On Thursday October 30th, I visited the German Reichstag building, or Reichstagsgebäude, with the rest of my study abroad group. This is the home of the German parliament, otherwise known as the Reichstag.
The building’s construction began after the unification of Germany in 1871 from a multitude of individual German principalities and states into one German Empire under Emperor Wilhelm. It was opened in 1894. In 1916, the now famous inscription Dem Deutschen Volke, or “To the German People” was carved into the main façade. After Wilhelm’s abdication post WWI, the Weimar Republic was declared from a Reichstag balcony on November 9, 1918.
The building continued to be used until February 27, 1933, the night of the famous Reichstag fire. This has been considered by many historians as a pivotal moment in the establishment of Nazi power. The fire was blamed on three Bulgarian communists: Georgi Dimitrov, Vasil Tanev, and Blagoi Popov. Dimitrov was at the time head of all Comintern operations in Western Europe. All three were arrested, although Marinus van der Lubbe had claimed sole responsibility. As a result of the Reichstag Fire, on February 28, 1933, Hitler asked President Hindenburg to sign into law the Reichstag Fire Decree according to Article 48 of the Weimar Constitution. This Decree effectively suspended civil liberties in Germany and allowed the Nazis to outlaw publications that didn’t support their cause. Hitler declared the Reichstag Fire as a Communist plot to take control of Germany. Ironically, during the 12 years of Nazi rule, the Reichstag was not used for parliamentary sessions.
The Reichstag was never completely repaired after the 1933 fire, and it was further damaged during Allied air raids. During the Battle of Berlin in 1945, it became a central target for Red Army capture because it was considered of symbolic significance. Soviet soldiers wrote names, initials, sayings, and other types of graffiti on the inside walls and parts of the roof – these are still preserved today.
During the Cold War, the Reichstag was officially on the territory of West Berlin – but only several meters away from the border with the East. In 1945, the building was in ruins. With the establishment of Bonn as the capital of West Germany in 1949, the Reichstag remained unused until 1956, when the decision was made to restore the building. This restoration did not, however, preserve the original neo-classical details of the building. Instead, these decorations were torn down or covered up with plaster when this was not possible.
The Reichstag came upon happier times after the end of the Cold War, starting with the official ceremony of German Reunification that was held in the building on October 3, 1990. This event was attended by Chancellor Helmut Kohl, President Richard von Weizsäcker, the former Chancellor Willy Brandt, and other important German figures. On June 20, 1991, the parliament decided to return the capital from Bonn to Berlin – and thus, to the Reichstag.
In 1992, the British Lord Norman Foster won an architectural contest for the reconstruction of the Reichstag building. This original design did not, however, include the famous glass cupola that the Reichstag is famous for today. The reconstruction was charged with respecting the history of the building, and leaving evidence of historical events intact. It was just decided that the graffiti of the Soviet Red Army (except for racist or sexist slogans) would be left on the walls.
While the Reichstag waited to be reconstructed, it was “wrapped” in 1995 by the Bulgarian-American artist Christo and his wife Jeanne-Claude. This project proved extremely popular, attracting millions of visitors.
The reconstruction finished in 1999, with the first official convening of the parliament on April 19, 1999.
Today, the Reichstag is the second most visited attraction in Germany. It has become famous for the glass cupola on the roof, which gives visitors beautiful views of Berlin at night. The dome also allows clear view down onto the parliament floor – symbolically allowing the German people to watch over the actions of their politicians.
During our visit to the Reichstag, we were taken on an English-language tour. Our tour guide led us throughout the building, explaining that it is home to four different art exhibitions. The four exhibitions come from each of the four Allies that occupied Germany after WWII. The Russian art exhibit is the original graffiti on the Reichstag walls. The American contribution is a never-ending scroll of the German legal code, and the English contribution is the building itself as built by Lord Norman Foster.
The French contribution was, to me, the most interesting. It features a room built of empty boxes. Each box bears the name of the German chancellors until 1989, and one special box with the current Chancellor’s name. According to our tour guide, the French artist decided to include Adolf Hitler in the project – despite the fact that a large number of the artist’s family had died in the Holocaust. The Hitler box is regularly smashed and kicked in today, and must (ironically) be repaired by the Reichstag itself.
I also immensely enjoyed climbing to the top of the glass dome. The views of Berlin were great – but what I found more striking by far were the views into the Parliament floor. The symbolism that the German politicians are representatives of the German people could not be clearer – and its importance, given the Reichstag’s history in the Nazi years cannot be understated.
Well, that’s it for the Reichstag! Here are some more photos, which I hope you enjoy!