Humboldt University and Bebelplatz

Humboldt University

Humboldt University and Bebelplatz


This famous university isn’t a visitor attraction in the true sense of the word, but its historical background makes it more than worthy of a review.

The main building is situated in Unter den Linden opposite Bebelplatz where the Old Library faces the Berlin State Opera House.

Outside the main building are two statues. One is of Wilhelm von Humboldt, the founder of the university in 1810, and the other one is of an explorer and natural scientist, Alexander von Humboldt, Wilhelm’s brother, who also happened to work at the university.

Along with his accomplices, Wilhelm adopted four classical faculties for Berlin University (as it was then called) – Law, theology, medicine, and philosophy. It was so successful that a total of 29 Nobel Prize winners passed through its doors, including Max Planck and Albert Einstein. Other historical figures who studied here were Otto von Bismarck and founders of the Marxist Theory Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels.

Wilhelm von Humboldt
Burning of the Books

Karl Marx was one of the names on a list whose work was blacklisted by the Nazis. Others included Sigmund Freud, Rosa Luxemburg, and Erich Kastner.

On 10th May 1933 Erich Kastner was hidden amongst the crowd of Nazi students and professors in Opera Square (now Bebelplatz) who burnt books “against the un-German spirit”. Hundreds of books were dumped onto the bonfire including Kastner’s ‘Fabian’. Later, he described the event as “Begräbniswetter” (Funeral weather). It rained so hard during the book burning ceremony that apparently the fire brigade had to pour petrol on the fire to keep it burning.

Over 20,000 books were destroyed and the event is remembered by a memorial set under the square. At first it may seem that there’s nothing here to see – and that’s the point. Looking through a glass panel set into the ground, you can see empty bookshelves which can accommodate around 20,000 books. The memorial was designed by the Israeli artist, Micha Ullman and unveiled on 20th March 1995.

Another former student at Berlin University who had his books burnt was Heinrich Heine. In 1821 he wrote a play called Almansor, in which he wrote some lines that little did he know would be very relevant to Bebelplatz – “Where they burn books, they will ultimately burn people as well”.

The Empty Shelves Memorial
The Empty Shelves Memorial

4 thoughts on “Humboldt University and Bebelplatz

  1. Sarah Wilkie

    I remember visiting this spot, but unfortunately on our visit the pane of glass was misted over and the installation below very hard to see – they seem to have cleaned it up since then. I recall there was also a plaque commemorating the event?


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