With its magnificent buildings, Bebelplatz is one of Berlin’s most attractive public squares – and it has also been the scene of some of the city’s chequered history.
Bebelplatz in the centre of Berlin has seen everything – from the bright dawn of the Enlightenment to the dark days of Nazism. Even today, there are reminders of its turbulent history.
Situated directly by the magnificent boulevard Unter den Linden, it’s quick to get to Bebelplatz. It is one of the most striking and historic squares in Berlin. At Bebelplatz there are notable buildings such as the Staatsoper Unter den Linden, St. Hedwig’s Cathedral, the Hotel de Rome, the Alte Bibliothek, the Altes Palais and the Prinzessinnenpalais. The site was originally called Platz am Opernhaus, and later Kaiser-Franz-Joseph-Platz. Berliners still call it Opernplatz, even though in 1947 the authorities renamed it after the SPD politician August Bebel.
The Forum Fridericianum
The rectangular, completely paved square was built in 1740 after Berlin’s old city fortifications were removed. At the wishes of Friedrich II, the architect von Knobelsdorff planned a new site in the centre of Berlin, the Forum Fridericianum. The new square was to be the centre of the Forum Fridericianum, with the opera house, academy building and royal palace. However, von Knobelsdorff was unable to complete the original plans. At first, only the opera was built, and the site thus became known as Opernplatz. Behind the state opera, the Catholic St. Hedwig’s Cathedral was built in the late 18th century, and on the west side, the Königliche Bibliothek and the Altes Palais were built.
Buildings at Bebelplatz
Staatsoper Unter den Linden
The Staatsoper (State Opera House) was the first dedicated opera house in Germany. Many important artists have taken part in productions there. The building is currently undergoing extensive renovation, which is scheduled to be completed in 2017.
At one time, members of the Hohenzollern family used to live in the palace, but it now belongs to a media group. The palace originally consisted of two buildings, which were joined together and later impressively extended. Karl Friedrich Schinkel built the floor construction which connects the building to the neighbouring Kronprinzenpalais.
St. Hedwig’s Cathedral
Friedrich II built St. Hedwig’s Cathedral for the Catholic community as a sign of religious tolerance. Today, the church with its striking dome is the seat of the archbishopric of Berlin and thus the city’s most important Catholic religious building.
The Altes Palais was once the city residence of the Kings of Prussia and the German Emperors. Wilhelm I used to appear at the window for the changing of the guard, which attracted onlookers and was even mentioned in travel guides of the time. The building now belongs to Berlin’s Humboldt University as part of its Faculty of Law.
Hotel de RomeThe former headquarters of Dresdner Bank was built in the late 19th century in the Italian Renaissance style, and now contains offices and the luxury Hotel de Rome.
Built in the late 18th century, the curved baroque forms of the library earned it the nickname of the “Commode”. Friedrich II built the library to make scientific knowledge accessible to citizens. Its shelves contained works of the enlightenment such as books by Diderot, Rousseau, Voltaire, Kant and Leibniz, and it was the largest library in the German-speaking world. Once the building could no longer accommodate its collection, the Staatsbibliothek Unter den Linden was built.
The book burning
On 10 May 1933, Opernplatz became infamous in the annals of history. Members of the Nazi German Student Union organised a book burning, throwing important works of world literature onto the fire. Works by authors such as Heinrich and Thomas Mann, Erich Kästner, Stefan Zweig, Heinrich Heine, Karl Marx and Kurt Tucholsky were all burnt. Many of the authors denounced as decadent and un-German had already left Germany and gone into exile. Unnoticed, Erich Kästner watched his book Fabian go up in flames.
Did you know that Erich Kästner watched the burning of his books undetected in the crowd?
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The memorial to the book burning
Since 1995, a underground memorial by Micha Ullmann has reminded visitors of the book burnings. Behind a glass plate in the middle of Bebelplatz, a library with empty shelves is set into the ground.
The inscription quotes Heinrich Heine: “That was but a prelude; where they burn books, they will ultimately burn people as well.”