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Exploring Berlin's Cemeteries
Posted by Torben
If you visit the Invalidenfriedhof cemetery in central Berlin, you will find not the grave but the gravestone of the most famous fighter pilot of World War I, Manfred von Richthofen. The “Red Baron,” who was so memorably pursued by Snoopy in Peanuts cartoons, is credited with more air combat victories than any other pilot of the war. Richthofen was killed in the spring of 1918 over France, where he was buried with full military honors by the British. After the war, he was reinterred at a military cemetery, also in France. His remains were brought to Berlin in 1925. The massive gravestone on which is written, laconically, only the name “Richthofen,” was placed at the gravesite in 1937 at the behest of Nazi Air Minister (and fellow World War I fighter pilot) Hermann Göring; the Nazis considered the original headstone to be too modest.
The cemetery was located on the border with West Berlin and the gravestone is set against a longish piece of the Berlin Wall. In the mid-1970s, the Communist East German authorities destroyed large parts of it as part of an effort to prevent escapes to the West. At that time, Richthofen's remains were exhumed and reburied in Wiesbaden in West Germany. The gravestone was brought to a West German air force base and only returned to its original location in 2017.
And so, standing in a cemetery for Prussian military elites (Prussia's Arlington) before the former gravesite of a famous World War I fighter pilot whose earthly remains were brought there from France during the Weimar Republic, you can look at the Nazi-sponsored headstone which, along with the grave, was moved to the West because the East Germans were increasing security at their Wall, only to be brought back, sans the human remains, in a reunified Germany: a cemetery plot as a prism of German history.
Dostoevsky famously said that you can judge the degree of civilization of a society by entering its prisons, but prisons generally aren't accessible to tourists (or, rather, accessing them is easy, it's leaving that's hard). And how a society cares for its dead is no less instructive than how it cares for its criminals. Walking through a cemetery, like walking through a museum, is a cultural experience. And unlike other attractions, cemeteries are green, free, and uncrowded, have long opening hours, plentiful park benches, and (often) free public restrooms.
Berlin doesn't have a cemetery listed among the top sights: there's no Père Lachaise, no Vienna Zentralfriedhof, and the city's Jewish cemeteries, perhaps wrongly, don't hold the cachet of Prague's. Still, venturing into any one of the city's many graveyards can be worth your while. You will learn how Germans care for, how they remember their dead; see some grand funerary monuments marking an architectural history otherwise devastated by war; gain insight into Germany's complicated history; and discover the importance of Berlin as a capital of art, literature, music, science, industry, and world politics in the last two centuries.
Foreign visitors to German cemeteries are often struck by how well-tended the burial plots are. You will generally find a stone marker with the name and years of birth and death of the deceased. Otherwise, the grave will be covered with flowers or plants. You will always find several water fountains along with watering cans and rakes to make it easy for the bereaved to care for the plants and remove errant leaves. That graves are looked after by the family is expected, and for my grandparents' generation, this often meant visiting the local cemetery several times a week: it was a source of embarrassment when weeds began to sprout or a grave was covered with dried leaves. For many Germans born after the war, cemeteries became more or less synonymous with a parochialism and conservatism they found offensive.
And so burial practices began to change. Like in the United States, family ties have loosened and the focus on the nuclear family has increased. Children more frequently move away from their hometowns. Religious identification, on the other hand, has withered. Many consider the notion that a visit to the cemetery is necessary to pay respects and to remember the dead to be antiquated. Women no longer stay home to tend to the hearth and bristle at the notion that they are solely responsible for domestic duties that include tending to the graves of family members. As a consequence, German cemeteries are increasingly characterized by grass fields where the cremated remains of the dead are interred anonymously (no more individual graves to take care of). Perhaps there is a little memorial in the middle of the field where loved ones can place flowers. In “forest cemeteries,” urns are buried underneath a tree with just the most inconspicuous marker. Leaving flowers or any other offering is prohibited.
And yet people do so anyway. In spite of the growing alienation from a Christian tradition that ritualized how we commune with the dead, many still feel the need to come to a grave to mourn and remember – perhaps even to light a candle. And some who have been vilified by the Church have chosen to appropriate at least some of the trappings of the Christian tradition: just a few feet from the grave of the Brothers Grimm in the district of Schöneberg, which has long had a strong LGBTQ community, a local organization has financed a memorial and burial place for gay men who died of AIDS. The organization assumed the sponsorship of a 19th century grave – these sponsorships are quite common and facilitate the preservation of old gravestones and mausoleums of (art) historical value – and turned it into a 21st century memorial. In Prenzlauer Berg, the first cemetery for women, called Sappho, was consecrated a few years ago; it is intended specifically as a burial place for Lesbian couples.
