Episode 290 – Touring The Reichstag

The Reichstag, the building that houses the Deutscher Bundestag, opened in 1894 to house the Imperial Diet (pronounced “deet” and meaning a legislative assembly) of the German Empire, which it did until 1933. That year, just 4 weeks after Hitler was sworn in as Germany’s Chancellor, an arsonist set fire to the Reichstag, destroying the main governmental chamber and the original cupola, meaning that Hitler was never able to govern from there. Discussion is ongoing as to whether the Nazis were themselves behind the arson, since it gave them a “communist agitator” scapegoat scenario to exploit.

The front of the Reichstag.

After World War II, with Germany split into East and West, the building fell into disuse. The Volkskammer, the parliament of the German Democratic Republic (I always found it confusing that the Soviet-controlled east was the “Democratic” republic, given the state of their elections) 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 back of the Reichstag, where most of the politicians and workers enter.

The German word “Bund” defines a federation, and is related to the verb “binden”, for tying things together. So, a “Bund” is a group (in this case people and lands) who are “zusammengeBUNDen”(tied, united).

After reunification, Germany’s government remained in Bonn until 1999, when it met for the first time in a completely renovated Reichstag, featuring an impressive addition to its historic exterior: in place of the original 1894 cupola was the now iconic glass dome, symbolizing transparent government.

We got a really great view of the dome (die Kuppel) from just outside it on top of the Reichstag. Inside are concentric circular walkways, so that you go up snd down on two different “ramps”, and you can just see the mirrored central cone that reaches down into the Plenary Chamber.

Today we took the English language tour of the Bundestag. I booked our visit back in mid-May, because this was an experience we were not able to get when we last visited Berlin with my cousins back in 2016. Our reservations came with these instructions:

All of that seemed pretty straightforward stuff for folks going into a working parliament, and it certainly doesn’t discourage people: there were lots of tours going on, and a long lineup of people who hadn’t reserved ahead of time hoping to secure empty spots.

Our tour guide was Herr Doktor Roland Wirth, a retired political scientist and educator who has been a tour guide for many years, and was at the forefront of a movement to create formal accreditation for Berlin guides (which didn’t win him a lot of fans, by the way). He had a wry sense of humour, and kept to the highlights, speaking quickly (as Berliners tend to do) and getting our tour completed in the allocated 90 minutes.

In addition to the two of us, our English language tour group included people from the US, UK, Netherlands, France, Belgium, Australia, and Argentina – about 20 of us in all.

Our tour started in the visitors entrance hall with 2 scale models, to give us an idea of the entire building, and then the entire governmental complex.

The model of the Reichstag Building itself is done to a 1:100 scale.

It’s so small that you can’t really see it, but in Dr Wirth’s hand is a tiny yellow game-piece to scale in size for an average human. He asked me where “I” wanted to be (since was wearing yellow). I chose the very top of the dome. OOPS. The top of the dome may be closed on the model, but it is a 23 ft diameter open space in real life.

A second model includes all of the surrounding area of Berlin that houses the many, many administrative offices. In all, the central government employs almost 10,000 people in Berlin. This model included Braille signage; Dr Wirth suggested that the most prominent Braille sentence read “please don’t touch this”.

My finger is pointing at the courtyard of our apartment building, reinforcing just how close we are to the centre of the city. The yellow arrow points to the Reichstag, the red arrow to the Brandenburger Tor, and the green rectangle highlights the Tiergarten. The river Spree winds through the centre, traversed by multiple bridges.

We got to see the library, the (door to the) Chancellor’s office, the reflection and prayer room, the remnants of Soviet WWII graffiti, a portion of the original tunnel between the Reichstag and the main administrative building, and of course the plenary chamber where almost 800 elected officials can be overseen by a public gallery of 500 spectators. After the guided portion of our tour we got to walk to the top of the Reichstag’s famous glass dome, from which vantage point we had an incredible 360° view of the city.

