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  • Writer's pictureJan Tattenberg, PhD

A Brief History of the Reichstag Building in Berlin

What is the Reichstag?

The Reichstag is an imposing, domed Neo-Renaissance structure that was built in the late 19th century and currently serves as the home of the ‘Bundestag’, the lower house of Germany’s parliament.

Reichstag building with blue sky behind it

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Reichstag History

The Reichstag was built in the late 19th century by the German architect of Huguenot descent Paul Wallot to house the eponymous parliament of Imperial Germany and, later, the Weimar Republic. In 1916, much to the disapproval of Kaiser Wilhelm II, the democratic dedication ‘Dem Deutschen Volke’ (‘To the German people’), cast from early-19th-century French cannonballs, was inscribed above the main entrance. Today, it’s the seat of the Bundestag, the parliament of the Federal Republic of Germany, though the building is still called the Reichstag.

The building is perhaps most famous for something that did not take place here. Adolf Hitler was declared Chancellor on the 30th of January 1933 and on the night of the 27th of February, a fire broke out in the building and the Dutch Communist Marinus van der Lubbe was arrested and accused of arson. He was tried, found guilty, and executed in short order. Whether van der Lubbe really did start the fire remains a point of contention and some historians believe the Nazis were themselves responsible. In the month following the fire, the Nazi Party tightened its grip on power and on the 23rd of March 1933 the Enabling Act was passed, granting Hitler almost unfettered legislative and judicial power. The vote did not take place in the Reichstag since it had been damaged by the fire, but in the nearby Kroll Opera House, which on that day was surrounded by SS paramilitaries. The Social Democrats were the sole party to vote against the law, though only about three quarters of their parliamentary group were present. The rest, and all of the Communist Party’s parliamentarians, were already imprisoned or on the run. In front of the Reichstag, you’ll find a memorial formed of more than 90 iron plates that commemorates all the parliamentarians murdered by the Nazi regime.

Tourists inside the Reichstag dome

Only minimal repairs to the partially burned-out building were carried out by the Nazis, the fire damage left to remind the public of the danger of Communism. On the 30th of April 1945, after heavy fighting for control of Berlin, the Red Army captured the Reichstag and its soldiers raised the Soviet flag above it. Two days later, the moment was recreated for a famous photograph by Yevgeny Khaldei. Inside, Soviet soldiers scribbled on the walls, like teenagers visiting a famous tourist spot. Their graffiti has been preserved. Today, it and bullet holes left by the fighting are visible in various places in the building. A few of the invading soldiers have returned since 1945. Boris Viktorovich Sapunov, then a cultural historian at St Petersburg’s Hermitage Museum, rediscovered his own name, which he had written on the wall of the Reichstag as a young man, when he visited in the late 1990s.

The graffiti was rediscovered because, following German reunification in 1990 and the famous wrapping by artists Christo and Jeanne-Claude (when they covered the structure in thick fabric to symbolise Berlin’s reinstatement as a major world city), British architect Norman Foster had been tasked with renovating the building. In due course, much of the reconstruction work carried out in the 1960s was undone and the wartime reminders inscribed upon the walls made visible once more. Unlike most of Berlin’s historic centre, the Reichstag had ended up in West Berlin, but the capital of West Germany was in fact Bonn, where an old teacher training college had been converted into a temporary parliament. The glass dome atop the Reichstag (which offers a magnificent 360-degree view of Berlin’s cityscape) was not part of Foster’s original design, but was added later as a nod to the original dome constructed by Wallot, which was damaged by the 1933 fire and demolished in the 1950s. The decision to move parliament back into the Reichstag was controversial. One critic said it would be like the German president ‘taking the Kaiser’s uniform out of mothballs and wearing it in the 1990s’.

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