Jesse Simon discovers some of Berlin’s former movers and shakers via the city’s ‘honoured graves’…
On returning, as a teenager, from my first trip to Paris, the question I was asked most frequently was ‘did you visit Jim Morrison’s grave?’. I hadn’t, although I did spend a delightful summer morning wandering through the city’s famous Père Lachaise cemetery; yet somehow people weren’t quite as interested in hearing about the graves of Frédéric Chopin and Yves Montand.
The allure of the cemetery is difficult to explain, and the attraction of a particular grave is often very personal. Any traveller will know that the urban cemetery can offer a welcome reprieve from the crowds and noise of the city, but there are fundamental differences between a casual stroll and a specific visit.
On a leisurely promenade, we may barely even notice the markers and mausolea that give the place its purpose; however, when we visit a cemetery with the intention of finding someone, there is, if we are lucky, a fleeting sense of communion with the greatness of some historical figure.
In Berlin there are few single graves that attract any kind of sustained pilgrimage and no one cemetery that, like Père Lachaise, has attained the status of tourist attraction; yet the cemeteries of Berlin can provide a fascinating history of German and European culture over the last three centuries. In amongst those polished stones and carved names are the hidden stories of poets and musicians, scientists and statesmen, many of whom helped shape not only the German capital, but the larger modern world.
One can visit many of Berlin’s major cemeteries in a single day, but few are designed as attractions, and many do not even bother to provide information about their most famous residents. For this reason, it is always a good idea to do a bit of advance planning before you set off.
A full list of Ehrengräber — ‘honoured graves’, the numerous individuals who have contributed to the cultural and intellectual life of the city – can be found online (sorted alphabetically by surname, but not by cemetery), and in the cemeteries themselves, where they are identified by a small terra-cotta marker next to the grave. In addition, the city of Berlin website and German Wikipedia pages provide some information about the individual cemeteries.
The available resources vary from place to place, and finding actual maps with grave locations can be difficult. Nonetheless, a small amount of research will go a long way. The real secret is not to become too obsessed with finding exactly who you’re looking for; part of the joy of cemetery walks is the thrill of accidental discovery.
There are plenty of interesting people buried in Berlin, especially if you are interested in the history of science and medicine, say, or literature, music or the political development of the German state. What follows here is a highly personal selection of such figures, who have lent some of their particular greatness to Berlin…
The highest concentration of famous graves in Mitte — and the closest thing Berlin has to a tourist-path cemetery — is Dorotheenstadt I on Chausseestrasse (U6 Naturkundemuseum; not to be confused with Dorotheenstadt II, about ten minutes north on Liesenstraße, which is a lovely place for a stroll, if somewhat lacking in well-known residents). At the entrance, one is greeted by a map with the locations of over one hundred graves, and it is not uncommon to find small groups of tourists clustered around some of the more ostentatious monuments.
One of the least prepossessing markers belongs to one of the cemetery’s more notable residents, the dramatist Bertolt Brecht (1898–1956), who is buried next to his wife, the actress Helene Weigel (1900–1971). Brecht is well known to students of theatre for his heavily didactic stage works and his pioneering use of the distancing effect; in popular culture, however, he may be best known for the songs he wrote with composer Kurt Weill, including that august standard ‘Mack the Knife’.
Brecht also wrote numerous songs with composer Hanns Eisler (1898–1962) who is buried only a few yards away. Both Eisler and Brecht had fled Germany in the early thirties, both somehow ended up working in Hollywood during the war, and both would eventually run afoul of the anti-communist House Un-American Activities Committee (in Eisler’s case, turned in by his own sister). Ultimately, both found their way back to the city that had witnessed their first artistic triumphs, where they spent the remaining years of their lives; Brecht founded the Berliner Ensemble – which flourished, after Brecht’s death, under the directorship of Helene Weigel – and Eisler ended up writing the national anthem of the DDR.
