Bebelplatz is one of the most beautiful public squares in Berlin and yet it is one with a dark recent history. Impressive reconstructed buildings dominate three sides of the square, once known as Opernplatz. The square took the name of August Bebel, founder of the Social Democratic Party in 1947.
Humboldt University, St. Hedwig’s Catholic Cathedral, and the State Opera now look as they did before the heavy bombing of World War Two.
Beneath Bebelplatz today, you can find a spatial art installation. The library with empty shelves by Israeli artist Micha Ullman commemorates the book burning of 1933. Ullman unveiled her design on 20th March 1995.
Viewed through a glass plate set into the paving stones, the memorial consists of empty shelves to hold 20,000 books. This is the same number burnt by the Nazi supporting students on 10th May 1933.
These books were by hundreds of authors, journalists, philosophers, and academics. Nazi librarian Wolfgang Herrmann created this blacklist. Blacklisted authors included Erich Kästner, Sigmund Freud, Karl Marx, Heinrich and Klaus Mann, Rosa Luxemburg, August Bebel, Bertha von Suttner and Stefan Zweig.
Kästner watched as copies of his book “Fabian” burned. He described the night using the term translated to “funeral weather”. Reports suggest it rained so hard the fires went out and the fire brigade poured petrol on the flames to keep it burning.
Assembly of books began on 6th May 1933. Students dragged the contents of Institut für Sexualwissenschaft library into the square. Propaganda Minister Joseph Goebbels gave an inflammatory speech before the fires were set.
Over 40,000 people watched the spectacle including the Nazi Students’ League, the SA, the SS, and Hitler Youth.
Next to the glass pane, are two bronze plaques set into the ground. One contains the chilling quote from Heinrich Heine in 1920.
That was but a prelude; where they burn books, they will ultimately burn people as well.