Friedrichsfelde cemetery: Where the socialists lie

The graveyard in the east is brimming with Berlin history. Countless revolutionaries, resistance fighters, spies and artists are buried here.

The final resting place of Karl Liebknecht.
The final resting place of Karl Liebknecht.Sabine Gudath

Berlin-It goes through the night. The night is cold. / The driver brakes. They stop in the forest. / Ten Gestapo men. / Four communists are sitting with them, / John Schehr and comrades. 

Every schoolchild in East Germany had to learn this poem by Erich Weinert by heart and East Germans think of  it immediately when they stand before the grave of John Schehr.

Schehr lies in the Cemetery of the Socialists, a section of Friedrichsfelde Central Cemetery. Schehr was the second-in-command of the Communist party operating underground in Nazi Germany. He was murdered by the Gestapo. In the Cemetery of the Socialists, in the “Grove of Honour,” Schehr found his final resting place, as did his comrades who died with him: Rudolf Schwarz, Erich Steinfurth and Eugen Schönhaar. They are all buried in the rotunda that is bordered by a circular wall. A monolith stands in the centre. Written on it are the words: “The dead remind us.”

While Schwarz, Steinfurth and Schönhaar are buried at the circular wall, John Schehr’s grave is directly before the large memorial stone. The final resting place of Karl Liebknecht, Rosa Luxemburg, Ernst Thälmann and Rudolf Breitscheid, not to mention Otto Grotewohl, the first prime minister of East Germany, Wilhelm Pieck, the first and only president of East Germany, and Walter Ulbricht, Chairman of the State Council of East Germany. All people who were highly esteemed by the East German leadership or who played an important role in the state. 

Every January, thousands come to the cemetery to honour Liebknecht and Luxemburg and place flowers or wreaths at their graves. Nowadays, people come on their own volition, but this wasn't always the case. In East Germany, honouring the dead of the labour movement was compulsory. Increasingly, it became a way for the SED (East German communist party) leadership to uphold its image of itself, a state-mandated homage to Walter Ulbricht and Erich Honecker who stood in the front row before the monolith and gracefully received the line of people.

The grave of Rosa Luxemburg at the Memorial of the Socialists.
The grave of Rosa Luxemburg at the Memorial of the Socialists.imago images / Reiner Zensen

“Politics and honouring the dead always play a large role here in Friedrichsfelde,” says historian Jürgen Hofmann, standing in front of the monolith. During the three-hour tour he doesn’t glance at the documents in his hands a single time. Hardly anyone knows more about the cemetery than Jürgen Hofmann or Holger Hübner. Hübner is the chairman of the association formed to fund the memorial to the German labour movement in Friedrichsfelde while Hofmann is its treasurer. The former is a member of the SPD party (Social Democrats) and once wrote speeches for the former mayor, Walter Momper, while the latter is a member of Die Linke (Germany's leftwing party).

Anyone walking with the duo through the 1.2 kilometre long, 250 metre wide cemetery should allow for plenty of time to visit the various burial sites. The tour begins with the Memorial to the Socialists on the “commander’s hill” and ends at the former graves of the communists who were buried at the former Monument to the Revolution built by Ludwig Mies van der Rohe, which has long since been torn down.

Karl Liebknecht, Rosa Luxemburg and other leading socialist and communist figures adorn a brick wall in the cemetery.
Karl Liebknecht, Rosa Luxemburg and other leading socialist and communist figures adorn a brick wall in the cemetery.imago images / Christian Spicker

It is a hot summer day as Hofmann and Hübner begin the tour. The cemetery was first laid out in 1881. Located near busy Frankfurter Allee, it feels like a garden retreat. Trees provide pleasant shade along the paths. “At the end of the 19th century, Berlin was bursting at the seams,” says Hofmann. Cemeteries had reached their capacity. A new burial site had to be found outside the city.

Cemetery at the city gates

Friedrichsfelde was chosen since it was conveniently situated. Both a railway and a horse path ran there. In April 1880, Berlin purchased 25.5 hectares for the future cemetery for the price of 46,000 marks. The cemetery was intended for people from all walks of life. City gardens director Hermann Mächtig, who once studied under Lenné, designed the park-style site. A cemetery that resembled a park was an innovation at the time.