Not far from this pair of twentieth century artistes, one may pay respect to a pair of nineteenth century philosophers. Johann Gottlieb Fichte (1762–1814), in addition to being one of the earliest proponents of idealism, also became rector of Berlin’s newly founded Humboldt University in 1810, and held the philosophy chair until his death four years later.
His contributions to philosophy are today overshadowed by Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel (1770–1831), who succeeded Fichte as the chair of philosophy. The fact that they are now resting side by side is no coincidence: although Hegel would go on to become much more influential — his writings lay at the foundation of many major philosophical schools that have emerged over the subsequent two centuries — he held Fichte in such high regard that he asked to be buried next to him.
Along the main north-south avenue of the cemetery, one may spot the resting place of architect, painter and urban planner Karl Friedrich Schinkel (1781–1841). If the small stone obelisk in his honour seems distinctly understated, it is because Berlin contains far greater monuments to his influence on the city.
Although he started as a painter and scenographer — his celebrated backdrops for Mozart’s The Magic Flute can still be seen at the Staatsoper — he eventually turned to architecture and was responsible for some of the city’s most splendid neo-classical buildings, including the Konzerthaus and the Altes Museum. The neo-gothic monument on the hill of Viktoria Park (from which the borough of Kreuzberg takes its name) is also his.
If Schinkel helped to fashion the city in a fairly orthodox manner, the contribution of Ernst Litfaß (1816–1874) was decidedly more idiosyncratic. It was Litfaß who first came up with the idea of placing columns on the street, which could be used for poster advertising. The columns are now such an integral part of Berlin — and, indeed, of most European cities — that it is difficult to imagine a time when they did not exist; however, the columns are also so subtle that many people remain unaware of their existence, noticing only the message of the posters attached to them.
Although the grave of Litfaß is minimal and unobtrusive — as befits a man who sought to clear the city of unchecked bill posting — his name lives on in the columns themselves, which are known throughout the German-speaking world as Litfaßsäule, or Litfaß-columns.
While Dorotheenstadt I contains the greatest number famous graves in a single place, there are other notable individuals to be found in Mitte. The great novelist Theodor Fontane (1819–1898) — a key figure in German realism whose novel Effi Briest was adapted for the screen by Fassbinder — can be visited in the Französische Friedhof on Liesenstraße (U6 Schwarzkopffstraße). And the Alte Jüdischer Friedhof on Große Hamburger Straße (U8 Weinmeisterstr. / S5 Hackescher Markt) contains the grave of Moses Mendelssohn, the influential enlightenment philosopher.
In addition to being renowned throughout Europe for his erudition, Moses was also patriarch of the extensive Mendelssohn family, who remained fixtures of Berlin society during the nineteenth century. However, most of Moses’ sons and daughters would end up converting to Christianity, allowing them to secure some more upmarket real estate in the cemeteries around Hallesches Tor (see below).
Unlike the cemeteries of Mitte or Kreuzberg — which you may come across in the course of a casual stroll — a trip to the Friedhof Heerstraße beyond the western edge of the Stadtring (S5/U2 Olympia-Stadion) takes some dedication. But if you have some time before the Hertha match or a concert at the Waldbühne, you will be rewarded with the resting places of a handful of intriguing Berliners.
Max Friedländer (1867–1958) may not be a household name, except to those who have studied art history; however his enthusiasm for renaissance painting in the low countries — which resulted in the multi-volume masterwork Early Netherlandish Painting — inspired renewed appreciation of such painters as Jan van Eyck, Joachim Patinir and Pieter Bruegel during the twentieth century. Before moving to Amsterdam in the 1930s, he had been director of Berlin’s Gemäldegalerie, where evidence of his curatorial eye can still be seen today.
A more recent addition to the cemetery is the singer Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau (1925–2012), arguably the greatest baritone of the twentieth century. Fischer-Dieskau was often unparalleled in his interpretations of the German operatic repertoire, but when it came to the songs of Schubert he was untouchable; in his lifetime he performed and recorded every one of the more-than-600 songs that Schubert composed. When Berlin’s Deutsche Oper — destroyed by RAF bombs in 1943 — finally reopened in 1961, Fischer-Dieskau sang the title role in Mozart’s Don Giovanni, and remained a member of the company until his retirement two decades later.
