Reichstag

The Reichstag building (Reichstagsgebäude); officially: Deutscher Bundestag – Plenarbereich Reichstagsgebäude is a historical edifice in Berlin, Germany, constructed to house the Imperial Diet (German: Reichstag), of the German Empire. It was opened in 1894 and housed the Diet until 1933, when it was severely damaged after it was set on fire. After World War II, the building fell into disuse; the parliament of the German Democratic Republic (the Volkskammer) met in the Palast der Republik in East Berlin, while the parliament of the Federal Republic of Germany (the Bundestag) met in the Bundeshaus in Bonn.

The ruined building was made safe against the elements and partially refurbished in the 1960s, though no attempt at full restoration was made until after German reunification on 3 October 1990, when it underwent a reconstruction led by architect Norman Foster. After its completion in 1999, it once again became the meeting place of the German parliament: the modern Bundestag.

The term Reichstag, when used to connote a diet, dates back to the Holy Roman Empire. The building was built for the Diet of the German Empire, which was succeeded by the Reichstag of the Weimar Republic. The latter would become the Reichstag of Nazi Germany, which left the building (and ceased to act as a parliament) after the 1933 fire and never returned; the term Reichstag has not been used by German parliaments since World War II. In today’s usage, the German word Reichstag (Imperial Diet Building) refers mainly to the building, while Bundestag (Federal Diet) refers to the institution.

For more information see: Deutscher Bundestag


 

History of the Reichstag

Construction of the building began well after the unification of Germany in 1871. Previously, the parliament had assembled in several other buildings in Leipziger Straße in Berlin but these were generally considered too small, so in 1872 an architectural contest with 103 participating architects was carried out to erect a new building. After a short survey of possible sites, a parliamentary committee recommended the east side of the Königsplatz (Platz der Republik), which however was occupied by the palace of a Polish-Prussian aristocrat, Athanasius Raczyński.

Work did not start until ten years later though, owing to various problems with purchasing the property and arguments between Wilhelm I, Otto von Bismarck, and the members of the Reichstag about how the construction should be performed. After lengthy negotiations, the Raczyński Palace was purchased and demolished, making way for the new building.

In 1882, another architectural contest was held, with 200 architects participating. This time the winner, the Frankfurt architect Paul Wallot, would actually see his Neo-Baroque project executed. The direct model for Wallot’s design was Philadelphia’s Memorial Hall, the main building of the 1876 Centennial Exhibition. Some of the Reichstag’s decorative sculptures, reliefs, and inscriptions were by sculptor Otto Lessing. On 29 June 1884, the foundation stone was finally laid by Wilhelm I, at the east side of the Königsplatz.

Before construction was completed by Philipp Holzmann A.G. in 1894, Wilhelm I died (in 1888, the Year of Three Emperors). His eventual successor, Wilhelm II, took a more jaundiced view of parliamentary democracy than his grandfather. The original building was acclaimed for the construction of an original cupola of steel and glass, considered an engineering feat at the time. But its mixture of architectural styles drew widespread criticism.

In 1916 the iconic words Dem Deutschen Volke (“[To] the German people”) were placed above the main façade of the building, much to the displeasure of Wilhelm II, who had tried to block the adding of the inscription for its democratic significance.

After World War I had ended and Wilhelm had abdicated, during the revolutionary days of 1918, Philipp Scheidemann proclaimed the institution of a republic from one of the balconies of the Reichstag building on 9 November. The building continued to be the seat of the parliament of the Weimar Republic (1919–1933), which was still called the Reichstag.


 

Third Reich

The building caught fire on 27 February 1933, under circumstances still not entirely known (see Reichstag fire). This gave a pretext for the Nazis to suspend most rights provided for by the 1919 Weimar Constitution in the Reichstag Fire Decree in an effort to weed out communists and increase state security throughout Germany.

During the 12 years of National Socialist rule, the Reichstag building was not used for parliamentary sessions. Instead, the few times that the Reichstag convened at all, it did so in the Kroll Opera House, opposite the Reichstag building. This applies particularly to the session of 23 March 1933, in which the Reichstag disposed of its powers in favour of the Nazi government in the Enabling Act, another step in the so-called Gleichschaltung (“coordination”). The main meeting hall of the building (which was unusable after the fire) was instead used for propaganda presentations and, during World War II, for military purposes. It was also considered for conversion to a flak tower but was found to be structurally unsuitable.

