Why does Berlin fascinate and thrill me more than any city I know? I think Alexandra Richie puts her finger on the answer in her monumental history of the city, Faust’s Metropolis:

Like Faust, Berlin can be said to have two spirits in the same breast; it is both a terrible and a wonderful city, a place which has created and destroyed and whose name is both acclaimed and blackened. […] Above all, it is a place where history could not and still cannot be hidden away.

Nowhere in Berlin can you escape the ghosts of history, and especially the terrors of 20th century politics when Europe, in Mark Mazower’s words, was ‘the dark continent’. There are many places in Berlin where any European – German or otherwise – might reflect upon words written by Joseph Roth in 1937:

Why do the European states claim for themselves the right to spread civilization and manners to different continents? Why not to Europe itself?

One such place is the Reichstag. I first visited the building on the tenth anniversary of the fall of the Wall, only six months after it had been re-established as the parliament of a united Germany following the completion of Norman Foster’s renovation. I was stunned by his re-imagining of the original glass dome that had surmounted the building as an architectural expression of democratic transparency.

Graffiti left by Soviet soldiers in 1945
Graffiti left by Soviet soldiers in 1945

Today, a visit to the Reichstag has become a major visitor attraction. More than 39 million people have visited the building since since the Bundestag’s transfer from Bonn to Berlin. Although we applied in advance, we could only get a late evening slot. One big difference between visiting in 1999 and now is the greater security: if my memory serves me right, in 1999 visitors entered by the main entrance, rather than going through airline-style security round the back. This meant that in 1999 you saw more of the building and gained a greater sense of its history by seeing, for example, the pock marks left by bullets and graffiti carved by Soviet soldiers during the final battle for Berlin in May 1945.

Inside the Reichstag: scars from the battle for Berlin, April-May 1945
Inside the Reichstag: scars from the battle for Berlin, April-May 1945

But, if you want history, there’s plenty of it when you arrive at the top of the spiral walkway: stretching  around the circular central core of the dome is an extensive display of the building’s story, illustrated with remarkable photographs. The tableau traces the story of the Reichstag from its inauguration as the home of the German parliament in 1894, through the First World War and the collapse of the German Empire, to the turbulent years of the Weimar Republic and the Nazi assumption of power in 1933. Notoriously burned in the fire of 1933 that cemented Hitler’s rule, the building stood empty until it was captured by the Red Army in 1945, before remaining an empty ruin during the years when Berlin – and Germany – was divided.

Inauguration of the Reichstag, 5 December 1894
Inauguration of the Reichstag, 5 December 1894

After German unification in 1871, the Kaiser reluctantly agreed that Berlin should have a new building to house the federal parliament. (He hated politicians so much that he once said that he would like to have all parliamentarian heads shrunk and displayed on poles.) The costs of the new Reichstag were stumped up by French tax-payers: a chunk of the war reparations paid by the French  at the end of the Franco-Prussian War of 1870-1871.

If the Reichstag’s story is presented today as a journey in which democracy ultimately triumphs, in reality it is one in which two steps forward invariably sent Germans back to the starting point. Europe’s first great working class party, the SPD (Social Democratic Party), was established in 1869, sent its first two deputies to the Reichstag in 1871, and in the 1880 election gained more votes than any other German party.

But by then, under the Anti-Socialist Laws, Bismark had banned the party as an enemy of the state: from 1878 to 1890, any grouping or meeting that aimed at spreading socialist principles was banned, while the Kaiser proclaimed:

Every Social Democrat is an enemy of the Empire and Fatherland. Such a gang of traitors are a breed of men who do not deserve the name of Germans. Their party must be rooted out to the very last stump.

However, the party continued to gain support in elections, and by 1890 it was Germany’s largest, with the heart of its support drawn from ‘Red Berlin’.

