If walls could speak

When the German Empire was founded in 1871, a decision was made to build a building to house the parliament that was to govern the newly formed country. Like so many grand projects, it took its time to decide, plan and then execute such a construction project. It took 23 years in total and in 1894 the Reichstag was formally opened.

From the outside, only the obscured glass dome indicates the changes the building has undergone. Having been built under the rulership of the constitutional monarch Kaiser Wilhelm I, the W monogram is immortalised in the ceiling of the entrance. On the sides the various shields of the 25 different states, which were actually kingdoms, principalities, grand-duchies, duchies, hanseatic cities and an imperial territory.

The dedication above the entrance “Dem deutschen Volke” (To the German people) was only added in 1916, not long before the end of the empire. At the time, the Kaiser was not pleased with the dedication, however by 1918 it became clear that the people were even less pleased with him and he abdicated.

The proclamation of what is referred to as the Weimar Republic was made from one of the balconies of the building, which was witnessing its second state. At the time, that state had various names. It is now referred to as the Weimar Republic because its constitution was written in the city of Weimar; the parliament convened under its constitution sat in this building in Berlin.

A fire in 1933, almost certainly arson although no culprit was ever found, made it impossible for the parliament to continue its tenure there. It moved to a local opera house, although around the same time lost much of its power to the elected chancellor, Adolf Hitler.

The building remained iconic if empty. After the Second World War, it was heavily graffitied by Russian speakers (or writers one should say). These names of people and cities were found during the 1990s restoration. The MPs were asked to vote on whether they should be cleaned off or remain and they decided this is part of the history of the building.

The bomb-damaged building was partially restored in the 1970s and housed a museum of German history, but had no political role. It was very close to the Soviet sector, the Berlin wall running only about 10m away from one of the entrances. Photos of entrances are forbidden, so I cannot show you how close the memorial strip of paving demarking the wall is to the doors.

On reunification of Germany, the decision was taken to move the parliament back to the capital, after it had been in the ‘temporary’ capital of Bonn for over 40 years. The building needed to be restored and rebuilt to be able to house the whole institution of the Bundestag. Norman Foster, a British architect, won the commission and designed what feels like a good balance between the old and historic and the new and functional, exemplified by this walkway creating a mezzanine floor in this arched hallway.

At various points in the building, there are signs up showing the location at three different times. First, as originally conceived by Paul Wallot, second the status in the 1950s or 70s, depending on what images were available and then the current status after the Foster restoration.


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