The building, having never been fully repaired since the fire, was further damaged by air raids. During the Battle of Berlin in 1945, it became one of the central targets for the Red Army to capture due to its perceived symbolic significance. Today, visitors to the building can still see Soviet graffiti on smoky walls inside as well as on part of the roof, which was preserved during the reconstructions after reunification.

Yevgeny Khaldei took the famous picture, Raising a flag over the Reichstag, on 2 May 1945. The picture symbolizes the victory of the USSR over Germany.


 

Cold War

When the Cold War emerged, the building was physically within West Berlin, but only a few metres from the border of East Berlin, which ran around the back of the building and in 1961 was closed by the Berlin Wall. During the Berlin blockade, an enormous number of West Berliners assembled before the building on 9 September 1948, and Mayor Ernst Reuter held a famous speech that ended with “Ihr Völker der Welt, schaut auf diese Stadt!” (“You peoples of the world, look upon this city!”)

After the war, the building was essentially a ruin. In addition, there was no real use for it, since the seat of government of West Germany had been established in Bonn in 1949. Still, in 1956, after some debate, it was decided that the Reichstag should not be torn down, but be restored instead. However, the cupola of the original building, which had also been heavily damaged in the war, was demolished.
Another architectural contest was held, and the winner, Paul Baumgarten, reconstructed the building from 1961 to 1964, but utterly removing all sumptuous heraldic statues, monuments, decorations and the like that harked back to the mythology of the German past from the inside, but also the largest ones on the outside of the building. In effect, he created a plain building inside the historic Reichstag, retaining only the outer walls stripped of most of their statues and decoration.

The artistic and practical value of his work was the subject of much debate after German reunification. Under the provisions set forth for Berlin by the Allies in the 1971 Four Power Agreement on Berlin, the Bundestag, the parliament of West Germany of that time, was not allowed to assemble formally in West Berlin (even though East Germany was in violation of this provision since it had declared East Berlin its capital).
Until 1990, the building was thus used only for occasional representative meetings, and one-off events. It was also used for a widely lauded permanent exhibition about German history called Fragen an die deutsche Geschichte (Questions about German history). Pop singer Michael Jackson performed in front of 50,000 people during his Bad World Tour on 19 June 1988.


 

Reunification

The official German reunification ceremony on 3 October 1990, was held at the Reichstag building, including Chancellor Helmut Kohl, President Richard von Weizsäcker, former Chancellor Willy Brandt and many others. The event included huge firework displays. One day later, the parliament of the united Germany would assemble in an act of symbolism in the Reichstag building.

However, at that time, the role of Berlin had not yet been decided upon. Only after a fierce debate, considered by many as one of the most memorable sessions of parliament, did the Bundestag conclude, on 20 June 1991, with quite a slim majority in favour of both government and parliament returning to Berlin from Bonn.

In 1992, Norman Foster won yet another architectural contest for the reconstruction of the building. His winning concept looked very different from what was later executed. Notably, the original design did not include a cupola.

Before reconstruction began, the Reichstag was wrapped by the Bulgarian-American artist Christo and his wife Jeanne-Claude in 1995, attracting millions of visitors.
The project was financed by the artists through the sale of preparatory drawings and collages, as well as early works of the 1950s and 1960s.

During the reconstruction, the building was first almost completely gutted, taking out everything except the outer walls, including all changes made by Baumgarten in the 1960s. Respect for the historic aspects of the building was one of the conditions stipulated to the architects, so traces of historical events were to be retained in a visible state. Among them were graffiti left by Soviet soldiers after the final battle for Berlin in April–May 1945. Written in Cyrillic script, they include such slogans as “Hitler kaputt” and names of individual soldiers. However, graffiti with racist or sexist themes were removed, in agreement with Russian diplomats at the time.

The reconstruction was completed in 1999, with the Bundestag convening there officially for the first time on 19 April of that year. The Reichstag is now the second most visited attraction in Germany, not least because of the huge glass dome that was erected on the roof as a gesture to the original 1894 cupola, giving an impressive view over the city, especially at night.