Scheidemann's proclamation on the Reichstag balcony, 9 November 1918
Scheidemann proclaims the Republic on the Reichstag balcony, 9 November 1918

So it was that when the Empire collapsed at the end of the First World War, it was the senior SPD politician Philipp Scheidemann who on 9 November 1918, from the balcony of the Reichstag library, proclaimed the first German Republic following the abdication of Kaiser Wilhelm II.

It was a rush job: in his memoirs Scheidemann recalled that, on his way to the Reichstag, someone had told him that the revolutionary Marxist leader Karl Liebknecht was about to declare Germany a Socialist Republic. From his Reichstag balcony Scheidemann announced:

The old and rotten, the monarchy has collapsed. The new may live. Long live the German Republic!

Two hours later, on the very same balcony of the German Chancellery from which the Kaiser had declared war in 1914, Liebknecht proclaimed the Spartacist republic. Two months later, the deadlock between the two republics was resolved when the Freikorps came to the SPD’s rescue, the Spartacist rising was crushed, and its leaders Karl Liebknecht and Rosa Luxemburg murdered.

Burning of the Reichstag 1933.
The burning of the Reichstag in 1933

The Weimar years followed, about which Georg Grosz memorably wrote;

The times were certainly out of joint. All moral restraints seemed to have melted away. A flood of vice, pornography  and prostitution swept the entire country…  Men in white shirts marched up and down, shouting in unison: ‘Up with Germany! Down with the Jews!’ They were followed by another group, also in disciplined ranks of four, bawling rhythmically in chorus: ‘Heil Moscow! Heil Moscow!’ Afterwards some of them would be left lying around, heads cracked, legs smashed and the odd bullet in the abdomen… The city was dark, cold and full of rumours. The streets were wild ravines haunted by murderers and cocaine peddlers, their emblem a metal bar or a murderous broken-off chair leg.

As the geo-politicians stepped into the shoes of the humanists, the enlightened age that had begun with the Renaissance ground to a halt, and the age of a blind, ironclad ant, completely indifferent to the fate of individuals, the age of numbers without names and of robots without brains, came into being.

In 1933, only a month after Hitler’s appointment as Chancellor, on the night of 27 February, the Reichstag building was almost totally destroyed in a fire of mysterious origin. The day after the fire the Reichstag Fire Decrees suspended civil liberties in Germany and granted Hitler supreme power. On 23 March the Reichstag, meeting in the nearby Kroll Opera Building, its entrances patrolled by the black-shirted SS. The Communist deputies were in prison, as were 21 SDP representatives. All parties, with the exception of the few remaining Social Democrats, voted for the Enabling Act – putting themselves out of business and handing over dictatorial power to Hitler. All 84 dissenting votes were Social Democrats. Not one member of the Catholic Centre party voted against.

The Reichstag in 1946

The fire of 1933 left the Reichstag an empty shell: the plenary hall was completely destroyed and the dome left in such an unstable state that it was necessary to demolish it in 1954.  But by then the building was an utter ruin, battered and bullet-scarred in the battle for Berlin, as Soviet troops fought for every street and building.

Reichstag Red Army 1945
The Soviet flag raised over the Reichstag, May 1945

The Soviet commander, General Zhukov was determined to carry out Stalin’s order to raise the Soviet flag on the Reichstag. The struggle for the Reichstag was gruesome, consuming the lives of 2,200 Soviet soldiers and 2,500 Germans.  The Soviet victory was immortalised in the iconic image by TASS photographer Yevgeny Khaldei of a Red Army soldier heroically hoisting the hammer-and-sickle flag on the collapsing Reichstag parapet.

Reichstag ruin 1945
The Reichstag ruin in May 1945

Following World War II, the Reichstag was a ruin, badly damaged both by Allied bombs and the Soviet onslaught in the last days of the war. In divided Berlin, it now stood in the British zone, next to the border with the Soviet zone.

The Reichstag in postwar occupied Berlin, 3 June 1945
The Reichstag in postwar occupied Berlin, 3 June 1945

After 1961 the Berlin Wall ran along the back of the building. Since the capital of West Germany was now in Bonn, the Reichstag could not be used as a seat of government.

