Grave Rob - Berlin's 'Memorial to the Socialists'
On one edge of the starkly eastern suburb of Berlin-Lichtenberg, a short walk from the wonderfully named ‘Avenue of the Cosmonauts’, sits the ‘Memorial to the Socialists’, the resting place of the good and the not-so-good comrades in East Germany’s socialist and soviet past. It really is well worth a couple of hours of exploration, as long as you know what you are looking for and if, like me, you like to hang around in graveyards every once in a while.
The site is massive, with sections poignantly remembering volunteers who went to fight Franco in Spain, as well as those who stood against the Nazis, paying the highest price for their beliefs. The last time I visited (I’ve hung around this graveyard more than once!) I stumbled upon just one typical story at the not particularly prominent grave of Willi Schneider, born in 1907 and killed on 1st January 1931, not yet 24 years of age. A sales assistant, Willi was part of the Social Democratic Party as well as a cross-party organisation protecting the democracy of Germany’s Weimar Republic from right-wing and left-wing extremists. During the night of New Year’s Eve Willi was shot by Hitler’s ‘Sturmabteilung’ henchmen. At his funeral, which became a mass demonstration in favour of parliamentary democracy, the Social Democrat MP Johannes Stelling called for an end to, ‘the murder of people who fight for their beliefs using only spiritual weapons’. Stelling himself was murdered by the SA in 1933 and rests within this very same graveyard.
There is also a ‘Revolution Monument’ commemorating the failed Spartacist uprising of 1919. The centrepiece of the site, the ‘Memorial to the Socialists’ itself, houses the graves of those Spartacist leaders, Rosa Luxemburg and Karl Liebknecht, Communist revolutionaries during the civil war that gripped Berlin, killed by a militia called the Freikorps, ironically ordered to quash the rebellion by the Social Democrats. That’s not the biggest irony though, as the Soviet regime that followed World War II also buried its Politburo members in this cemetery, which means that revolutionary Rosa Luxemburg, idolised and idealised by many, rests not too far away from Walter Ulbricht, the GDR leader responsible for the Berlin Wall that cruelly split families and friends for decades. Fittingly, a small stone on a nearby large, grassed area remembers the victims of Stalinism.
The ’Memorial to the Socialists’ is part of Lichtenberg’s huge central graveyard and, after much rooting around, in a quiet corner I managed to find probably the most contentious memorial of them all, unnamed for obvious reasons but inscribed with a poem by Karl August Förster. Erich Mielke was head of the Stasi, the hated East German state security force and equivalent to the Soviet Union’s KGB, which spied on and tortured its own people. The Stasi was, in fact, based here in Lichtenberg too, with the old headquarters in Normannenstrasse occupied now by a fabulous museum documenting the methods occupied by the Stasi to control the population. Mielke’s old office is left untouched from the day it was vacated, a superb yet sinister time capsule of a different era.