Touring the Reichstag in Berlin
Definitely one of the coolest things we did while in Berlin was to take a tour of the Reichstag, which houses the German parliament (Bundestag). Unfortunately for the general tourist, the building was closed to the public back in the fall due to an increased threat of terrorist attack. Officially it’s a temporary closure, but I asked while we were there and the tour guide said it was going to become permanent. Luckily for us, however, I am terribly intelligent (ha!), and I requested an official tour back in September. It took about 2 months to get a reply from them, but we eventually received our invitation for an English-language tour, lasting 90 minutes. Tourists off the street can no longer visit the interior of the Reichstag, but if you request a tour and go through a background check, you can still get inside. And it was totally worth it!
What is slightly confusing is that the building and the parliament are often referred to interchangeably, at least in historic terms. Opened in 1894, the building housed the Reichstag (the governmental body) until 1933, when the structure was badly damaged by a fire supposedly set by Dutch communist Marinus van der Lubbe. Our tour guide made a specific point to say that there was no proof that van der Lubbe ever set the fire, and many historians suspect that Hitler was responsible for the provocative act, since he used it as an excuse to seize an increasing role and greater power. The Reichstag (as in the parliament) never formally met again in the Reichstag (the building).
During the war the building was quite damaged by bombs and the Battle of Berlin. Even through the Nazis did not use the Reichstag for any purpose, when the Soviet soldiers reached Berlin they saw it as a symbol of power, and spent significant time and effort to capture and secure it. There is a famous picture that was staged by the Soviets of Russian soldiers and a Russian flag flying above the Reichstag (this was probably done for purposes of propaganda). When the Russian solders took the Reichstag, many of them wrote messages or signatures on the walls. They have had them translated by the Russian embassy, and apparently most of them are just “Ivan was here” kind of comments.
After the war, both the Reichstag and the Brandenburg Gate fell in the empty no-man’s land around the Berlin Wall. It was basically abandoned. There was an attempt to refurbish the building in the 1960s, but basically they just protected it against the elements and plastered over the original walls. This turned out to be a good thing, because it protected many of those original walls (and the Russian graffiti).
October 3, 1990 marks the official date of reunification between East and West Germany, and it became a point of pride for the Germans to relocate their capital back to Berlin. The architect Lord Norman Foster was chosen to supervise the renovations of the Reichstag, and he did an amazing job. He was confronted with a monumental task, because the building itself was so rich in history, both good and bad. He had to find a way to both preserve the history from which no German can escape, but also create something new to symbolize the new Germany that is moving forward.
Foster balanced the past and present by maintaining the exterior façade of the Reichstag. It’s a very heavy and traditional, with Greek columns and such. But the interior space is quite different. By basically clearing out inside (except for some specific walls), he was able to create an interior space that is modern, clean, and minimalist. However, it was considered very important to maintain some of the original elements as well as the Russian graffiti, so on some walls you can see the original scrawls, left in tact, as a memorial. In this way the building itself becomes a piece of artwork, and it brings the events and traumas from the past into the present. If you work in the Reichstag, you walk past these walls every day, and you can never ever forget it.
One of my favorite features of the Reichstag is the glass dome at the top. There was originally a cupola on the dome in 1894, but it was destroyed during the fire. Norman Foster originally did not include a dome in his design, but at the request of the German government he modified his design so that a dome would once again sit atop the building. It’s a really beautiful modernist dome, and while we could walk inside it, we couldn’t ascend the spiral walkway because of the snow. Nor could we walk out on the roof and enjoy the views over the city. Regardless, we spent quite a few minutes enjoying the spectacle, but then we started to lose the sensation in our fingers, so we went back inside.
The dome sits directly over the chambers of parliament. I won’t even pretend to understand the German governmental system, but there are more than 600 representatives in 5 parties. One feature of the building that was very important to the German people was the need for transparency. They want to be able to see into the government at all times, both literally and figuratively, so when you first enter the Reichstag, you see a glass wall and immediately in front of you are the chambers. It is quite unlike the US Senate, where you have to walk through marble corridors for ages and ages, or peer down from a balcony above. This physical representation of a moral and political concept really struck me, and has stayed with me since.
The blue chairs (European Blue, if you must know) are arranged to visually represent the parties. It’s hard to explain, but the seating arrangement is something like a pie chart, so you can quickly glance at the room and know who is in the majority. Also, they decided to maintain the historic voting doors. There are three main doors into the chambers of parliament, and above each one is the phrase “Yes”, “No”, or “Abstain” (in German, of course). When an official vote is being conducted, all the members have to leave the room and then return by filing in via the door of their vote. Again, it’s a physical representation of something that is usually conceptual. I think this was the theme running throughout our experience at the Reichstag.
One final note about the Reichstag: after reunification, but before construction began, the building was wrapped by Christo and Jean-Claude. I think this was part of the healing process. This big, heavy, and historic building was about to undergo a huge renovation … more than that, even … a rebirth. And wrapping the building in white sheets was the perfect way to symbolize this. When I was last in Berlin, in the summer of 1995, I just missed the wrapping by a few weeks, but the pictures from that event are really amazing. Alex and I were able to see The Gates project in 2005 in Central Park, and I really hope that Over the River comes to fruition in the future.
So the next time you are in Berlin, you should definitely check out the Reichstag. But remember to request an official tour on the website months in advance, and be patient! But I promise you’ll love it.