How One Square Shaped Tolerance in Berlin

Berlin is most definitely a city of history! Whether you’re walking through a former Berlin Wall death strip at Mauer Park on a leisurely Sunday afternoon, enjoying the view from the Prussian victory tower in Tiergarten, or admiring the man brave enough to inspire the film Cabaret, (or the man who brought the world Ziggy Stardust) in Schoenberg. This city is a walking talking history textbook!

A city that is most famous for its intolerance and prejudices, that helped define world history in the Twentieth century. However, that is far from the case, this city has had a much longer history of acceptance and tolerance, than its dark years of division. This can be seen in no clearer spot than Bebelplatz in Mitte which has seen both sides of this cities Tolerance, on a tour that can be seen on a clock face.

Let’s start facing the road, the busy bustling street of Unter Den Linden. Straight ahead of you stares the impressive façade of Humboldt University of Berlin. Founded in 1810, it is one of Germanys oldest universities, and one of top universities in the world. Founded by Wilhelm von Humboldt, whose statue is guarding the gates to the building, alongside his brother Alexander, who was a famous geographer.  This university has educated some of the most famous names of the past few centuries, including Karl Marx, the Brothers Grimm and over 20 Nobel prize winners. For a brief moment, Albert Einstein was one of the many lectures to teach within its walls.

Take an anti-clockwise turn away from the university building, (move from the twelve o’clock position to the nine o’clock position) and your facing another one of the universities many exciting buildings. The faculty of law, nearly as old as the main building itself, with just an impressive of history. Built during the Prussian empire, the law faculty was then and is now, a symbol of critical thinking and democracy within Germany, and remains one of the main reasons, why I recommend Bebelplatz as the perfect point to summarize Berlins history. The university highlights the level of tolerance, free thinking and democracy, that (aside from the dark parts of the Twentieth Century) Berlin has been known for.

Follow the clock round again, round anticlockwise again from nine o’clock to five o’clock. Right now your staring at another classic example of Berlins tolerance. The church of St. Hedwig (and no, it isn’t the church of everything Harry Potter related), was the first Catholic Church built in the Prussian Empire following the Protestant reformation. Built under the order of King Frederick, to allow Catholics from other parts of the empire, to worship in the capital.  This church remained tolerant throughout the turbulent thirties, one of the last places to support Jewish people in the city throughout Nazi reign.

This brings us to the complete other end of the scale, the extreme idea of intolerance in this city, at three o’clock our metaphorical clock. This wonderful square has become known, over the past eighty years by another name, the Book Burning Square. In front of some of the most accepting and open minded buildings in Berlin, the Nazi party performed one of their earliest displays of violence and cruelty. On the 10th of May 1933, members of the party, collected books from the library of the Institut fur Sexualwissenschaft that they deemed inappropriate. Over twenty thousand books were burned that night, including books by former Humboldt-ies Karl Marx and Albert Einstein. The memorial in its place is both moving and haunting. The empty bookcases under the ground, covered by a clear glass ceiling, reminds you of the power education and ideas have, and how they need to be used to educate and inform idea’s such as democracy (maybe at the law faculty) rather than fascist prejudice.

 ‘That was only a prelude; where they burn books, they will in the end also burn people.’ This quote by Heinrich Heine (whose books were also burnt), is written alongside the memorial for the burnt books. This sentiment, so simple, so true, feels more poignant on a square which up until the Nazis came to power had stood like a beacon of education and forward thinking.

There you have, round the clock and through history, to highlight both the strengths and weaknesses of tolerance in this wonderful city, and why that one Square has played an integral part in the history of the city.

By Charlotte Deacy

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