Explore The Forum Fridericianum
The centre of Enlightenment-era Berlin and site of the infamous 'Nazi Book Burning'
When Prussian king, Frederick II (popularly known as Frederick the Great), ascended to the throne in 1740, he proclaimed that every royal capital must have an opera house to express the cultural side of the monarchy - and must also have a royal library to represent the sophisticated, educated side. Standing in the middle of what is now known as Bebelplatz, one is immediately absorbed into this ‘Forum Fridericianum’ (Frederick’s Forum), where the Prussian king’s cultural vision came to life through four architecturally impressive buildings that radiate the enlightenment-era doctrine of his once esteemed royal city. In order of construction: the Staatsoper (State Opera House - originally called the Hofoper), Prinz-Heinrich Palais (now Humboldt University), St Hedwig’s Cathedral, and the King’s Library (now the Law Faculty for Humboldt University).
Regrettably, it was here in 1933, following the Nazi seizure of power, that members of the National Socialist German Students' League publicly condemned the works of various authors considered ‘Un-German’ to an immense funeral pyre. As part of a co-ordinated ritual cleansing - then known as the ‘Day of Action Against the Un-Germanic Spirit’ - that would take place in 21 university towns across the country. On 10th May 1933, some 40,000 people gathered by the Berlin State Opera, with Nazi Propaganda Minister Joseph Goebbels addressing the crowd before the commencement of this mass immolation: "No to decadence and moral corruption!" Goebbels imploring: “Yes to decency and morality in family and state!
This event is commemorated today by a compelling and poignant memorial, in the centre of the square, titled ‘The Empty Library’ - designed by Israeli artist, Micha Ullman. A vast subterranean collection of shelves, visible through a glass portal allowing visitors to gaze into this vacant space - said to contain enough room for the estimated 20,000 books incinerated on this square in 1933. Accompanied by other Nazi party fanatics, the students had first looted the ‘Institute for Sexual Science’ in the nearby Tiergarten - run by Magnus Hirschfeld, an early campaigner for gay rights, internationally regarded as a forerunner in his academic field. Around 10,000 books were gathered from the institute's library before the group continued through the city, gathering an additional 10,000 more to be brought to the centre of Bebelplatz (then called Kaiser-Franz-Joseph-Platz) and symbolically burnt.
These were books that the National Socialist regime considered to be the work of so-called ‘degenerate’ artists, Jews, communists, pacifists, and vocal opponents of the new system. Simply, anything that threatened aspects of the Nazi ideology of strength, order and racial purity. Copies of works by Karl Marx, Friedrich Engels, Thomas Mann, Albert Einstein, Sigmund Freud and many more authors and intellectuals who had contributed to expanding culture, science and the humanities. The large anti-war sentiment that had arisen as a result of the First World War, popularised in the work ‘All Quiet on the Western Front’ by Erich Maria Remarque (himself a veteran), was treated as treachery against a state that sought to portray itself as unfairly wronged. Along with Remarque’s literature (condemned as "literary betrayal of the soldiers of the world war”), copies of work from H.G Wells, Austrian-Jewish writer Stefan Zweig, and Erich Kästner (who decided to attend the event to watch) were damned to this ideological bonfire.
As a foreshadowing of the legal and violent persecution to come, Jewish authors in particular - including the man who is quoted on the plaques that surround the ‘Empty Library’ memorial on Bebelplatz, Heinrich Heine - were targeted as ‘Un-German’ and also had their works symbolically destroyed. “Das war ein Vorspiel nur, dort wo man Bücher verbrennt, verbrennt man am Ende auch Menschen.” Translated roughly from German into English Heine’s quote reads: “Where one burns books, there, one will burn people in the end.” The German Jewish author wrote this in 1820 (referring to the expulsion of muslims from the south of Spain), chillingly predating - and predicting - what would transpire in the Nazi concentration camps and extermination facilities.
Before focusing too intently on the memorial, one must take a moment to understand the historic backdrop and significance of this square. And thus what implication this event taking place here might have - beyond the useful proximity to the university at the time.
In taking the throne in 1740, Frederick the Great sought to establish his legacy as a ‘philosopher king’. Resolving to ensure that not only would the Kingdom of Prussia be regarded as a great power on the battlefield, but would also be known for its cultural greatness. This plaza is definitively the realisation of the latter, and the enlightenment values that Frederick was enamoured with - not only in its architectural elegance but also in what these structures represent.
Constructed on the east side of this square during Frederick’s reign, the State Opera House (Staatsoper) (1741-1743) was the first freestanding theatre structure to be built in Germany and considered to be one of the most modern works of its kind. Frederick’s flute teacher would serve as the director of concerts here for much of the 18th century. On the north side of the square, across the historic Unter den Linden boulevard, is the Humboldt University. Initially built as a palace for Frederick’s younger brother, Prince Heinrich, its use after the prince’s death falls in line with the Prussian king’s vision of high culture and the importance of education. It became the home of Berlin’s first university in the century after Frederick's death. Here the two famous Humboldt brothers - Alexander and Wilhelm - were tasked with creating a world class institution after the city was conquered by Napoleon’s forces in 1806. Channeling the enlightenment-era ideas of Frederick the Great, the brothers developed a model of education that would soon spread to other universities across the world. Veering away from the style of learning through repetition and strict adherence to subject matter only considered essential to a student’s official direction - the university would seek to imbue students with a sense of endless curiosity and the pursuit of knowledge for its own sake. Thus, not only were the students responsible for the book burning in 1933 acting against Frederick the Great’s legacy, but directly shunning the Humboldtian concept of education. Wretchedly replacing worldly sophistication with regimental orthodoxy. The kind that would prove to tolerate no opposition or deviation from its dogmatic absolutism.
