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.
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 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.
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.
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”.
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.
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.
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.