Not far away sits the grave of Thea von Harbou (1888–1954), whose life in Berlin was somewhat more controversial. Von Harbou was working as a novelist and screenwriter in the years following the first world war, when she met the filmmaker Fritz Lang. The two, who would eventually marry, collaborated on two of the most extraordinary films of the silent era — Metropolis and Die Nibelungen — as well as the early sound film M.
Lang fled Germany in 1934, eventually landing in Hollywood where he spent the rest of his life downplaying the uncomfortable political overtones of his greatest films; von Harbou, however, remained in Germany and continued to write screenplays that were heavily nationalistic in tone. Despite this, the genius of her best work and the indisputable complexity of her character position her in the pantheon of fascinating and contradictory individuals who have called Berlin their home.
The two principal cemeteries of Schöneberg are neither close together nor especially convenient to get to, but they are worth making the effort due to several figures of interest. At the Städtischer Friedhof III, just south of the Stadtring off Sudwestcorso (S42/U9 Bundesplatz), one may visit the grave of Marlene Dietrich (1901–1992).
Unlike many of the residents of Dorotheenstadt (see above) who gravitated to Berlin at various points in their career, Dietrich was born less than a mile from where she is buried; and even though she achieved her greatest fame in Hollywood, she did so by bringing the flavour of Weimar Republic era Berlin to American cinema. The films she made with Josef von Sternberg between 1930 and 1935 — especially The Scarlet Empress and The Devil is a Woman — deserve a place on anyone’s must-watch list.
Not far from Marlene Dietrich’s birthplace, on the Roten Insel, is the peaceful Alter St. Matthäus cemetery (S1/U7 Yorckstraße), home to a handful of notable individuals. Jacob Grimm (1785–1863) and his brother Wilhelm (1786–1859) are best known outside the German-speaking world for their compendium of folktales.
As linguists, philologists and lexicographers, their greatest achievement was almost certainly the compilation of the Deutsches Wörterbuch, the first comprehensive dictionary of the German language; however, while the brothers spent the final two decades of their life on the project, it remained unfinished at the time of Jacob’s death. Between one thing and another, it would take another hundred years to bring the dictionary to completion.
In the same cemetery, there stands a stone in memory of Claus von Stauffenberg (1907–1944) and his co-conspirators, who made an unsuccessful bid to assassinate Hitler on the 20th of July 1944. The marker, however, is not exactly their final resting place. After they were executed by firing squad, the conspirators were, indeed, buried in Alter St. Matthäus; the next day, however, they were exhumed and moved to an unknown location.
Two hundred years ago, the area to the south of Hallesches Tor would have been safely outside the boundaries of the city and an ideal spot for burying the dead. Today the extensive cemeteries of Hallesches Tor and Bergmannstraße — both of which contain several distinct cemeteries occupying the same continuous pieces of land — find themselves in the centre of western Kreuzberg, surrounded by major roads and residential areas.
Dreifaltigkeit II (U7 Gneisenaustraße) sits on Bergmannstraße just beyond the Marheinekeplatz Markthalle, on a piece of land that climbs gently in the direction of Tempelhof. Here we find a pair of nineteenth-century figures whose investigations into the classical and medieval world lay the foundation for much modern scholarship.
Karl Lachmann (1793–1851) was the kind of energetic polymath who could make just about anyone else look slack. After becoming a professor in Königsberg at the age of 25, he came to Berlin in 1825 and spent the remainder of his life preparing critical editions of Greek and Latin texts and translating Shakespeare’s Sonnets into German. In addition to his achievements in classical scholarship, he was also an expert on Middle High German literature and was responsible for preparing new editions of the anonymous epic poem Das Nibelungenlied — which formed the basis for Thea von Harbou’s screenplay (see above) — and Wolfram von Eschenbach’s Parzival.
