The Friedhof Grunewald-Forst. The history of a graveyard whose days are numbered.

Friedhof Grunewald-Forst. Anonymous wooden crosses, graves of  the Russians at the background (Berlin-Grunewald, October 1931). ©Bundesarchiv

Lees hier de Nederlandse vertaling op de website van Jonge Historici.

Looking for the grim sides of life brought me to a search in a somewhat desolated area. After walking at the shore of the Havel for half an hour, I wondered whether I walked too far or not. Getting lost in the wide Grunewald was not my intention – and when an old man who passed by, it is no effort to ask him if he can tell where the Friedhof (graveyard) is. The man answered friendly, though in a quite sure tone that he didn’t knew one around. Besides, he said, it would be unlikely for a graveyard to be next to a river – as if he had looked for a graveyard himself recently. I walked further till a small bay somehow relieved me in a paradoxical way – knowing that this is what I looked for.

Family in a single room. Second half 19th century. ©AVG

During the industrialisation, which set in heavily since the 1870s, Berlin became a city full of misery. There was no way that a labourer could afford a whole apartment for his family. Usually, a family was housed in a single room. During the weekly 72 hours that a labourer had to work in the factory, the beds were rented out to labourers without a place for themselves. A history of rural alcoholism, which had spread to the cities, deepened the problem. Already around 1800, the ‘Branntweinpest‘ (‘Brandy Plague‘) turned most of the German beer drinkers into consumers of liquors within a couple of decades. Especially in the rural ares of Brandenburg -the land around Berlin- these spirits were consumed. It peaked around 1830, although this Plague wouldn’t stop before 1887. In that year, an extra tax on liquors raised the prices – and reduced the consumption of it. In the meanwhile, the rural population of Brandenburg moved towards the Berlin, where the factories provided in work. The so called ‘Elendsalkoholismus‘ (‘Miserable Alcoholism‘) was a wide-spread phenomenon. Given the poor state of Berlin’s livability, alcohol consumption became a way of the poor to forget its trouble in real life. When a labourer was paid his wage, it was not unusual for him to go straight to a bar – if he wasn’t paid in alcohol already. Who knows till which level this alcoholism contributed to the high suicide rates?

Émile Durkheim - Le Suicide (Published 1897). ©Quadrige

Émile Durkheim may know. This French sociologist published a study about suicide in 1897, in which he wrote a serious theory about suicide. A footnote in his theory postulated that a higher grade of industrialisation contributed to a higher suicide rate. In short: Durkheim presumed that industrialisation contributed to a change in social integration and morality – which was a threat to family values. Indirectly, industrialisation contributed to atheism, drunken apathy and a rise in suicide rates of the extending underclass. Of course, many question marks arise when reading a conservative sociologist’s thesis which is over a century old. Personally, I would rather accentuate the poor material conditions of the labourers than their ‘atheist’ tendency of committing suicide. For now, I would like to conclude that Berlin’s rapid urbanisation, poverty and alcoholic sickness must have contributed to an increase of suicides.

The bay at Schildhorn a/d Havel (June 2013. ©Joep de Visser)

Many of the suicides took place by drowning themselves in one of Berlin rivers. At the bay around Schildhorn, where I was looking for in the introduction, a mysterious stream under the water’s surface made the drowned bodies to come ashore here. I feel sorry for them to say, but their misfortune didn’t end when they drowned into the Havel. According to Christianity, making an end to your own life was a serious sin. Someone who committed suicide was therefore not allowed to be buried at christian graveyards. As a result, the forest surveillance were saddled with the corpses. By the end of the 1870s, it was decided to bury the found corpses in the forests nearby the bay where to were found. I’ve got the impression that it was between giving someone a relative honorable grave or dumping the body for the sake of public hygiene. The victims were given an small wooden cross without their names on it.

C. Koch's drawing from 1890. No © needed.

Initially, there was no wall build around the graveyard – which expanded steadily over the decades. Of course, the graves were emptied after a couple of decades. One of the site’s nicknames was ‘Graveyard of the suiciders’. In his drawing from 1890, a certain mister C. Koch illustrated a woman’s figure is mourning at a wooden cross. Only a wooden arbour is there, together with a man at the background. There is no gate or wall around the graveyard. Koch named it ‘Der Friedhof der Namenlosen bei Schildhorn an der Havel‘ (‘The Graveyard of the Nameless at Schildhorn an der Havel‘). In the meanwhile, more men who robbed themselves from their life by other ways were also buried at the graveyard in Grunewald. After their suicides, their family felt that they were without a chance -or felt too ashamed- to bury their relative at a more honorable graveyard.

