The Freedom Bell (Freiheitsglocke) was a gift given by the American people to the people of West Berlin in the early days of the Cold War as a show of solidarity. Commissioned by the National Committee for Free Europe (the organization behind Radio Free Europe) and modeled after Philadelphia’s famous Liberty Bell (minus the crack), the Freedom Bell was hung in Rathaus Schöneberg, which served as the seat of government in West Berlin, in 1950.
After the bell was cast in the UK, it was transported to New York and taken on a coast-to-coast tour through 26 American cities as part of a fundraising and propaganda campaign called the Crusade for Freedom. At each stop, people could donate money to support Radio Free Europe (which in fact helped to conceal the CIA’s funding of the broadcasting network) and sign the “Declaration of Freedom,” thereby expressing commitment to “freedom” and opposition to “aggression and tyranny.”
The campaign collected 16 million signatures, which were installed along with the bell in Rathaus Schöneberg on October 21, 1950. The Freedom Bell rang for the first time three days later, on United Nations Day, in front of a crowd of over 400,000 Berliners. Dedication remarks were given by General Lucius D. Clay, who had orchestrated the Berlin Airlift. The bell’s first peals could be heard around the world via radio, including in Eastern Europe thanks to Radio Free Europe. Ever since, the Freedom Bell has rung every day at noon, as well as at midnight on Christmas Eve and New Year’s Eve.
Given its symbolic importance, the Freedom Bell has also sounded to mark significant events such as the anti-Communist uprisings in 1953 and 1956 (in East German and Hungary, respectively), as well as the beginning of construction of the Berlin Wall in 1961. The plaza in front of Rathaus Schöneberg was the site of John F. Kennedy’s famous “Ich bin ein Berliner” speech on June 26, 1963, made in the wake of the wall’s completion; it also hosted a spontaneous gathering of mourners when he was assassinated a few weeks later. Within days, the name of the plaza was changed to John-F-Kennedy-Platz. The Freedom Bell later rang to mark German Reunification in 1990, and the terrorist attacks on September 11, 2001.