In this particular library are the books containing the records of every session of government , taken down manually in shorthand by 4 secretaries, who include not only word-for-word speeches and discussion, but also what was happening in the room. As Dr. Wirth pointed out, that allows politicians to look back at sessions and see which side of the room was laughing or jeering. The painting above the shelves is called Time and Life, by Bernhard Heisig, and depicts German historic figures and events in an abstract style.
The Chancellor’s office is behind a blue door just like all the other blue doors in what is on the inside a very sleek, modern building.
The prayer and meditation room is set up so that the cross can be removed, as can the chairs to allow for prayer rugs. Our guide told us that the unifying theme in the room is “water”, which figures prominently in virtually every religion, whether for baptism, ritual washing, or funerary practices, although the artwork by Günther Uecker uses nails, paint, sand and stones – and no water at all. Just outside the room is a display case containing gifts from other countries, including a beautifully decorated Quran and a prayer shawl from the Dalai Lama.
Preserved on many of the original wall surfaces inside the Reichstag is Russian graffiti, left there by Soviet soldiers after the battle for and capture of the (empty) Reichstag in 1945.
In the current very modern underground pedestrian passageway that connects the Reichstag to the Jakob Kaiser Building (where about 60 percent of the government’s elected members have their offices) is a fragment of the original heating tunnel that once linked the Reichstag building with the palace of the Reichstag and the boiler house. Historians still do not know how the fire of 1933 was set, but rumours originally spread that the arsonist had been sent through this tunnel.

While in the basement, we saw an interesting art installation by French artist Christian Boltsnski, called Archive of German Members of Parliament. It consists of 5000 rusty metal boxes, each of equal size, and labelled with the names of all the Members of the Reichstag and German Bundestag democratically elected between 1919 and the re-opening of the Reichstag in 1999. Boxes for Members murdered by the Nazis are marked with a black stripe as “Victim of National Socialism”, and a single black box in the middle stands for the years from 1933-1945 when there was no democratically elected parliament in Germany.

And here’s where it all happens: over 750 elected representatives, plus the 16 state premiers, the president and chancellor, all watched over by journalists and members of the public.

We’re in the public gallery. Members of parliament would be in the blue/purple seats. British artist/architect Norman Foster’s huge eagle watches too.
From inside the Plenary Chamber you can look up into the dome – and those in the dome look back down. Note the “cone” coming down in the middle – we got great views of it from inside the dome at the end of our visit.
Inside the dome.
The view over the front lawn of the Reichstag through the domes’s glass.
Looking out over the Tiergarten park from atop the Reichstag roof.
Standing on the roof allowed us to get wonderfully close to sone of the beautiful architectural details of the building.

While we didn’t get to eat in the restaurant on the roof because I’d neglected to make reservations, but I didn’t feel too much regret when I saw the lunch price was €49 per person for 2 courses without a drink. Instead we wandered down to Potsdamer Platz, perused the extremely crowded food court at the huge Mall of Berlin, and finally decided just to take the S-bahn back to our neighbourhood and eat lunch at Café Luise on our own street, where 2 delicious sandwiches and 2 lovely cold beers rang in at €11.50 total.

Mission accomplished. Another good day in Berlin.

5 comments

  1. ROSE: Same thing goes for Korea.  North Korea official name is the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, and South Korea is simply the Republic of Korea.  Rather misleading….  We enjoyed our day at the Reichstag.  “Openness” was emphasized by the plenary actually being in session as we toured.  Obviously, we were no permitted to enter the chambers, but the Viking tour did include lunch on the roof of the Reichstag.  We walked through a park on the way from the Reichstag to the Brandenburg Gate.  Was that the Tiergarten?  The small bit we saw was nothing like what you wrote about! Al

    Liked by 1 person

    • From your route, I expect you were at the very top end of the Tiergarten, maybe where the white crosses on the fence commemorate some of those who died trying to cross the wall? It stretches for around 2 km beyond that all the way down to the Victory Column.

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  2. I love all the history and background you research!! We’re all better and smarter for having this Xxxxxxxxxxxxxx Ted’s pictures are priceless!!!!!

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    Liked by 1 person

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