Stuart Forster looks at the history and significance of Berlin’s Cemetery of the March Revolution.
A sailor with a rifle slung over his right shoulder stands under foliage on the edge of the Der Friedhof der Märzgefallenen, the Cemetery of the March Revolution, in Berlin’s Friedrichshain district. Like the cemetery as a whole, the bronze sculpture is somewhat hidden yet a monument to tumultuous, formative times in Germany and Europe.
To understand the significance of this place, you need to look back to 1848 then 1918, years that saw unrest, revolution and bloody episodes which shook the established order and whose legacies prove both powerful and open to interpretation.
Burying the 1848 revolutionaries
On 22nd March 1848 183 civilian bodies were interred in this cemetery with a cross-section of Berlin’s society in attendance, including the likes of Alexander von Humboldt, the explorer and naturalist.
Many of the people laid to rest were killed on barricades, some almost three storeys high, thrown up on the streets of Berlin by people protesting against unbearable economic, social and political conditions and calling for change. Discontent simmered among the inhabitants of a rapidly growing city, whose population had doubled to 400,000 since 1815. Mass demonstrations, buoyed by reports of revolutions in Paris and Vienna, called for liberal and nationalist concessions from Prussia’s King Friedrich Wilhelm IV.
It’s said that a couple of unintentional shots, fired by troops clearing Palace Square (Schlossplatz), sparked the revolution and resulted in the raising of barricades on 18th March 1848. Just a day later 180 protestors and 20 soldiers lay dead. More would succumb to wounds in the days and weeks that followed.
Significantly, King Friedrich Wilhelm IV donned black, red and gold – the colours of the revolutionary flag – when he rode through Berlin on 21st March proclaiming his support of more liberal government and German unification.
Interpreting the ‘People’s Spring’
The ‘People’s Spring’ of 1848 is interpreted as a key stepping stone in the movement towards democracy, liberty and the evolution of national sentiment in a number of European nations. To some, the people buried within the Cemetery of the March Revolution are heroes; martyrs who fought against autocracy and oppression. Some believe their sacrifice contributed to the forging of a collective German consciousness.
On 4th June 1848 Berliners gathered in the cemetery to hear Paul Börner, an activist for democracy, call for the achievements of the revolution to be publicly acknowledged. Nine months later, the first anniversary of the street fighting was marked by the mass laying of wreaths and bouquets in the cemetery, which became a symbolic place of homage.
The politicisation of the Cemetery of the March Revolution resulted in the chief of police forbidding visits on 18 March 1850 and it being closed in 1856. Five years later, following protests from bereaved family members, it was re-opened but speeches were not permitted here until the German Empire collapsed at the end of World War One (1918).
The Revolution of 1918
From November 1918 soldiers and workers took the streets of Berlin and, once again, violence and revolution resulted in death. Thirty-three of the revolutionaries of 1918 and 1919 are also buried in the cemetery, whose story is told on a rotunda of display boards and within a converted shipping container.
Over the past century the cemetery’s fortunes have waxed and waned according to changes in political regimes. The National Socialists neglected the cemetery while the Socialist Unity Party, who controlled the eastern sector of Germany after World War Two, erected a stone memorial in 1948 to commemorate the centenary of the 1848 revolution. The monument honours the people who died to be “united and free” and 18th March 1948 was declared a state holiday.
Also, during the era of the German Democratic Republic, the significance of the November Revolution was celebrated. In 1961 Red Sailor, by Hans Kies, was unveiled, depicting a participant of the November Revolution of 1918.
The cemetery as a national memorial?
Calls are now being made for the cemetery to be recognised as a national memorial, a place marking the spirit of ’48. I stand reading the names and inscriptions on the headstones – those of the likes of Wilhelm Krause and Gustav von Lenski – contemplating if their deaths really did help bring liberties we now take for granted.
A school group arrives, breaking the silence with laughter and chatter. The teacher begins talking and the kids start to listen. They hear how this is the most significant location in the former kingdom of Prussia to be associated with the 1848 revolution. I decide to push on and explore more of Germany’s capital.
Get off tram M5 (travelling to Zingster Strasse) or M6 (towards Riesaer Strasse) at the Klinikum im Friedrichshain stop. Bus 142 stops at Platz der Vereinten Nationen.
Where to stay
Staying at 4-star Hotel NH Berlin Alexanderplatz (Landsberger Allee 26-32, 10249 Berlin, tel. +49 (0) 30 4226130) places you across the street from the Volkspark Friedrichshain. The smart hotel has a wellness area with a sauna and steam room, meeting facilities, a lobby bar plus a restaurant serving tapas and Mediterranean cuisine.
The Cemetery of the March Revolution (website only in German) is located within Berlin’s first public park, the Volkspark Friedrichshain.
If you enjoyed this post why not sign up for the free Go Eat Do newsletter? It’s a hassle-free way of getting links to posts on a monthly basis.
‘Like’ the Go Eat Do Facebook page to see more photos and content.