Bebelplatz book burning site
An unusual monument in a square in Berlin
that was the site of the propagandistic burning of books by the Nazis
in 1933 – an early symbolic act of the reign of terror that was taking hold and would result in the death of millions of people.
More background info:
It was one of the earliest crimes of the Nazis
shortly after they seized power in 1933: the public burning of some 20,000 books by Jews, communists, liberals, etc. at this site (which was then called Kaiser-Franz-Josef-Platz). The books had been removed from the nearby University library, and many students took part in what followed.
"Against the un-German spirit" ('Wider den undeutschen Geist') was the "motto" of the "event" – and it was a well-prepared propagandistic show, accompanied by Nazi music and filmed to be shown nationwide afterwards. It took place at midnight so that the flames looked nice and dramatic in the dark. Propaganda Minister Joseph Goebbels himself acted as a kind of master of ceremonies. You've probably seen snippets of the unsavoury footage at some point.
It was a bloodless crime, of course, but still one of the most despicable ones in the long Nazi record of despicableness. And it was an early precursor of the much worse things that were to come. It was symbolic of that. And the site at today's Bebelplatz was the most symbolic of the whole operation – which also took place at numerous other locales.
A plaque next to today's memorial quotes the liberal German author Heinrich Heine (whose books were amongst those burned) who as early as 1820 said "it was but a precursor; where they burn books they will end up burning people" ('Das war ein Vorspiel nur, dort wo man Bücher verbrennt, verbrennt man am Ende auch Menschen'). Knowing what the Nazis next aspired to (Holocaust
and all), makes these lines, uttered well over century earlier, quite prophetic.
Today's monument to the book burning on Bebelplatz was inaugurated in 1995. It is the work of Israeli artist Micha Ullman.
Controversially, an underground car park was built under Bebelplatz in 2004 – but the monument was spared, and today you don't get anything of the car park that would distract from the monument.
When I visited the site in January 2010, a huge fashion show event was being set up, with big marquees that covered almost the entire square. I could only see the monument by asking to be allowed inside one of the tents where a gap in the temporary floorboards made the monument visible. As it was a snowy winter, though, the glass plate was smeared with slushy grime. I found it more than a tad disrespectful.
So I went back to the site the next time I was in Berlin
, in November 2011, and found the monument in much better shape – even though, again, there was some distraction by a building site right next to it. This time, however, I suppose it has to be forgiven, as it's due to the refurbishment of the State Opera, which is also located on Bebelplatz.
What there is to see: Not much – and that is partly the point. The square where the pyre of burning books had been on 10 May 1933 is more or less bare today. In the middle of the square is the monument that commemorates the book burning.
It's an underground chamber, completely whitewashed inside, with all four walls consisting of symbolic empty bookshelves (made of concrete), that could hold approximately the 20,000 books that were burned here. You can only see into the chamber from above, through a glass panel. But you cannot go inside. The interior is illuminated so that you can also see in at night.
It's a very simple, but quite effective memorial. Only two (identical) bronze plaques near the monument mark the significance of the site with a short explanatory line in German, accompanied by a prophetic quote by Heinrich Heine (see background
In the middle of Bebelpatz in the central Berlin
district of Mitte, just south of the eastern end of the Unter den Linden boulevard.
Access and costs: easy, free.
Details: the square is easy enough to find – just walk along the central boulevard Unter den Linden and you will eventually come to it – opposite the massive Humboldt University's main building and next to the Opera.
The square can normally be accessed freely at any time (but see under background) to look into the memorial through the glass plate above it. The chamber interior is not accessible.
Time required: just a few minutes for finding the glass plate in the square, looking in, and for some quiet contemplation.
Combinations with other dark destinations:
A bit further west also on Unter den Linden boulevard is the Berlin Story
shop and exhibition. Carry on to the boulevard's western end and through the Brandenburg Gate and you'll get to the Reichstag
, one of the Soviet war memorials
and – most importantly perhaps in this context – the massive Holocaust Memorial
just south of the Brandenburg Gate along Eberstraße.
If you walk to the eastern end of Unter den Linden and continue across the bridges and past the central cathedral (and the former site of the demolished Palace of the Republic
) you get to the GDR Museum
. Beyond is Alexanderplatz, the hub of East Berlin.
For yet more see under Berlin
Combinations with non-dark destinations:
in general see under Berlin
– given the central location of Bebelplatz, many of Berlin's main sights are within easy walking distance too, including the "Museum Island" and Alexandeplatz with the iconic TV Tower to the east, and in the other direction, at the western end of Unter den Linden boulevard is Berlin's most iconic landmark of them all, the Brandenburg Gate.
- Bebelplatz 1
- Bebelplatz 2 - book-burning monument closer up
- Bebelplatz 3 - monument and law factulty in the background
- Bebelplatz 4 - plaque
- Bebelplatz 5 - prophetic words by Heine