The Reichstag

The  Reichstag building lies in the heart of Berlin's political district, just a stone's throw from the Brandenburg Gate and directly on the River Spree. Since its completion in the 1890s as the seat for the newly formed country of Germany's parliament, it has been associated with the different iterations of political rule in the country as a whole.

The Reichstag building is a wonderful example of Berlin layers. Not only has the Reichstag building's official role changed dramatically over the past 100 years, but the physical architecture has, too. Each new form incorporates some of the past while symbolizing the attitudes of the present. These new forms were created intentionally, through design and sabotage, and unintentionally, through war and division.

Let's begin in 1894, with the opening of the Reichstag Building. It was intended to be grand and impressive, and was noted for the glass and steel dome on top, which at the time was an impressive architectural achievement. 

A sketch of the original Reichstag building.

In 1916, the first significant change was made. The phrase "Dem Deutschen Volke", or "The German People" was added to the facade. The emperor, Kaiser Wilhelm II, disliked the phrase, thinking it sounded too democratic. But it was nonetheless added in order to stoke popular support for German's efforts in World War One, which had begun two years earlier in 1914. The inscription is still there today.

You can see the phrase "Dem Deutschen Volke" on the front of the building, above the main entryway. This photo is from 1916, not long after the inscription was completed.

The next major change to the Reichstag occurred in 1933. Adolf Hitler and the Nazis had recently swept to power. In February of 1933, the building caught fire under mysterious circumstances. Hitler claimed that the fire was lit by subversive Communists and used the occasion to invoke emergency powers and claim near absolute authority - power that he did not relinquish until Germany's defeat in WWII and his death in 1945.After 1933, the building was never fully restored: in a dictatorship, who needs a nice parliament building?

The building was nearly leveled during the Battle of Berlin in 1945, when the Soviet Union concentrated an enormous amount of resources to capture what Stalin considered the symbol of Nazi authority. The fight inside lasted nearly two days, and resulted in the building looking like this:


Near total destruction. This photo was taken in 1946.

After the end of the war, Berlin (and the rest of Germany) was divided between Soviet-controlled territories in the East and Allied-controlled areas in the West. The dividing line between the two cities, and later two countries, was the Berlin Wall. The Wall ran directly next to the Reichstag Building, as you can see in this photo. The Reichstag Building was located in West Germany, with East Germany only a few meters away.

 The Reichstag was in West Germany. The Berlin Wall lies directly behind it.

The Reichstag was in West Germany. The Berlin Wall lies directly behind it.

During the East/West partition, the seat of West Germany's government was relocated to Bonn, in the west of the country. As a result, the Reichstag building was essentially abandoned - a symbol of a divided city and the unfulfilled promise of German democracy.

Germany was reunified in 1990, and plans were immediately initiated to restore Berlin to its historical role as the capital city of a united Germany. The problem, practically speaking, was that the building had been under-utilized and minimally maintained for the previous 60 years. The question for German leaders was how to establish the Reichstag Building as a symbol of German democracy while paying homage to its difficult and complicated past. 

The solution was to hire the architect Norman Foster to design a new dome for the building. The glass and steel construction (which you can tour if you book in advance) is an architectural homage to the building's original dome. Visitors walking through the dome can look down directly onto the floor of the German parliament, or Bundestag. This symbolizes the German government's commitment to the idea of ensuring that the parliament is the voice of the people, and not a tool of dictators.

From an imperious symbol of mighty Germany under Kaiser Wilhelm, to fire and disrepair under the Nazis, to disuse in a divided city, and finally to a symbol of a chastised and historically conscious modern Germany, the story of Berlin can be read in the stones, steel, and glass of the Reichstag Building. Though the inscription "Dem Deutschen Volke" is nearly 100 years old, the slogan has never been more appropriate than it is today

The German People.

Correction: An earlier version of this post incorrectly stated that the building was no longer called the Reichstag.