Zentralfriedhof Friedrichsfelde

Rebecca Batley profiles Berlin’s most socialist cemetery…

Located a short walk from Lichtenberg S-Bahn station, Berlin’s Zentralfriedhof Friedrichsfelde (Friedrichsfelde Cemetery) lies in a quiet, almost forgotten corner of the bustling city that once contained the headquarters of the East German State Security Police (Stasi), now a museum.

The site was chosen largely for its convenience, as a main road and railway line both ran nearby. Purchased for the sum of 46,000 Marks by the city and officially established in 1881, long before the emergence of the GDR, the cemetery started life as Berlin’s first for paupers.

But it was designed by Hermann Mächtig, a pupil of master Prussian landscape architect Peter Joseph Lenné, who favoured a green, park-style aesthetic, and grew popular with the city’s wealthy families after their traditional inner-city burial grounds started to get full. Only at the turn of the century did it make a turn towards becoming a resting place for Germany’s Socialists, Communists, and those who fought vehemently against the Nazi regime.

This left-wing association began in 1900 when the co-founder of the Social Democratic Party, Wilhelm Liebknecht was buried here; over 100,000 of his supporters lined the route on the day of the funeral procession, with fellow SPD member Holger Hübner writing that “the funeral procession from Charlottenburg, where Liebknecht had lived, took five hours.”

The procession was a show of working class solidarity the likes of which Germany had never seen before. Liebknecht was an associate of Friedrich Engels and a good friend of Karl Marx, and he had helped the Socialist Democratic Party become the largest political party in Germany; but his roots were far more modest and his willingness to risk everything, including imprisonment, for his beliefs had made him hugely popular with the working classes of Berlin.

Burial of victims of the 1919 Revolution. Image: Bundesarchiv Bild 183-08931-0002. Via Wikipedia.

His burial was followed by that of his son, Karl Liebknecht, in 1919, who was killed by right-wing Freikorps soldiers for his role in the Spartacist uprising of January 1919. Liebknecht’s tomb today attracts even more attention than that of his father, and its simple stone marker is the focus of the Liebknecht-Luxemburg Demonstration that has been held annually in Berlin ever since his death. This procession, which takes place on the second Sunday of January, is the largest gathering today of the German left, with thousands attending each year and leaving bright red carnations in front of the stone.

Seven years after Karl Liebknecht’s burial, in 1926, a monument was created in the cemetery by architect and Bauhaus director Ludwig Mies van der Rohe, which was dedicated to the Communists who had died fighting. Though it was torn down by the Nazis, it was replaced in 1951 and it’s this iteration that still stands: a central obelisk bears the words Die Toten mahnen uns (“The dead remind us”) and is set inside a semi-circular wall that bears 327 names of Communists and German Politburo members, all of whom died fighting Fascism.

Gedenkstätte der Sozialisten, 1951. Via A.Savin / Wikimedia Commons

The names on the revolutionary list include that of Hilde Coppi, a member of the anti-Nazi resistance group nicknamed the Red Orchestra. Pregnant when she was arrested, she was allowed to live only long enough to give birth and nurse her son for nine months before Hitler personally refused a request for clemency; she was beheaded in 1943. Ilse Stobe is another significant name—a determined anti-Nazi resistance fighter and spy who used the code name “Alta”, Stobe became the only woman to be commemorated by the Stasi for her services to Communism during World War Two. She was arrested for espionage and executed by the Nazis in 1942 on charges of treason.

Inside the semicircle of the revolution memorial lie a series of gravestones engraved with the names of key German Socialist leaders. These names include Karl Liebknecht, Wilhelm Pieck, Ernst Thälmann, and Walter Ulbricht. One of the most visited of these gravestones is that of Rosa Luxemburg, a Polish Jew who became extremely active in the Communist Party of Germany (KPD). She co-founded the newspaper the Red Flag, and was captured and murdered alongside Liebknecht in 1919.

The cemetery also contains a Socialist Memorial, whose dozen panels tell the story of the cemetery and the biographies of some of the best-known figures buried here. But it’s a pleasant experience to just walk around the quiet, green expanse and discover other GDR bigwigs, both famous and infamous. Former Stasi head Ernst Wollweber is also here, as is Erich Mielke, although his unmarked grave isn’t so easy to find.

Alongside the politicians lie numerous East German cultural and scientific luminaries. Film director Konrad Wolf, famous for his films ‘Divided Heaven’ and ‘Mama I’m Alive,’ is here, sharing a grave with his brother Markus Wolf, a famous Stasi ‘spymaster’ known as ‘the man without a face’. Astronomer Friedrich Simon Archenhold is here, as is Wolfgang Struck, former director of the Friedrichstadt-Palast, artist and sculptor Käthe Kollwitz, and painter and graphic designer Otto Nagel.

Gravestone of Käthe and Karl Kollwitz. CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikipedia

The cemetery is helpfully signposted and the cemetery has retained its original park atmosphere despite the darkness of some of the history it represents and the tragic sadness of some of its inhabitants. Its worth taking at least an hour or two for a walk here, and if you want to experience something special, join the Liebknecht-Luxemburg procession in January—and don’t forget to bring a red rose or carnation if your political beliefs align.

Liebknecht Luxemburg Demo, 2018. Image by Fridolin freudenfett, via CC BY-SA 4.0 / Wikimedia.
Next in Historical BerlinHaus der Kulturen der Welt »