On a clear cool late-autumn morning, a young child is looking through an opening in the cobblestone plaza. She looks up to the man standing next to her.
“Daddy, why is there a glass window? What happened here?”
The thing to keep in mind is that this square in Berlin is called Bebelplatz (BAY-buhl-platz), and not Babbleplatz. It’s easy to make the mistake. After all, a great repository of books was once created inside the building seen above, in what was once home of the Königliche Bibliothek or Royal Library.
But then came along a large racist blather.
Accompanied by a big ugly fire.
From Frederick’s Forum to Bebelplatz
From the mid- to late-18th century, Prussian King Frederick the Great ordered the creation of a large expansive cultural area which was called Frederick’s Forum (or Lindenforum for its location next to the tree-lined avenue Unter den Linden). Surrounding the open square were the following buildings: the Royal Opera; St. Hedwig’s Cathedral; the Royal Library; and a palace for Frederick’s brother, Prince Henry. For its importance and popularity of the time, Opernplatz (Opera Square) was the additional name for this wide centrepiece of Berlin Rococo architectural style.
This public square is also infamous, in minor culmination and sharply pointed prelude during the rise of anti-semitism and fascism in the early 20th-century. Whipped in the throes of racist nationalist fury, university students and booksellers allied with the Nazis collaborated with party functionaries to fulfill their “patriotic” duty by clearing out libraries, book lists and collections of material deemed “un-German”. Joseph Goebbels, the Nazi minister of propaganda, understood the symbolism with the choice of Opera Plaza for a big book-burning fire and a direct attack on individual expression in opposition to the Nazis. On the evening of 10 May 1933, an orgy of fire consumed an estimated 20-thousand books by authors who were deemed anti-nationalist, foreign, leftist, Jewish, pacifist, undesirable. Destroyed works included those authored by Bertolt Brecht, Albert Einstein, Sigmund Freud, Ernest Hemingway, Franz Kafka, Heinrich Heine, Erich Kästner, Helen Keller, Heinrich Mann, Karl Marx, Moses Mendelssohn, Erich Maria Remarque, Bertha von Suttner, Kurt Tucholsky, Stefan Zweig. Over the following weeks, additional events across Germany saw many volumes of books set on fire.
Turn the clock back over 110 years. German-Jewish poet, writer, and literary critic Heinrich Heine completed writing the play “Almansor” in 1821, from which the following lines seemed terribly prophetic:
… Das war ein Vorspiel nur; dort wo man Bücher verbrennt, verbrennt man auch am Ende Menschen.
(… that was only a prelude: where books are burned, burning people comes next.)
What followed into the early 20th-century was the systematic annihilation of European Jews in an organized genocide on an industrial scale.
Bombing during the Second World War severely damaged Berlin’s opera square and the surrounding structures. With post-war reconstruction and control of the area firmly held by the Soviet Union, the plaza was renamed in 1947 as Bebelplatz honouring August Bebel, a prominent early 20th-century German socialist, pacifist, and founder of the Social Democratic Workers political party. His writings were also turned to ash in the great pyres of 1933; the Nazis had declared Bebel’s work “subversive” with his expression of labour-friendly and anti-war ideas.
In 1995, Israeli artist Micha Ullman unveiled his sculpture “Die Versunkene Bibliothek” (The Sunken Library) which commemorates the book burning in 1933. The sculpture sits below the cobblestone surface, upon which a glass window is embedded. Looking through the window reveals empty white book shelves; there are about 20-thousand spaces, one for every book burned in 1933. The memory of those books is buried, seemingly out of reach; and everyone is prevented from touching the sculpture or any of its empty shelves.
I stand to one side now in this open square, beyond the shadows thrown by bright morning illumination. Questions in the now have changed little since 1933.
• What reaction does the sight of burning books elicit?
• Why do oppressive authorities push for censorship and book burning?
• How does book burning lead to mass killing?
Bebelplatz is located on Unter den Linden, across the street from the main building of the Humboldt University. With Berlin public transport, take the U-Bahn U5 train to station “Unter den Linden” followed by a walk about 400 metres to the east, or the U5 train to station “Museumsinsel” followed by a walk about 400 metres to the west. Alternatively, hop on city bus 100 or 300 to stop “Staatsoper.” The “Library” memorial is in the middle of the square, surrounded by Humboldt University’s Law Faculty to the west, the State Opera House to the east, and Hotel de Rome to the south.
About 200 metres to the northeast of Bebelplatz is a memorial sculpture to German writer and thinker Heinrich Heine whose quote from his 1820 play, “Almansor”, appears above. I wrote about a similar memorial to Heine at Römerberg in Frankfurt am Main.
I made all pictures above on 5 Dec 2014 with a Canon EOS6D mark1 (6D1) and on 28 Nov 2021 with a Fujifilm X70 fixed-lens prime (X70). This post appears on Fotoeins Fotografie at fotoeins DOT com as https://wp.me/p1BIdT-d8o.