 

Reichstag Dome

The large glass dome at the very top of the Reichstag has a 360-degree view of the surrounding Berlin cityscape. The main hall (debating chamber) of the parliament below can also be seen from inside the dome, and natural light from above radiates down to the parliament floor. A large sun shield tracks the movement of the sun electronically and blocks direct sunlight which would not only cause large solar gain, but dazzle those below. Construction work was finished in 1999 and the seat of parliament was transferred to the Bundestag in April of that year. The dome is open to visitors by prior registration.

Design

The Reichstag dome is a large glass dome with a 360 degree view of the surrounding Berlin cityscape. The debating chamber of the Bundestag, the German parliament, can be seen down below. A mirrored cone in the center of the dome directs sunlight into the building, and so that visitors can see the working of the chamber.
The dome is open to the public and can be reached by climbing two steel, spiraling ramps that are reminiscent of a double-helix. The Dome symbolizes that the people are above the government, as was not the case during National Socialism.

The glass dome was also designed by Foster to be environmentally friendly. Energy efficient features involving the use of the daylight shining through the mirrored cone were applied, effectively decreasing the carbon emissions of the building. A large sun shield tracks the movement of the sun electronically and blocks direct sunlight which would not only cause large solar gain, but dazzle those below.

The futuristic and transparent design of the Reichstag dome makes it a unique landmark, and symbolizes Berlin’s attempt to move away from a past of Nazism and instead towards a future with a heavier emphasis on a united, democratic Germany.

Construction

With the reunification of Germany and the decision to move the capital from Bonn back to Berlin, it was also decided that the original Reichstag building be rebuilt along with a new dome that emphasized a unified Germany. Architect Norman Foster won a commission to design and rebuild the Reichstag in 1993. Foster originally wanted a parasol-esque building, not a dome, but his original design was rejected, partly due to the unrealistic costs.
The design of the dome was at first controversial, though has become accepted as one of Berlin’s most important landmarks. It derives from a design by Gottfried Böhm, who had previously suggested a cupola of glass with visitors walking on spiral ways to the top in 1988. His design was added to the information of the competition in 1992, which was won by Foster.
Later the Bundestag decided that a cupola had to be built and Foster consequently gave up his resistance against it. Foster reused the idea of a spiral walkway within a conical structure for his design for City Hall in London some years later. The dome was constructed by Waagner-Biro.

Origional Dome

The original Reichstag building was proposed due to a need for a larger parliamentary building. Construction did not immediately begin due to debates between Otto von Bismarck and Reichstag members. In 1894, after an architectural contest, the winner, Frankfurt architect Paul Wallot, was chosen to design the building, which featured a very large dome.

On February 27, 1933, the dome was destroyed along with the rest of the building in the Reichstag fire, an act blamed on the Communists, despite there being little evidence to determine who actually started the fire.

The remains of the building and the dome were further demolished with the bombings of Berlin through World War II and the eventual fall of Berlin to the Soviets in 1945. While the Reichstag building was partially reconstructed in the 1960s as a conference center, the dome was not. Much of the dome and the ornaments that decorated it had been removed by that time.


 

Palais Raczynski

The Palais Raczynski was a city palace at today’s Platz der Republik in Berlin-Tiergarten, built from 1842 to 1844 for Polish aristocrat Atanazy Raczyński. Besides being used as residence, it housed Raczyński’s extensive art collection, then exhibited in the Prussian National Gallery and transferred in 1903 to the Kaiser-Friedrich-Museum in Posen/Poznań.
It was sold to the German government in 1874 by Raczyński’s son and subsequently demolished (1882) to make way for the Reichstag building.

The palace, Palais Raczyński, the first Berlin private art gallery which could be accessed by the public, belonged to a Polish count, diplomat and great art collector, Atanazy Raczyński.
The aristocrat who during the wars against Napoleon fought on… Napoleon’s side (with Poland invaded and divided among three foreign powers, Napoleon´s campaign against Prussia, Austria and Russia was seen as Poland’s only chance to recover its independence), nevertheless enjoyed both respect and personal sympathy of the Prussian king, Friedrich Wilhelm IV.

Raczyński impressed the monarch with his elegant, cultivated ways, his diplomatic talents as well as with is extensive knowledge of contemporary German paintings: his book on the topic is still considered a classic today. During his stay in Lisbon and Madrid, where he acted as an envoy to the Duchy of Warsaw, and later in Paris, he supported local artists and invested in building a private collection of European art.

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