The square is located on the south side of the Unter den Linden boulevard, a major east-west thoroughfare in the city centre. It is bounded to the east by the State Opera building (hence its prewar name), to the west by buildings of Humboldt University, and to the southeast by St. Hedwig's Cathedral, the first Catholic church built in Prussia after the Reformation. The square is named after August Bebel, a founder of the Social Democratic Party of Germany in the 19th century.
The square, then called Platz am Opernhaus (i.e. square at the opera house), was laid out between 1741 and 1743 under the rule of King Frederick II of Prussia. On 12 August 1910 it was named Kaiser-Franz-Josef-Platz, in honour of Emperor Francis Joseph I of Austria on the occasion of his 87th birthday. The buildings surrounding the square were largely destroyed in World War II by air raids and the Battle of Berlin. The ensemble was restored in the 1950s and the square renamed on 31 August 1947 as Bebelplatz.
The Bebelplatz is known as the site of one of the infamous Nazi book burning ceremonies held in the evening of 10 May 1933 in many German university cities. The book burnings were initiated and hosted by the nationalist German Student Association, thus stealing a march on the National Socialist German Students' League. The assembly of the books had started on the sixth, when students dragged the contents of the Institut für Sexualwissenschaft library into the square. At the Student Association's invitation Propaganda Minister Joseph Goebbels held an inflammatory speech prior to the burning. Besides other spectators, it was attended by members of the Nazi Students' League, the SA ("brownshirts"), SS and Hitler Youth groups. They burned around 20,000 books, including works by Heinrich Mann, Erich Maria Remarque, Heinrich Heine, Karl Marx, Albert Einstein and many other authors. Erich Kästner, whose books were also among those burned, was present at the scene and described it with bitter irony in his diary.
Today a memorial by Micha Ullman consisting of a glass plate set into the cobbles, giving a view of empty bookcases (large enough to hold the total of the 20,000 burnt books), commemorates the book burning. Furthermore, a line of Heinrich Heine from his play, Almansor (1821), is engraved on a plaque inset in the square: "Das war ein Vorspiel nur, dort wo man Bücher verbrennt, verbrennt man am Ende auch Menschen." (in English: "That was only a prelude; where they burn books, they will in the end also burn people"). Students at Humboldt University hold a book sale in the square every year to mark the anniversary.
In 2012 several protests were caused by the announced plan of an underground carpark serving the attendees of the opera to be erected under the square and around the subsurface memorial.
In 2010 an exhibition of "United Buddy Bears" was held in the square, for the third time in Berlin. The exhibition consisted of more than 180 bear sculptures, each two metres high and designed by a different artist. Due to its difficult past the use of Bebelplatz remains disputed, recently sparked off by a wintery skating rink and a party tent of the Berlin fashion week.