Graves in Germany are not permanent. Typically, a grave “contract” will run 20 years, renewable for another 20. Then the burial plots are made available for the next person. This is an old tradition in Europe. The many charnel houses and bone chapels you find were essentially warehouses for the bones of those dead whose graves had expired. In the Catholic tradition, the expectation is that on Judgment Day, the bodies of the dead will be reconstituted to face Christ's verdict, a scene frequently depicted, often quite graphically, in paintings by the Old Masters. Thus, cremation was seen as a hindrance to the resurrection of the body and bones would not be thoughtlessly discarded, even after graves were dissolved.
The Freethinkers, a community of atheists and agnostics established in the 19th century, thought differently. Their cemetery in Prenzlauer Berg is now a park. You can sit down between the gravestones, read a book, sip your beer – and have your kids play in the cemetery's playground. Posted prominently in the graveyard is the slogan of the Freethinkers: "Make this life good and beautiful, there is no beyond, no resurrection."
Cemeteries are everywhere in Berlin. The city grew exponentially in the 19th and early 20th centuries. A lot of people were dying. To accommodate them all, the massive Südwestkirchhof was established outside of the city in Stahnsdorf. It is still among the ten largest cemeteries in the world. A light rail line (now defunct) was built specifically to provide access to it. Nowadays, however, as fewer children are being born and people are living longer, not as many graveyards are needed. In Berlin, many are being shut down as the grave contracts expire. Instead, they are often returned to nature. Walking around the Plötzensee, a lake in northern Berlin, you might come across the odd remnant of a well or a sculpted cross hidden amid bushes – indications, along with the overgrown former house of the cemetery caretaker, that this, for a hundred years, was a burial place.
There is one segment of Berlin society, however, that requires more cemeteries. Germany, increasingly, is a multi-ethnic society. The city's Muslim community has grown dramatically in the last several decades. And more and more Berliners of third and fourth generation Turkish descent are choosing to be buried not in the land of their forbears, but in the country where they lived their lives. Berlin has had an Islamic cemetery since 1866, but more burial plots are needed. In contrast with the formality of the Christian tradition, Islamic cemeteries are characterized by lawn chairs on which family members can sit near the remains of their loved ones; a stark contrast to the formality typical of Christian churchyards.
In the Jewish tradition (as in the Islamic) graves are permanent. And yet the Jewish cemeteries in Berlin bear witness to the fact that the Jewish community is not unaffected by local habits. If you visit the Jewish cemetery in Weißensee, the largest in Europe, you will find (among the opulent late-19th century mausoleums so characteristic of Berlin's Christian cemeteries from that time), that many of the younger plots are covered with cut flowers – not at all in keeping with the Jewish tradition. At the same time, you find that many of the names on the grave markers are Russian and written in Cyrillic characters. The Jewish community in Germany has increased exponentially since the country's reunification in 1990, comprising mostly Jews from the former Soviet Union. It is often said that these recent immigrants are less in touch with their Jewish faith. Be that as it may, the cemetery in Weißensee had a greenhouse from the moment it opened in 1880.
The Weißensee cemetery is perhaps the most beautiful in Berlin. But others, too, are wonderful to walk through, and their appeal is not at all morbid. The aforementioned Südwestkirchhof in Stahnsdorf is a huge English garden, and designed as such. In others you may see the hives that beekeepers have set up, practically, amid the greenery. In addition to their natural beauty, cemeteries are rife with monuments of significant art historical value. Examples of art nouveau and expressionist architecture are few and far between in Berlin, but the city's cemeteries boast some surprises.
The costs for the upkeep of a big cemetery like the one in Stahnsdorf is considerable, not to mention the expense of preserving and protecting the mausoleums and gravestones. Sponsorship of graves is only one way of raising funds. Another is the organization of public events. Open air screenings of the silent movie classic Nosferatu have taken place in Stahnsdorf, where the great director F.W. Murnau is buried. Murnau's embalmed head, by the way, was stolen by grave robbers a few years ago. Security is an issue; often copper and other valuable metals are stolen from statues and mausoleums.
You can chase the big names, visit the graves of famous figures buried in Berlin (more on that below). But often it's the graves of the unknown and anonymous that catch the eye.
In the West Berlin district of Wedding there is a cemetery with an obscure memorial to the victims of the suppression of the workers' uprising in East Germany against the Communist regime of June 17th, 1953. Some of those shot by Soviet and East German authorities were brought to hospitals in West Berlin and buried there. The uprising was viewed by West Germans, wrongly, as an expression of the desire of East Germans for reunification, and June 17th became the West German national holiday. Werner Sendsitzky, a West Berliner who lived in the district of Wedding, was curious about the protests on the East side of town, and so he, along with others, climbed onto the roof of a so-called Behelfsheim near his home to get a better view of the goings-on across the border. (Behelfsheime were small, temporary shelters often built for individual families bombed out during the Second World War.) East German police with drawn pistols were trying to prevent West Berliners who supported the East German demonstrators from pushing across the border into the East. The police fired warning shots into the air, one of which killed Werner. It was his sixteenth birthday.