One of the few people who could make Lachmann look like an underachiever was Theodor Mommsen (1817–1903). Mommsen wrote a definitive five-volume history of the Roman empire, edited the two most important collections of Roman law, prepared a fifteen volume compendium of Roman inscriptions and generally established himself as the impassable marble slab over which all subsequent Roman historians would have to climb. He also managed to sire sixteen children, although one imagines him perhaps reading a book at the same time.
A ten minute walk from Bergmannstraße, the cemeteries near Hallesches Tor, also contain a handful of illustrious residents. Dreifaltigkeit I (U6 Mehringdamm), sandwiched between a number of other cemeteries, is notable for the large number of Mendelssohn Bartholdys buried there. Moses Mendelssohn — whom we have already encountered in Mitte’s old Jewish cemetery — had several children, one of whom was Abraham Mendelssohn (1776–1835), a successful banker who was none too happy about his Jewish roots; not only did he convert to Christianity, but he adopted the name Bartholdy to further obscure the connection with his famous — and famously Jewish — father.
Abraham’s son was the composer Felix Mendelssohn (1809–1847), who is possibly the most well-known member of the family. His works have remained tremendously popular in the concert hall — in Berlin alone it is usually possible to hear his Violin Concerto performed two or three times per year — and there is a one hundred percent chance that you have heard the opening bars of his Fourth Symphony, even if you didn’t know what it was at the time.
Felix’s sister Fanny Mendelssohn (1805–1847) was also a talented composer and musician who had the misfortune of being born into a family with strong ideas about what a woman should and shouldn’t do. Composition, unsurprisingly, fell into the latter category. When she was 24, she married Wilhelm Hensel (1794–1861), a painter who was reasonably well known in his time, if largely forgotten in twentieth century. Between Abraham, Fanny and Felix, in addition to their brothers, sisters, sons and daughters, it is difficult to go very far without running into yet another Mendelssohn. For those who desire clarification, there is a small chapel at the southern end of the cemetery devoted to the various branches of the family.
One of the few non-Mendelssohns of note in Dreifaltigkeit I is Heinrich von Stephan (1831–1897) who effectively nationalised the postal system in the German Empire; he also convinced Werner von Siemens to manufacture telephones as an alternative to telegraph equipment, and could justly be considered one of the godfathers of German telecommunication.
Von Stephan is less remembered now for his attempts to preserve the integrity of the German language in the face of technological change. For all his introductions and modifications to the postal service and telecommunications network, he made sure to devise names that eschewed the influence of Latin, Greek or (heaven forefend) French. While few of von Stephan’s names took off (who really uses Fernsprecher over Telefon?), the practice of creating widely unadopted alternative words for technological developments continues to this day.
Dreifaltigkeit I is surrounded on both sides by the cemeteries of Jerusalems- and Neuenkirchegemeinde, and if you put the word ‘Straße’ or ‘Platz’ after many of the names there, you might end up with a reasonably convincing map of Berlin. Among the stones and memorials you will find Peter Simon Pallas (of Pallasstraße fame), Albrecht von Graefe (of Graefestraße fame) and Adalbert von Chamisso (of Chamissoplatz fame), among many others.
One of the cemetery’s most intriguing residents, however, is E.T.A. Hoffmann (1776–1822). If you have never read his short story ‘The Sandman’, then you should take yourself to the nearest bookshop immediately, for it is surely one of the great short stories in any language. However, while Hoffmann is remembered today primarily for his writing — which has inspired artists as diverse as Jacques Offenbach and Andrei Tarkovsky — he was also a moderately successful composer, a reasonable visual artist and, just to confound people, a highly competent jurist.
Hoffmann may also be the model citizen of Berlin: brought to the city by circumstance, it did not take him long to make the place his own. He was a noted drinker, a fantastic dreamer and a man who never quite belonged to his own time, but in Berlin he found a home that allowed him to realise his greatest works. If this haunted, itinerant romantic was able to find some respite here, then there is hope for us all.