Last night I visited the German Bundestag and toured Berlin’s Reichstag Dome. I took the U-Bahn and then enjoyed city lights during a misty walk along the canal. Reichstag security is tight with guards patrolling the building inside and out. You must register in advance for tours and present your passport for identification. The security drill is tedious and the frisking part unpleasant, but it’s worth the experience.
Berlin Government District
The Reichstag is in Berlin’s Government District which has buildings named after well-known parliamentarians like activist Marie Elisabeth Lüders. It’s near Brandenburg Gate, where a small group of people gathered today to pray, sing, and dance celebrating Hanukkah. A temporary menorah was constructed in front of the Gate to honor the Jewish holidays.
The Bundestag is the National Parliament and the legislative branch of the Federal Republic of Germany. Since 2017, Wolfgang Schäuble is the President of the Federal Assembly and the Bundestag. He’s been a “Bundestag member since 1972 and is the longest-serving member of all German parliaments ever elected at national level”. Dr. Schäuble was formerly Minister of the Interior and Finance and instrumental in negotiating the German Unification Treaty in 1990.
“The Reichstag bears silent witness to the turbulent history of Berlin and is one of the city’s most significant historical buildings.”
- Creates federal law
- Changes the constitution
- Approves treaties
- Establishes the federal budget
- Exercises parliamentary control of the government and executive branches
- Expresses the wishes of the people
Since 1999, the Bundestag is in the Reichstag building in Berlin. The Federal Assembly meets in the Plenary Chamber, the largest hall in the building. The chamber has a visitor’s gallery. Rules and decorum of the current German government seem complex – rightly so…
“In its long history, Germany has rarely been united. For most of the two millennia that German-speaking peoples inhabited Central Europe, the area now called Germany consisted of hundreds of separate states…”
In the lobby at the base of the dome, there’s a exhibition with photographs and narrative that present a detailed historical account of the German Government. It covers ununited Germany to postwar unification:
- Charlemagne Holy Roman Emperor (742-814)
- House of Habsburg (1618-1648)
- Weimar Republic (1919-1933)
- Hitler’s Nazi Regime (1933-1945)
“Germans elect representatives by universal, direct, free, equal, and secret ballots submitted in 299 constituencies.” Through election, representatives receive their mandate and are called MPs. The system of “personalized proportional representation allows voters to vote for the political party they prefer, and vote independently for a candidate from their constituency”.
I was more interested in seeing the spectacular glass dome than learning details about German government, but to truly understand a country, first you must spend real time there and learn its history. Otherwise, it’s easy to make wrong judgments and incorrect assumptions and conclusions. Germany is a complex country requiring concentrated effort to fully comprehend its past. What I learned so far is there’s more to learn…
Plenary Hall is “illuminated by a mirror system that diverts daylight from the dome into the Reichstag building”.
Reichstag Building and Glass Dome
In 1990 the Reichstag was the site of the official reunification ceremony. After restoration from 1995 -1999, it once again became the home of the German National Parliament. The glass dome was not part of the original plans for Reichstag renovation – but that’s a separate and interesting story.
After the rebuild, British architect Norman Foster designed the glass dome to symbolize Germany’s reunification. There’s a 360 degree view of Berlin from the top! A mirrored cone in the center allows visitors to see the Reichstag’s Plenary Chamber below and watch government in process.
You reach the top of the dome by climbing “two steel, spiraling ramps that are reminiscent of a double helix“. The Dome “symbolizes that the people are above the government, as was not the case during Nazism”.
Foster designed the dome to be environmentally friendly. “Energy efficient features include daylight shining through the mirrored cone to decrease carbon emissions”. A large “sun shield tracks the movement of the sun electronically and blocks direct sunlight to prevent solar gain from dazzling those below”.
The futuristic and transparent design of the Reichstag Dome symbolizes Berlin’s attempt to move away from a past of Nazism toward a future with emphasis on a united, democratic Germany.
History of the Original Reichstag
The original Reichstag was built in 1895 and designed by Frankfurt architect Paul Wallot. The building featured a large dome. In 1933, the Reichstag Fire destroyed the entire building. The Communists were blamed for the arson attack, but there was no conclusive evidence.
After the horrific fire, remains of the Reichstag building and the dome were further demolished by bombings during The Battle of Berlin, World War II, and Berlin’s fall to the Soviets in 1945. The original building – minus the dome – was partly reconstructed in the 1960s and used as a conference center.
Every day, people line up and wait for hours to visit the Reichstag. I decided to take a night tour, but it was a rainy evening so visibility wasn’t great. Touring the dome is a special experience!