The large monolith at the Memorial to the Socialists is visible from the gates. The grave of Wilhelm Liebknecht is the only one in the rotunda that is still located at its original site at the circular wall. His second wife, Natalie, is also interred in the family grave. “Natalie’s father was the vice president of the Saint Paul’s church assembly. He forbade her from marrying the revolutionary Liebknecht,” says Jürgen Hofmann. “The couple had to wait until her father died.” His daughter-in-law, Julia, the first wife of his son Karl Liebknecht, is also buried in there.

When Wilhelm Liebknecht was buried in Friedrichsfelde on 12 August 1900, hundreds of thousands followed the casket. “The funeral procession from Charlottenburg, where Liebknecht had lived, to Friedrichsfelde took five hours,” says Holger Hübner. When the last of the mourners set off from Charlottenburg, the first ones had already arrived at the cemetery. “It was like the funeral of a king,” adds Hofmann.

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The grave was dug long before there were thoughts of creating the Memorial to the Socialists here and adding the graves of socialists and communists. “Only a few months after the Second World War, the municipal authorities of Berlin decided to restore the monuments to the labour and democracy movements that had been neglected and damaged by the Nazis,” says Holger Hübner.

Shortly after the KPD and SPD (the communist and social democrat parties) were forced to merge into the SED (the ruling East German communist party), the decision was made to create a joint grove of honour for socialists and communists in Friedrichsfelde. An architectural competition was announced but the winning design was never built because the political division of the city had escalated.

“As the project by Wilhelm Pieck and the municipal authorities of East Berlin moved forward, the winner of the competition, who lived in the western part of the city, refused to make the changes requested,” says Jürgen Hofmann. A new design was commissioned. The sculptor Fritz Cremer was hired to create a work named “Brothers, to the Sun, to Freedom”. It was intended to show a group of women and men walking from the rotunda into the future. The project failed to be realised. No bronze was available in the newly formed East Germany.

A brick stele bearing a red triangle – used to identify political prisoners in the concentration camps – marks the Grove of Honour for the Victims of Fascism. There are now approximately 1,000 urn graves here.
A brick stele bearing a red triangle – used to identify political prisoners in the concentration camps – marks the Grove of Honour for the Victims of Fascism. There are now approximately 1,000 urn graves here.imago images / POP-EYE / Christian Behring

The Memorial to the Socialists, with its large central monolith, was dedicated in January 1951 along with the historical tombstones of the old social democrats and the gravestones for Liebknecht, Luxemburg, Breitscheid and Thälmann. Most of these were symbolic graves, for instance, those of Liebknecht and Luxemburg. “The memorial was completed in the East German era, so it was no longer possible to bury social democrats there,” says Hübner. “West Berlin mayor Ernst Reuter was, of course, not buried here after his death in 1953, but in Zehlendorf.”

The division of the city resulted in other “weirdness”, as Hübner puts it. For example, Wilhelm Pieck was unable to bring the mortal remains of the socialist politician Georg Ledebour to Friedrichsfelde. Ledebour had died in Switzerland in 1947. His widow, Minna, who frequently corresponded with Pieck, asked that her and her husband’s remains be taken to Friedrichsfelde after her death.

The Swiss authorities contacted the West German embassy regarding the transfer. There was no other German representation in Switzerland. Subsequently, the SPD in West Berlin was contacted. “And they said it was none of their business,” recounts Hübner. “After all, Friedrichsfelde is in the east.” The Swiss request was simply not passed on.

A cemetery with heated flooring for GDR bigwigs

When Holger Hübner has finished his story, Jürgen Hofmann points out a gap between two flagstones. Anyone thinking that this space is due to sloppy work is wrong. “This is a kind of heated flooring,” explains Hofmann. While the people had to walk past the heads of the East German state in commemoration of Karl and Rosa every January no matter the weather, heated air that flowed through the gaps warmed the feet of those honouring the dead.

Right behind the memorial is the Pergolenweg tomb, which extends in the direction of the ceremonial hall and was expanded into a tomb of honour. The politicians and functionaries, well-known artists and scientists of East Germany are buried there. This is where the urn of film director Konrad Wolf rests. His brother, Markus Wolf, the East German spymaster, is also here.

Holger Hübner and Jürgen Hofmann could talk about the dead and their achievements for hours: about those who heroically resisted the Nazi regime and about “spies of peace”, about Max and Anna Christiansen-Clausen, the married couple who served the Soviet agent Richard Sorge as radio operators and couriers in Japan.