Graves for the Russians who committed suicide at the Friedhof Grunewald-Forst. (Berlin-Grunewald, August 1931). ©Bundesarchiv

It lasted till 1911 for a modest, stone building to be build for funeral events and farewells. During the First World War, already a number of Russian Prisoners or War were buried at the Friedhof der Namenlosen. By the end of WWI, an unknown number of German soldiers were buried at this graveyard – perhaps lifting its impopular reputation. When the Russian revolutionaries consolidated their power after the October Revolution in 1917, five Russian refugees felt powerless and committed suicide in the following year. In 1919, the graveyard became front page news in Berlin. A certain lovesick nurse named Minna B. committed suicide by overdosing medicines and swallowing morphine. Her dead, cold body was brought to the modest stone building. Shortly before she turned into dust, and only by accident, it was found out that the young nurse still lived. A discussion followed among the living: how can one prevent to be buried alive? A new type of coffin became popular: one with a glass at eye-height. It didn’t scare Minna B. though. About four years later, she committed suicide after all.

Gate of the Friedhof Grunewald-Forst (Berlin-Grunewald, June 2013. ©Joep de Visser)

The 1920s in Berlin became infamous for its high suicide rate, which even at that moment itself seen as a sign of the times. Before the stock market crash of 1929, about 230 in a million Germans committed suicide. Three years later, this number increased till 260 in a million, while this number was about 155 in France and 85 in Great Britain. And within Germany, the average was without a doubt higher in Berlin than elsewhere. Reasons for this high suicide rate were of course personal. My lecturer Moritz Föllmer wrote an article about this topic, and noticed that relatively many suicide notes were not only written to relatives – also the strive for a political goal was listed as a cause of the suicide. One felt exploited by capitalists – or unprotected by the weak German state. A nobleman committed suicide because he couldn’t cope with the democracy, a teenager made an end to his short life after his father forbade him to join a para-militaristic group and a high-school pupil demanded an immediate reform of the school system. Of course, not everyone who committed suicide in the area of Berlin did this in the river Havel. Already in 1920, Berlin expanded as a city. Also the ‘Friedhof der Namenlosen‘ became part of the German capital. As a result, every borough was obliged to provide in at least one graveyard which was independent to the churches. There is reasonable to presume that the Friedhof der Namenlosen had a backdrop in funerals. At least, it was the intention to make this graveyard a more honorable graveyard to be buried by the end of the 1920s. Now it was named the Friedhof Grunewald-Forst while a wall was build to enclose it and an official entrance by an attractive design by Richard Thiemme was erected. The graveyard developed rapidly in one which became attractive for civil people who ended up in a decent way. During the 250 graveyards which Willi Wohlberedt visited during his work as a writer of short biographies of deceased, he decided that he wanted to be buried at the Friedhof Grunewald-Forst. Before his time had come in 1950, there was a place for him reserved already a couple of years. Clearly, the transition from a graveyard for the unhappy and nameless to one for self-respecting civilians had succeeded within three decades. In the meanwhile, a mass grave for victims of WWII was set up. Most of them were Berlin’s civilians who were shot in the last days of the Second World War, during the chaos of the Battle for Berlin. Initially, they were buried in the urban parks. Shortly after the WWII’s end, sixty of these buried corpses were relocated to the Friedhof Grunewald-Forst.

Massgrave at the Friedhof Grunewald-Forst (Berlin-Grunewald). June 2013, No © needed. Photo by Joep de Visser

After her death in 1988, Christa ‘Nico’ Päffgen is buried at the Friedhof Grunewald-Forst, next to her mother. When the famous co-artist of The Velvet Underground spent a holiday at Ibiza with her son in July 1988, a medical complication took her life. Due to a minor stroke, she had an accident when on a bike. In the hospital, she was misdiagnosed. Perhaps she was wrongly diagnosed for a longer time already – since she suffered from a continuous headache for several weeks already. Nevertheless, Nico’s doctor did not think of it being an aneurysm in her brains. How many misdiagnoses caused Nico death may be unsure – after all it was due to the effects of a hemorrhage in her brains. Up till now, 25 years after her burial, the model and rock-star is not forgotten.

Grave of Christa 'Nico' Päffgen (Berlin-Grunewald, June 2013). No © needed. Photo by Joep de Visser

It was a strange feeling, walking back to the ‘industrialised’ city through the wide forest which dealt with its consequences for several decades. Some things may stay somewhat unclear. Were the identities of the suiciders investigated? And how long were they given rest before the graves were emptied? Still, it is clear that this graveyard came up due to industralisation and an increase of suicide in Berlin and its region. The churches, as well as sociological academics, claimed that committing suicide was a sin -or an atheist act- and did not feel the urge to help them in finding a place to rest. The Friedhof Grunewald-Forst was the only place where they were ‘welcome’ – till this graveyard went through a reincarnation at the end of the 1920s. In one month, one can expect that several fans of Nico will stand still to her life and death. The future of the graveyard won’t be everlasting. It is planned to ‘give back’ the 0.5 hectare of land to the surrounding Grunewald in about five decades. This is the reason that no one can be buried at the Friedhof Grunewald-Forst anymore. Then, this gaveyard will be even more of a historical tale.

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