (Marshall Plan).

On 6th September 1948, the majority of Berlin city council‘ s delegates elected for the whole city moved to the western part of Berlin, after continuously being disrupted working by communist protesters throughout the first post-war years. In January 1949, the city hall of Schöneberg was selected to host the new city council of West- Berlin.

The division of Germany and Berlin solidified with the ratification of the constitution of the Federal Republic of Germany on 23rd May 1949 and with the proclamation of the German Democratic Republic on 7th October 1949, leading to profound changes in the relations between Americans, the British, the French and West Germans as well as towards the Soviet Union.

The Berlin Airlift transformed the victors into protectors and the pertinacity of the Berlin people strengthened the faith of the United States and the international community in the Germans being able to maintain a democracy.

The conception of the Freedom Bell and the Crusade for Freedom

After the termination of the Berlin Blockade the tensions between the two Great Powers, the United States of America and the Soviet Union, intensified towards an ongoing political and ideological contest for the systemic supremacy. The conflict manifested itself in the beginning of the Korean War in 1950. The United States began to mobilize their political, ideological and material resources for a resistance against communism on the in- and outside. The idea for the Berlin Freedom Bell is to be seen inside this multifocal context of intensifying the threatening gestures and propaganda against the Soviet Union, the Korean War, and the intention to integrate the Federal Republic of Germany into western military alliances and the American guarantee for the protection of West Berlin.

The National Committee for a Free Europe, founded in May 1949 as a platform for political refugees from Eastern Europe to realize their democratic ideals, developed the first concept of a World Freedom Bell. This also included the intention to establish a radio station modelled on the Radio in the American Sector (RIAS) to broadcast local programs deep into the regions of Soviet influence. To finance this radio station with donations from the American people, a strong symbol had to be created to raise patriotic emotions and to serve as an identification for the oppressed nations‘ fight for freedom.

The decision was made to cast a replica of the Liberty Bell – the bell that heralded the American Independence in 1776 embodying the values of freedom and self-determination like no other object as a national sanctuary of the United States.

Inspired by its historic travels across the country for symbolic exhibition and visualisation purposes, the envisaged Berlin Freedom Bell was to embark on a journey through 26 federal states of the USA – however this time being embedded into an openly anti-communist campaign with the title Crusade for Freedom.

Its implementation and the development of the radio station were entrusted to the then chairman of the National Committee and General Lucius D. Clay, who was already closely associated with Berlin‘s young post-war history. the context of the bell‘s journey – which later has been exposed as partly financed by the American government and Intelligence Agency – about 16 million American citizens signed a petition with the Declaration of Freedom and donated 1.3 million dollars to cast the bell and to set up the radio station Radio Free Europe. It launched with its first broadcast from Munich on 4th July 1950 – the national holiday of the USA in memory of their Declaration of Independence.

The text from a newspaper article dated 12th September 1950

Symbol of American devotion to liberty is the giant Freedom Bell that rang at State and Madison sts. Tuesday afternoon for the nation-wide “Crusade for Freedom”. The crusade was described as a dynamic truth campaign designed to refute Soviet lies and to proclaim the devotion of American people to peace and freedom. At left, Adm. William F. “Bull” Halsey Jr., retired naval hero, who was the principal speaker, sweeps into his arms Candace Balfour, 7. of Wheaton, whose father, Lt. Robert Balfour, ist on duty in Korean waters.

The Berlin Freedom Bell

The British company Gillett & Johnston, founded in the London district of Croydon in 1844, cast the Berlin Freedom Bell. It was their biggest cast after the Second World War. The design came from the American architect and industrial designer Walter D. Teague and the British sculptor Atri Brown. The top of the bell is decorated with a circumferential frieze of bay leaves as a symbol of peace. The flank shows five differently arranged standing figures as representatives of humankind with stretched arms holding burning torches among each other as symbols of freedom.

The inscription on the ring reads

„That This World Under God Shall Have A New Birth Of Freedom”

- a variation of a citation from Abraham Lincoln‘s Gettysburg Address on 19th November 1863 with which he formulated the democratic self-conception of the United States of America formatively for future generations.

