A Brief History of Bebelplatz in Berlin
What is Bebelplatz
The Bebelplatz is a large cobbled public square that was the site of the infamous Nazi book-burning in 1933 and now houses a memorial to the event.
This public square, in central Berlin’s Mitte district, is on the south side of the busy Unter den Linden boulevard – so-named because of its linden (or lime) trees. Though the square is officially named Bebelplatz in honour of August Bebel, the co-founder of Germany’s Social Democratic Party, due to the location of the State Opera House on its eastern side, it’s also colloquially known by its former name, Opernplatz (or ‘Opera Square’). As well as the Opera House, the square is flanked by Humboldt University and St Hedwig’s Cathedral, the first Catholic church built in Prussia. Inspired by designs from Ancient Rome, King Frederick II of Prussia (also known as Frederick the Great) planned the square in 1740 as an intellectual and creative hub: ‘Forum Fridericianum’. However, the cost of his military campaigns put paid to the project being completed in its entirety.
Bebelplatz is most famous for being the site of the Nazi book-burning of 1933. Fired up by a talk given by Nazi Propaganda Minister Josef Goebbels on the 10th of May 1933, students from a number of Nazi-sympathising groups, including the Nazi Students' League, the SA (or ‘Brownshirts’), SS and the Hitler Youth, piled over 20,000 books onto an enormous bonfire. The targeted works, by writers such as Karl Marx, Bertolt Brecht and Thomas Mann, were seen as a threat to the Nazi stranglehold on power and denounced as subversive literature. Shocking in the extreme, the book-burning sent a powerful message to all of those who opposed Nazi rule.
The Nazis went to great lengths to control German culture, believing that literature and the visual arts should be used as vehicles for the celebration of German superiority. They favoured the art of classical antiquity, finding the Ancient Greek aesthetic most in keeping with their vision of the ideal ‘Aryan’. This vision was prescriptive and not in the least conducive to freedom of expression. Writers and artists who didn’t obviously endorse this world view, were seen as threatening influences by the Nazi leaders. Some authors were banned entirely and some painters had their works removed from galleries across Germany. Finding themselves hounded and hassled as ‘degenerates’ by the regime, many chose exile and some even committed suicide.
The infamous book-burning is commemorated in a memorial monument here in Bebelplatz. Completed in 1995, the Versunkene Bibliothek (or ‘Sunken Library’) is an installation created by Israeli artist Micha Ullman. There’s a glass plate set into the cobbles, below which is an underground library with empty bookcases large enough to hold all of the books that were burned. The accompanying plaque carries a quotation from the 19th-century play Almansor by Heinrich Heine, and reads: ‘That was only a prelude; where they burn books, they will in the end also burn people’. Each year students from Humboldt University also mark the anniversary by holding a book sale in the square.
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