Stuart Forster looks at the history and significance of Berlin’s Cemetery of the March Revolution, known in German as Der Friedhof der Märzgefallenen.
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A sailor with a rifle slung over his right shoulder stands under foliage on the edge of the Berlin cemetery whose German name is Der Friedhof der Märzgefallenen. In English is known as the Cemetery of the March Revolution. The place of rest and historical monument is 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 and then 1918. Those years saw unrest, revolution and bloody episodes that shook the established order. Their legacies are both powerful and open to interpretation.
German revolution of 1848
On the 22nd of March 1848, 183 civilian bodies were interred in this cemetery. A cross-section of Berlin’s society was in attendance. The people present included Alexander von Humboldt, the explorer and naturalist.
Many of the people laid to rest that day were killed on barricades. Some of those barricades were almost three storeys high. They were thrown up on the streets of Berlin by people protesting against unbearable economic, social and political conditions. They were calling for change.
Discontent was simmering among the inhabitants of a rapidly growing city. Berlin’s population had doubled to 400,000 between 1815 and 1848.
European revolutions of 1848
It’s said that a couple of unintentional shots, fired by troops clearing Palace Square (Schlossplatz), sparked the revolution. That 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. He proclaimed his support of a more liberal government and German unification.
Springtime of the Peoples
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. They are regarded 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. The Cemetery of the March Revolution subsequently 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. It was closed in 1856. Five years later, following protests from bereaved family members, it was re-opened. However, speeches were not permitted in the cemetery until the German Empire collapsed at the end of World War One (1918).
1918 German Revolution
From November 1918, soldiers and workers took the streets of Berlin. Once again, violence and revolution resulted in death. Thirty-three 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. By contrast, the Socialist Unity Party, who controlled Germany’s eastern sector after World War Two, erected a stone memorial in 1948. It commemorated 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.
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. The sculpture depicts a participant of the November Revolution of 1918.
Friedhof der Märzgefallenen
Calls are now being made for the cemetery to be recognised as a national memorial, a place marking the spirit of ’48. Standing reading the names of Wilhelm Krause and Gustav von Lensk and the inscriptions on their headstones you may be tempted to mull to what extent their deaths contributed to bringing the liberties we now take for granted.
As I gazed at the graves of the long-dead revolutionaries a school group arrived. Youngsters broke the silence with laughter and chatter. The teacher began talking and the schoolchildren started to listen.
He explained how this is the most significant location in the former kingdom of Prussia to be associated with the 1848 revolution. It’s a shame that so few visitors to Germany’s capital pause to visit this place of national significance.
Travel to Berlin
Berlin Airport (IATA code BER) is the principal point of entry for air travellers visiting Germany’s capital city.
The S-Bahn’s S9 and S45 lines connect the airport and central Berlin. Airport Express and regional trains also run between the airport and Berlin Hauptbahnhof, the city’s central station.
Travel to Der Friedhof der Märzgefallenen
Visit the Berliner Verkehrsbetriebe website for information about public transport in Berlin, including fares and timetables.
Klinikum im Friedrichshain is the closest tram stop to the Cemetery of the March Revolution. The M5 (travelling to Zingster Strasse) and M6 (towards Riesaer Strasse) travel by the cemetery.
Bus 142 stops at Platz der Vereinten Nationen, a short walk from the cemetery.
Map of the Cemetery of the March Revolution
The map below shows the location of the Cemetery of the March Revolution in Berlin:
Hotels in Berlin
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 stylish modern hotel has a wellness area with a sauna and steam room, meeting rooms, a lobby bar plus a restaurant serving tapas and Mediterranean cuisine.
Search and book accommodation in Berlin via the HRS website:
Books about Berlin
Keen to know more about Berlin and the revolution of 1848? You can buy the following from Amazon by clicking on the links or cover photos:
On the Barricades of Berlin: An Account of the 1848 Revolution by August Brass:
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