First opened in 1881, the Zentralfriedhof Friedrichsfelde was Berlin’s first non-denominational municipal graveyard – a pauper’s cemetery that would later become the final resting place for many of Germany’s prominent Socialists, Communists and anti-Fascist fighters.
Situated in the eastern district of Lichtenberg, the cemetery lies just beyond Karl-Marx-Allee, the one-time showcase street of East Germany, and only a few blocks from the former headquarters of the East German state security police (Stasi).
When the co-founder of the Social Democratic Party (SPD), Wilhelm Liebknecht, was laid to rest here in 1900 in a show of working class solidarity, the funeral procession numbered more than 500,000 people and stretched through the heart of Berlin. Liebknecht was a close personal friend of Karl Marx and had overseen the growth of the SPD from an outlawed group of revolutionary firebrands to the largest political party in Germany.
Liebknecht’s son, Karl, co-founder of the German Communist Party, was buried here in 1919, following his death at the hands of right-wing paramilitaries – completing a macabre family tradition and providing the beginnings of a Socialist-Communist right of passage.
The cemetery still serves as a symbolic rallying point for Red Berliners, with an annual mass gathering in January to commemorate the dead and their ideas.
In 1926, architect Ludwig Mies van der Rohe, unveiled a ‘Monument to the Revolution’ here, dedicated to the Communists who had died in the revolutionary fighting that followed the end of WWI. The Spartacist casualties of the January Uprising were initially expected to be buried in the Friedhof der Märzgefallenen alongside the people who had died in the revolution of March 1848. However, this honour was denied them by the Berlin authorities. Many found their final resting place instead here, alongside Wilhelm Liebknecht, to be joined over the years by an increasing number of comrades.
Van der Rohe’s monument was destroyed in 1935 by the Nazis before finally being replaced by the present memorial, the ‘Memorial to the Socialists’, in 1951.
The central obelisk of the current memorial, bearing the words “Die Toten mahnen uns”(The dead remind us), is surrounded by a semi-circular wall containing gravestones bearing the names of old Communists and East German Politburo members. A set of large tablets also records the names of 327 men and women who gave their lives fighting Fascism between 1933 and 1945 – including members of the Red Orchestra resistance group.
Although there are graves for both Karl Liebknecht and Rosa Luxemburg - the co-founders of the German Communist Party - Luxemburg's grave was empty when her coffin was first lowered into the ground after her assassination in January 1919. To this day there are questions as to the authenticity of the body interred here.
Ten graves directly surround the central obelisk – bearing the most prominent names – Karl Liebknecht & Rosa Luxemburg (founders of the Communist Party), Communist party leader Ernst Thälmann (a memorial not a grave), Walter Ulbricht (leader of East Germany), Otto Grotewohl (East German Prime-Minister), Wilhelm Pieck (East German President), Franz Mehring (Spartacist Leader), John Schehr (Communist Leader), Rudolf Breitscheid (SPD Politician) and Franz Künstler (SPD Politician).
In the expanse of the cemetery beyond the main Socialist memorial, you will find the graves of other notable left-wing figures – including the artist and sculptor Käthe Kollwitz. East German film director Konrad Wolf is here along with his brother Markus, the head of East Germany’s foreign intelligence service.
Ernst Wollweber, head of the Stasi from 1953-57, is easy to find, much easier than his successor, the infamous Erich Mielke, who is buried in an unmarked grave. Although you may find eager treasure hunters sometimes wandering the cemetery, it is said that Mielke’s final resting place is not far from the memorial added to the cemetery for the victims of Stalinism – a fitting location if there ever were one.
Also look out for the gravestone of the famous Prussian banker, Gerson von Bleichröder, who died in 1893. Financial advisor to both Otto von Bismarck and the Prussian state, Bleichröder was only the second unbaptised Jew in Prussia to be ennobled, receiving the title Von. His burial here dates back to before the time it was used as a Socialist Cemetery, when Jews were forbidden from being buried alongside Christians in church cemeteries elsewhere.
Visiting the Socialists Cemetery in Friedrichsfelde is relatively straightforward when using the underground, you can easily take the U5 from Alexanderplatz to Magdalanenstrasse, near the former headquarter of the East German state security police, and walk a short distance. Alternatively the S5, S7 and S75 all arrive at the S-Bahn station Friedrichsfelde East. From there it is possible to follow Rhinstrasse through a small garden plot and enter the cemetery.
The main circular memorial and forecourt of the Socialist Cemetery is on the east side of the area, with the rows of individual graves to the north and west. Including those of around 900 concentration camp victims.