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Bebelplatz and the Sunken Library

Updated: April 19, 2024

Walking around Berlin, you will encounter dozens of lovely city squares – but few can rival the fascinating and disturbing history of Bebelplatz.

One of Berlin’s most profound memorials is hidden in plain sight.

Just across the River Spree from Museum Island and the Berlin Palace is Bebelplatz. 

Formally known as Opera Square, the public space features the Berlin State Opera, as well as some other architectural beauties, including St. Hedwig’s Cathedral, Berlin's Catholic Cathedral. 

Another standout is the Law Library of Humboldt University, whose main campus is just across Unter den Linden. 

With all these eye-catching buildings, you could be forgiven for not noticing a small window in the ground. 

Peek inside and you will find a vast space of empty shelves and bleach-white.

It’s called the Sunken Library, and it’s a memorial to the Nazi book burnings in May of 1933, on the spot of one of the burnings.  

An estimated 20,000 books from writers, academics, poets, journalists, books from anyone the Nazi’s considered dangerous or un-German. 

And in this memorial, there’s space for each book.  

There is a plaque with a quote taken from a Henrich Heins novel that predates the book burnings.

where they burn books,

they will ultimately burn people as well.

Don’t miss this important memorial

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.


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.

St. Hedwig's was 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 the Alte Bibliotek (the Old Royal Library), now home to the law faculty of 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.

Howerver, they have been faithfully reconstructed and the area now looks as it did in the pre-war period.

Book burnings

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.

Berlin bebelplatz memorial

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 particularly 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.

Berlin bebelplatz book burning memorial

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.”

Bebelplatz Today

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.

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.

About The Author

Anne Wittig

Anne was born in East Berlin and came of age in the unified city. She has an intimate relationship with her city of birth and still calls Berlin home. For the past 10 years, she has managed and written Free Tours by Foot's Berlin blog, detailing the best places to go, where to stay, and what to do in her hometown. This blog has been featured on Berlin's official website, mainstream press like Berlingske, and local blogs like Over 14,000 visitors to Berlin have taken a tour from Free Tours by Foot.
Updated: April 19th, 2024
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