On the southeastern corner of the square, the baroque-styled St. Hedwig’s Cathedral (1747-1773) stands as a symbol of tolerance to Catholicism in the very heart of a predominantly Protestant royal capital. Named after the patron saint of Silesia, it would be the first Catholic church to be built in Prussia after the Reformation. It was here, following the Reichskristallnacht (Night of Broken Glass) attacks of 1938, that provost Bernhard Lichtenberg publicly lead prayers for persecuted Jews, later speaking out against the forced euthanasia ‘T4 program’ - introduced by the Nazis in 1939. Lichtenberg would pay for his daily dissent with his life four years later. His remains are enshrined in the crypt of this cathedral. Continuing to the west side of the square and straight across from the State Opera House, one finds the Royal Library - another impressively designed baroque structure that was intended to house the sophisticated king’s book collections.
As a patron of the arts, Frederick was not only a voracious reader but also wrote freely - expressing his ideas in the written word (preferring French to German), penning poetry and composing music. Finally, the grand equestrian statue of Frederick the Great in the middle of Unter den Linden was built and placed in its spot almost 100 years after Frederick’s death, and confirms and symbolises his successors’ ambitions to honour his great legacy in this part of town. Although the epithet - Frederick the Great - is often said to refer to the King’s skill as a military tactician (doubling the size of Prussia during his rule - and effectively defeating the combined French, Russian and Austro-Hungarian armies) it also invokes his political, intellectual, and cultural achievements. Introducing a uniform criminal code in Prussia and banning torture, supporting the liberalisation of the press and promoting religious tolerance. His close relationship with the French philosopher, Voltaire, sheds perhaps the brightest light on the inner workings of the king’s enlightened mind. Voltaire’s most famous sentiment: “I don’t believe in what you say but I would die for your right to say it.” offering as it does perhaps the clearest elucidation of the values that Frederick would seek to represent. More so than any king of the time, Frederick positioned himself as the ‘first servant of the state’ - and although he died childless, he bequeathed the great contribution of his cultural legacy to the Prussian state and its people.
If this impressive ensemble of grand buildings was intended to be a focal point of 18th century Prussian prestige and culture in the heart of the kingdom’s capital, it’s more than astonishing today that the direction shifted so dramatically and now this impressive, tolerant and curious past is overshadowed by one of the most despicable public events to have taken place during the years of the 'Third Reich'. The book burning of 10th May 1933 was an ugly demonstration of the suffocating reality of the Gleichschaltung process (Nazification) undertaken by the National Socialist regime after seizing power. Performed in an area hailed as the heart of 18th century Prussian sophistication, intellectualism and tolerance, to usher in their own ideas of constricting German culture - along with all aspects of society - into a new Nazi straitjacket. Focused on the regimentation of culture, as the historian William Shirer would argue, on a scale which no modern Western nation had experienced hitherto.
To the National Socialists, the two dominant sides of Frederick’s personality - that of the military leader and the enlightened philosopher king - would prove simply incompatible. A film portrayal of the life of Frederick the Great called Der alte und der junge König (The Old and the Young King), made in 1935 under Nazi rule, would seek to rationalise the concept of the book burning by thus manipulating a chapter in Frederick’s own life. A key scene would see Frederick’s father casting his son’s beloved flute and French language books into an open fire. Presenting the act as necessary to ‘toughen up’ the young prince, focus him on the task at hand, and prepare him for the burden of becoming a great ruler.
As a matter of conclusion, we must finally return to the centre of the square - and the ‘Empty Library’ for some punctuation. What does this memorial mean? How should one interpret the symbolism here? Well, first, in peering in, the unexpected size of the library is most apparent. Constructed underground it is only possible to vaguely comprehend the number of books burned on this square in 1933 by gazing through the glass portal and into the ground. The distance between the walls of the rooms, however, means that it is impossible to observe all the shelves at once - and thus grasp the full extent of the event. Buried in the ground as it is, this library sits as if a tomb in the centre of this square. Hovering over the glass portal, it is immediately evident that there is no way to gain access to the room; there is no staircase that leads down to walk around and touch the empty bookshelves because the glass plate prevents anyone from doing so. One could interpret this in a sense of how history works - that is to say, in picking up a book it is possible to read about an event, when it happened, and try to fathom all the facts; but the past is out of reach - you certainly can’t go back and do anything about it. It stands only as a warning. With the right light, it is also possible to see one’s own reflection in the glass, to observe but simultaneously observe oneself. Perhaps the most obvious question to ponder here being: “How would I have felt and what would I have done if I had been here on that night?”
One certainty offered amidst the ambiguity of the memorial is that of the illuminating internal light. Even if not immediately visible during the day; there is a light bulb inside this barren vault. The reference should be clear, a light bulb most commonly stands for an idea; you may destroy the book, but you can never destroy the idea. And in the darkness, the light stands most visible.
Address: Unter den Linden, 10117 Berlin
Nearest Transportation: S/U-bahn Friedrichstrasse - Bus Haltestelle Unter den Linden