The bell was cast under enormous time pressure on 27th July 1950 and transported to the ship American Clipper at the Victoria Dock in London on 25th August, from where its journey to the USA and the following Crusade for Freedom began. On 20th October 1950, the Freedom Bell arrived at Bremerhaven on the USS General R. M. Blatchford and was transported on a customized military train to the Berlin station Lichterfelde overnight. During the following day, it was brought to Rudolph-Wilde-Platz in front of Schöneberg‘s city hall and subsequently mounted into the tower in the same night. The ceremony of handing over, blessing and ringing the Freedom Bell for the first time began at 10:45 on 24th October 1950.

Accompanied by a crowd of more than 400.000 Berliners and preceded by a performance of the RIAS symphony orchestra, speeches were held by the American commander of allied troops in Berlin Maxwell D. Taylor, the US high commissioner in Germany John McCloy, the head mayor of Berlin Ernst Reuter and the chairman of the National Committee for a Free Europe Lucius D. Clay. The latter was supposed to initiate the first ringing via an electronic device.

The failure of the fuses for the bell‘s motor drives meant that the first ringing was initiated by hand by Berlin craftsmen present in the belfry at the time. The signed Declaration of Freedom petitions are stored beneath the bell inside the tower of Schöneberg‘s city hall to this day.

Pictures from the ceremony of handing over the Freedom Bell

  • A large bell is being transported on a low loader, on the side is the inscription "Crusade for Freedom". Three men are standing near the bell.

    The Freedom Bell arrives at Schöneberg City Hall

  • People are tightly crowded together on a street, some are sitting or standing on a telephone booth.

    Listeners at the inauguration of the bell

  • A man is standing behind a lectern, surrounded by a big audience.

    The American High Commissioner John McCloy at the rostrum in front of the town hall entrance

  • Several men are pulling a large bell into a bellfry using a winch. In the background are the roofs of a big city.

    Installation of the bell in the Schöneberg City Hall tower

The Ravages of Time

Its seventy years of existence have not failed to leave their marks on the Freedom Bell. Besides the usual traces of usage and wear marks, it was particularly the clapper that caused the people of Schöneberg and West Berliners concern in the 1960s and 1970s. Twice during this period it broke out of its suspension due to the heavy strain to which it was subjected when it was rung. After sheer luck prevented serious damage in the first incident – the broken clapper, weighing several tons, broke through the ceiling of the tower, where a stair railing prevented it from falling any further – the area below the bell was reinforced in order to minimize the risk of further damage.

Similar to its model, the Liberty Bell, the Berlin Liberty Bell was not spared from cracks in the bell body. A fine spot first observed in the 1970s widened in the following decades to a major crack of more than one meter in length. This also had serious effects on the sound quality of the Freedom Bell, as an inventory carried out by the German Bell Museum in 2000 revealed. For the necessary repair using a special welding process, the bell had to be lifted out of the belfry and transported to Nördlingen in Bavaria. For this purpose, the masonry of the town hall tower was opened on one side to allow the Freedom Bell to be lowered to the ground by means of a crane boom and prepared for further transport. Donations from the citizens of Berlin and the rental of the scaffolding in front of the City Hall tower as advertising space secured the financing of the repair. In spring 2001, the Freedom Bell was repaired by the famous company Lachenmeyer and returned to Berlin on 10th May 2001, where it since provides the district of Schöneberg with its regained clear sound.


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    and Hagen Schulze, München, 2001, S. 238-252.
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Decorative picture with six bell graphics
Cover of a brochure with the inscription “70 years of the Freedom Bell in Berlin – 1950 to 2020”.

"70 Years of Liberty Bell in Berlin – 1950 to 2020"

A brochure celebrating the 70th anniversary of the Berlin Freedom Bell

On October 24, 2020, the Berlin Liberty Bell at Schöneberg City Hall turned 70 years old. To mark the occasion, the District Office of Tempelhof-Schöneberg published a 40-page brochure, written in German and English, which deals with the history of the Liberty Bell, its symbolism and individual significance for the citizens of Berlin.