The story of the fallen policeman

As we walk across the site, a large gravestone, standing alone in a meadow, sticks out. “The police officer Helmut Just is buried here. He gave his life for the righteous cause of peace,” is inscribed on the stone. “Can I tell the story?” asks Hoffmann. Hübner nods and Hofmann tells the tale of the police officer. “Helmut Just was 19 years old and displayed talent as an amateur boxer. His brother was already a police officer. Helmut Just joined the police because he could train better with them…”

Hofmann tells the story vividly as if he’d been sitting there himself the day Just died on 30 December 1952. At the time, there had been a state funeral for the senior police office Herbert Bauer, who had died after an exchange of fire with Soviet soldiers at the border to the French Sector in Reinickendorf. Just was on duty that evening, having taken the shift for a colleague. On the way to Behmbrücke, the bridge that connects Prenzlauer Berg to Wedding, he was shot in the head and died on the way to the hospital.

“The investigation at the time led nowhere,” says Hübner. “The question of whether Just died as an act of revenge or was the victim of criminals has never been answered.” Does anyone visit the grave? “Sometimes there are small stones lying on the grave.”

The lonely death of Käthe Kollwitz

The tour leads through a field with anonymous graves. This is where Stasi boss Erich Mielke is buried. Today, no one can say exactly where. The two cemetery experts agree on that. Hofmann and Hübner lean over the graves of artists, passing gravestones bearing the names of famous people. They stop at a tombstone with a relief. This is the final resting place of the graphic designer, painter and sculptor Käthe Kollwitz.

In the summer of 1944, Kollwitz was taken from Nordhausen to Moritzburg by Prince Ernst Heinrich von Sachsen, an art lover, and hidden from the Nazis in Rüdenhof. This allowed the artist to escape the impending bombardment of Nordhausen. She died in Rüdenhof a few days before the end of war: 77, half-blind, alone.

“Until her death, no one in Moritzburg knew who she was,” says Hofmann. This was for her own protection as the artist, whose works the Nazis had deemed degenerate, had publicly spoken out against Hitler. Hofmann mentions that no coffins were available in April 1945. The pastor’s wife went around and eventually was able to get one from a carpenter, allowing a dignified funeral to be held for Kollwitz. The artist’s mortal remains were cremated in Meißen and taken to the family grave in Friedrichsfelde in the autumn of 1945.

The graphic designer, painter and sculptor Käthe Kollwitz, shown here in a photograph from 1940, rests in the artists' section of the cemetery, in a grave of honour of the city of Berlin.
The graphic designer, painter and sculptor Käthe Kollwitz, shown here in a photograph from 1940, rests in the artists' section of the cemetery, in a grave of honour of the city of Berlin.imago images / United Archives

Nazis destroyed Mies van der Rohe's Monument to the Revolution

The tour ends at the site of the former Monument to the Revolution built by Ludwig Mies van der Rohe that was erected where the KPD, the communists, were permitted to bury their comrades who had died in the fighting of January 1919.

Karl Liebknecht and Rosa Luxemburg also lay here until the Nazis tore down the monument featuring a Soviet star in 1935 and levelled the graves. The association arranged for the gravestones of the front three rows to be restored. Names such as Arthur Schöttler, Erich Kluge and Fritz Thiel adorn them. “The plaques can stay. We received permission from the historical monuments authority,” says Hofmann. He points to the adjacent exhibition, where the names of those buried in 1919 and their biographies are recorded. Mies van der Rohe’s monument is explained, as is its demolition, thus no longer a secret as the Nazis had desired. Two Lichtenberg labourers were arrested when they tried to photograph the defiling of the monument. But a visitor from Japan with a camera remained undetected. Four decades later, he gave his photos to the East Germans.

Jürgen Hofmann and Holger Hübner could tell many more stories. Like about the grave of writer Alex Wedding. Or the graves of the many people killed in a ship accident in Treptow in 1951. Most of the victims were children on an excursion. Or about the gravesite of the actor Steffi Spira, who spoke at the large demonstration at Alexanderplatz on 4 November 1989 and demanded that her great-grandchildren be allowed to grow up in freedom, “without commemorative flags, without citizenship lessons and without blue shirts [the uniform of the East German youth organisation Free German Youth] holding torches marching past high-ranking officials!”

“Every corner of this cemetery has a story to tell,” says Holger Hübner.