Berlin's cemeteries often have fields where those killed at the very end of World War II, both military and civilian, were buried shortly after the fighting ended. While those who died in air raids were often interred in unmarked mass grave graves, these fields from the immediate postwar period do have headstones for the deceased. But there is a matter-of-factness about these markers that speaks to the fact that, for those who placed them there, death was nothing special. On the gravestone for Hermann Herzog, who died at age 20, his first name is abbreviated “Herm.;” there's no room for the rest. His grave is flanked by that of an “unknown woman” and that of a man who is “probably Borscheller.”
The Soviets, on the other hand, built impressive memorials to honor their war dead in Berlin. The one in Treptower Park is perhaps best known, but the memorial in Schönholz is no less imposing. These memorials, along with the one located in the Tiergarten, are, of course, also cemeteries. Tens of thousands of Soviet soldiers are buried there, anonymously, in mass graves, among them teenagers who, after walking across the length and breadth of Eastern and Central Europe, being shot at all the while, were killed in the last days before the final triumph over Nazi Germany. The grandness of the funereal architecture serves, perhaps, to distract from the anonymity of the vast majority of the millions of Soviet citizens who lost their lives in World War II.
Soldiers from Commonwealth countries -- mainly pilots and crew shot down over the city during bombing raids -- are buried in their own, more modest cemetery. Italian soldiers brought to the city as "military internees" (not as prisoners of war; Germany did not recognize the Italians, who had been allies until 1943, as such) suffered brutal treatment at the hands of the German military. The many that did not survive were eventually laid to rest in a field in the Waldfriedhof in Zehlendorf.
Before World War II, Germany had of course unabashadely celebrated its war dead. The clenched fist of the dead World War I soldier of the memorial in the Garnisonsfriedhof (which now connects with the Islamic cemetery, by the way) speaks volumes. The war, it makes clear, is not over. And the stone celebrating the few Germans killed during a colonial war that constituted a genocide against the Herero and Nama in German Southwest Africa (modern-day Namibia) would likely be forgotten were it not for the plaque the local government sought fit to place before it in recognition of the many victims of German imperialism.
Social democrats and Communists made the Zentralfriedhof Friedrichsfelde their cemetery of choice. It fell to East Berlin after the Second World War. The Communists, long persecuted, were suddenly in power. The East German regime created a memorial at the cemetery to honor the great figures of German socialism. The ambivalence of that tradition is made clear when you see the likes of Wilhelm Liebknecht, a founder of the German social democratic party, Rosa Luxemburg, murdered by paramilitary reactionaries after the First World War, and Rudolf Breitscheid, a social democrat, not a Communist, who perished in Buchenwald concentration camp, honored alongside the likes of Walter Ulbricht and Otto Grotewohl, representatives of the Communist party dictatorship established in East Germany in 1949.
In light of all this, it may appear ironic that three Nobel peace prize laureates are buried in Berlin. But perhaps that's to be expected: the prize has often been awarded to people active in parts of the world where peace is to be aspired to, not where it already exists. Gustav Stresemann, Carl von Ossietzky, and Willy Brandt all found their last resting place in the city, as have many other figures of international renown. To seek out their graves is to be reminded of just how important the city was, not just for the political history of the 20th century, but for science, art, and culture as well.
It is striking that many of these famous figures had left or been forced to flee Germany after the Nazis came to power: Heinz Berggruen, Willy Brandt, Bertolt Brecht, Marlene Dietrich, John Heartfield, Heinrich Mann, Herbert Marcuse, Helmut Newton – to name just a few. That they should be buried here suggests that the city has some claim on them, even if in many cases they lived their lives someplace else.
Where you choose to be buried is, in a way, a prediction of what the future holds. Ignatz Bubis, the longtime head of the Zentralrat der Juden in Deutschland, the most important organization representing the Jewish community in the country, famously chose to be buried in Israel. For one thing, he was afraid that his grave might be desecrated in Germany (it had happened to that of his predecessor, Heinz Galinski, who is buried in Berlin), But the decision likely reflects a broader disappointment with his inability, as he saw it, to make it clear to the broader public that to be Jewish doesn't mean you stand apart, that you can be both Jewish and German at the same time. Two decades on, Bubis' decision should still give us pause. That other men and women who contributed so much to our understanding of the world, to art and literature, have chosen to find their final resting place in Berlin even after they had to flee the city for their very lives, should give us, perhaps, just a little bit of hope.