Walking around Berlin, you will encounter dozens of lovely city squares – but few can rival the fascinating and disturbing history of Bebelplatz. From magnificent opera, stunning architecture, a prestigious college and a unique memorial to a dreadful Nazi book burning, a short visit to Bebelplatz is worth straying from the main Mitte (Central) thoroughfare of Unter den Linden.
+++Combine your visit to the Bebelplatz with other famous Berlin sights. You are a short walk away from the beautiful square Gendarmenmarkt, or the Berlin Cathedral. Within a 15 minutes walk you can be at the Brandenburg Gate, or the TV tower as well.+++
Renamed in 1947 after August Bebel, the 19th century founder of the Social Democratic Party, the square was originally referred to as “Opernplatz” after the illustrious State Opera building that graces its eastern edge. Another perfect photo subject is the magnificent copper dome of the 1773-era St. Hedwig’s Cathedral, the first Catholic Church to be built in Prussia after the Protestant Reformation and modeled after the Pantheon in Rome. The third side of the square is dominated by Humboldt University, a highly ranked school that is the oldest in Berlin.
These buildings and the square itself were badly bombed during World War II air raids, but have been faithfully reconstructed and the area now looks as it did in the pre-war period.
The most infamous event to have occurred at Bebelplatz was the 1933 Nazi book burnings. On May 10, 1933 students from the German Students Association organized a book burning of 20,000 tomes from the nearby library of the Institut für Sexualwissenschaft (Institute of Sexual Research), citing the reason of profanity. The rally was attended by members of Hitler Youth and SS officials, and the Nazi Propaganda Minister Joseph Goebbels was on hand to deliver an impassioned speech about the dangers of such books.
Books by esteemed Jewish authors were targeted, including works by Albert Einstein, Heinrich Mann, Heinrich Heine and Karl Marx. This would be the first of many such book burnings to occur around the country during Nazi rule.
In 1995, Israeli sculptor Mischa Ullman created a memorial to the lost books, entitled “Bibliotek.” It is example of a “counter memorial,” a modern way commemorating a loss or absence on the landscape by depicting said loss in a complex and nuanced way. Rather than a statue or plaque, Ullman created a vast underground library filled with empty bookshelves that have the space for 20,000 books. One must peer through a glass pane embedded into the ground of the square in order to view the sculpture, and it is impossible to take it the entire piece from one angle.
It is a solemn and eerie memorial to a deeply unpleasant event in history, an event that would foreshadow the horrors yet to come. A chilling and prophetic quote from Heinrich Heine’s 1821 play Almansor is etched into an accompanying plaque: “That was only a prelude; where they burn books, they will in the end also burn people.”
When you walk into the square, it is not immediately apparent where the “Bibliotek” piece is located, as its pane of glass is flush to the pavement. Look out for a group of people staring down, as this memorial is quite famous and often attracts many visitors. If you are lucky enough to take in the memorial alone and cannot easily locate it, it is located on the west side of the square, near to the Humboldt University campus. On May 10 of each year, students from the University hold an annual book sale, an excellent opportunity to pick up a very meaningful literary souvenir of Berlin’s dark past.
In recent years, Bebelplatz has hosted an ice skating rink, tents for Berlin Fashion Week and an exhibition of 180 ‘Buddy Bear’ statues – a series of uses that some protest, claiming that these purposes detract from the serious nature of the square’s history. Others laud this move, claiming that events like these breathe new life into a square associated with such a negative past. No matter which side of the argument you fall on, a walk through Bebelplatz is a must for any visitor to Berlin.
You might also be interested in our self-guided Mitte tour.
Written by Jessica O’Neill