Reichstag and Berlin Wall November 1961
The Reichstag and the construction of the Berlin Wall in November 1961

In 1955 the Bundestag in Bonn agreed that the Reichstag building should be preserved – a decision that turned out to be a fortuitously far-sighted one. After the sudden opening of the Berlin Wall on the night of 9 November 1989, events moved swiftly towards German reunification.  Then, on 20 June 1991, the Bundestag in Bonn voted to move the German capital back to Berlin. The Reichstag building would be needed once more.

The Reichstag and the Berlin Wall, November 1989
The Reichstag and the Berlin Wall, November 1989
The same view twenty years later
The same view twenty years later

In 1992, the British architect Norman Foster won the architectural contest for the reconstruction of the building. During the reconstruction, the building was almost completely gutted, taking out everything except the outer walls, including renovations made in the 1960s.

Respect for the history of the building was one of the conditions stipulated to the architects, so traces of historical events were retained, among them the graffiti left by Soviet soldiers after the final battle for Berlin in May 1945.

The reconstruction was completed in 1999, with the Bundestag convening there officially for the first time on 19 April of that year.  On the practice’s website, Foster and Partners set out the thinking behind Norman Foster’s renovation:

The transformation of the Reichstag is rooted in four related issues: the Bundestag’s significance as a democratic forum, an understanding of history, a commitment to accessibility and a vigorous environmental agenda. As found, the Reichstag was mutilated by war and insensitive rebuilding. The reconstruction takes cues from the original fabric; the layers of history were peeled away to reveal striking imprints of the past – stonemason’s marks and Russian graffiti scars that have been preserved as a ‘living museum’.

But in other respects it is a radical departure; within its heavy shell it is light and transparent, its activities on view. Public and politicians enter the building together and the public realm continues on the roof in the terrace restaurant and in the cupola, where ramps lead to an observation platform, allowing people to ascend symbolically above the heads of their representatives in the chamber.

The cupola is now an established Berlin landmark. Symbolic of rebirth, it also drives the building’s natural lighting and ventilation strategies. At its core is a ‘light sculptor’ that reflects horizon light down into the chamber, while a sun-shield tracks the path of the sun to block solar gain and glare. As night falls, this process is reversed – the cupola becomes a beacon on the skyline, signalling the vigour of the German democratic process.

The Reichstag is now the second most visited attraction in Germany (and, apparently, the most-visited parliament building in the world), not least because of that huge glass dome. The views it affords in all directions across the city are stupendous.

Gallery: visiting the Reichstag

It’s disappointing that a typical visit to the Reichstag is now restricted to the dome: the rest of the building is very interesting – not least because there it houses an important collection of German contemporary art. To mark the inauguration of the Reichstag in 1999, nineteen artists were commissioned to create new works that directly refer to the building and its history.

Katharina Sieverding, Memorial
Katharina Sieverding, Memorial

For example, in one of the lobbies, Katharina Sieverding chose to install a memorial to the Reichstag MPs of the Weimar Republic who were murdered or persecuted by the Nazis. The photo-painting incorporates a human spinal x-ray, medical representations of a tumour and explosions on the surface of the sun, recalling the Reichstag fire and the conflagration unleashed by the Nazis. On tables beneath the artwork, commem­orative books bear witness to the fate of the MPs who became victims of the Nazis.

Hans Haacke, Der Bevölkerung (The People)
Hans Haacke, Der Bevölkerung (The People)

Hans Haacke’s Der Bevölkerung (The People) is particularly challenging since it touches on one of the country’s most divisive questions: whether German identity should be defined in terms of ethnicity or place of birth. It’s a question provoked by the third word of the inscription over the entrance to the Reichstag building, Dem Deutschen Volke (‘To the German people’). Volk, like Heimat and Vaterland, has resonance far greater than its literal meaning. The Reichstag inscription could almost as accurately be translated as being ‘To the German race’.

Dem Deutschen Volke
Dem Deutschen Volke

Hans Haacke’s work is a riposte to that inscription, which for many Germans carries disturbing echoes of the nationalistic past. The words superimposed on his work –  a large wooden container filled with earth from each of Germany’s 669 constituencies and now flourishing with greenery – are of the same design and size as those above the entrance. But his inscription employs a different word: Der Bevölkerung. translates as ‘To the population’.

Both German expressions can be translated with the same word, ‘people’. But, because the Nazis favoured the term Volk to emphasise their overtly nationalist and exclusive notion of German identity, it has a rather different connotation than the word Bevölkerung. Haacke’s intention was to highlight the link between the German people and the land they inhabit, rather than the traditional, ethnic or racial concept of German identity. A more detailed discussion of ‘the hue and cry in Germany over Hans Haacke’s artwork’ can be found here.

Anselm Kiefer, Only with Wind, Time, and Sound (Nur mit Wind, mit Zeit und mit Klang), 1997
Anselm Kiefer, Only with Wind, Time, and Sound, 1997

One of the Reichstag artworks I would really like to see (having been transfixed by his recent retrospective at the Royal Academy) is Only with Wind, with Time and with Sound, a large painting in one of the reception rooms by Anselm Kiefer. Here is how it is described on the German Bundestag website:

The picture looks like some archaeological site. In the centre is a huge tower of mud bricks, reminiscent of a Mesopotamian ziggurat. The tower has disintegrated at the sides, where it is barely distinguishable from the ground around it. The monochrome tones of the painting and its crusty surface, with some areas seemingly burnt, almost suggest that it was created from the same material as the tower.

The image is poised between reality and an illusion of reality, its archaeological character intensified by ceramic shards and pieces of paper with writing on embedded in the painted surface. The title, taken from a poem by the Austrian writer Ingeborg Bachmann, is inscribed in the paint at the upper edge. Bachmann’s poem, written in 1957, is titled Exile and describes the condition of an exiled German who has no spiritual home outside his native tongue: ‘I am a dead wanderer / no longer registered anywhere … long since done with / and provided with nothing / Only with wind with time and with sound.’

The immaterial nature of wind, time and sound is contrasted in Kiefer’s painting with the seemingly solid tower, which symbolises worldly might and, like the tower of Babel, the human presumption that seeks to appropriate divine power by constructing boundless utopias. By inscribing the words ‘wind’, ‘time’ and ‘sound’ in the remains of a tower that appears to have decayed over a period of many centuries, the artist indicates that things we may consider permanent are, in the long term, just as evanescent as inherently fleeting phenomena. By extension, human life  on  earth may be described as a state of exile, our utopian visions resembling nothing so much as a breath of wind, mutable and insubstantial.

Like the Austrian poet Ingeborg Bachmann, Kiefer experienced World War II as a child and often references ancient wars in his work, in order to meditate on the destructive cycle of history. Bachmann was born in Klagenfurt, Austria in 1926. Whilst a student in Vienna she became a member of the legendary literary circle known as Gruppe 47, whose members also included Paul Celan, Heinrich Böll and Günter Grass. She  died in hospital three weeks after a fire in her bedroom in October 1973.


A dead person am I, who walks along
registered no longer anywhere
unknown in the prefect’s realm
superfluous in the golden cities and the verdant country
dismissed long ago
and adorned with nothing…
but with wind, with time and with sound
I, who cannot live among people
with the German language
this cloud around me which I consider as my house,
drift across all languages
oh, how it darkens itself
those dark ones, those rain sounds
only few fall
in brighter zones it then carries the dead up

The Reichstag building is one that has been inhabited or surrounded by the ghosts of history: of war, imperialism, fascism, communism and the failure of democracy. What is remarkable is that in today’s reincarnation the ghosts are not exorcised, but are brought in plain view in bold, often jarring, juxtapositions of past and present, of history and hope.

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