I eased my way through the crowds at the Brandenburg Gate and followed the crowd out of the popular tourist square. For a less popular capital city, Berlin was packed – I shudder to think how packed Paris and London would be.
The Bundestag from a different angle
It wasn’t too long before I came to an imposing sight situated at the Spree River. A large glass semi-dome placed itself on the top of the building adding a touch of modernity to an otherwise grand imperial structure. On exterior of the grand structure, emblazoned on the frieze, was the phrase ‘Dem Deutschen Volke’, ‘to the German people’.
This was the building that made the laws of the German Federal Republic, the place where many important political decisions in history were made.
The Bundestag main entrance
This was the Bundestag, the seat of the German government and perhaps one of the most interactive parliaments I’ve ever been to, simply because of the dome at the top. The dome is open 16 hours a day for visitors to explore. According to various blogs and websites the dome provides two outstanding views, one of the city and the other looking down into the chamber of the Bundestag.
There is a compelling reason behind this dome. After the experience of World War II, when Hitler and his National Socialist party took over the national parliament, the practices of democracy were essentially suspended for control by a junta, a junta that led a country to war.
The Fuhrer had subverted the normal practice of government and made the people subservient to him almost like subjects to a Tsar. When the Bundestag was rebuilt (after the reunification of Germany), the Dome was planned so as to remind the politicians that they serve at the leave and pleasure of the voters and not the other way round, and that the people had a responsibility to scrutinize government. By looking down at the parliamentarians, the reminder to the parliamentarians became a visible one.
But the history of this building goes back further, back to an imperial age, after the unification of Germany in 1871. The new empire needed a place for its law-makers to assemble and the Kaiser Wilhelm I instructed for a new assembly to be constructed. A large call for proposals was put out with over 103 architects and proposals for the new building. While a decision was made, political and logistic complications meant that the assembly took 10 years to even have a plot of land on which to construct the building. By then a new competition had to be called and a Neo-Baroque design from a Frankfurt based architect, Paul Wallot, was selected. By the time the building was completed Germany had gone through three Emperors (in what was called the Year of Three Emperors). It was during the reign of Kaiser Wilhelm II, the grandson of Wilhelm I, that the phrase Dem Deutsch Volke was put up, much to Wilhelm II’s displeasure. Wilhelm II, did not just dislike democracy, he was also the driving force behind Germany’ entry into World War I.
It was from this place that Germany was drawn and declared its entry into World War I, but it was also from this place that a new Weimar Republic was declared after the Axis Powers had lost World War I.
The Weimar Republic continued to use the Reichstag (the then name of the building), but that period coincided with the Great Depression and a economic disaster for Germany (and the rest of the world). It was into this economic, social and politcal upheaval that a certain Adolf Hitler came to power and brought an end to the Weimar Republic. Hitler’s extreme rhetoric was seen in some quarters as the simple answer than Germany needed to a complex problem of a global economic meltdown. His pinning of the blame on the Jews, created a consipiracy theory that assuanged many who needed an enemy to stand against. His party came from no where and continued to win more and more seats until January 1933, when he essentially won the biggest slice of the Reichstag in the Weimar Republic. The Reichstag had been in a state of chaos since 1932 when no parliamentary majority could be formed. Under pressure to end the mess, the then President of Germany Paul von Hindenburg appointed Hitler as Chancellor.
It didn’t take long for Hitler and his party to consolidate power and suspend democracy. Barely a month after taking over a large fire engulfed and burned the Reichstag. The Nazi government used the declared that it was the communist who had plotted to destroy the building and requested emergency laws the next day from President von Hindenburg, suspending the most vital forms of civil liberties including free speech, free press, habeaus corpus, public assembly and right to privacy.
The era of Nazi Germany had begun.
It was not the end however, the Bundestag was also the site of final battle of the European Theatre in World War II. As World War 2 came to an end and the Soviet soldiers began to march into Berlin, Stalin realised that the value of controlling the Reichstag would be incalculable. It was then that he sent his soldiers to take the Reichstag by force, leading to this powerful picture of the Soviet flag over the Reichstag.
The building was left in its wretched state throughout the Cold War, since despite being in West Berlin, it was literally next to the Berlin Wall and East Berlin. The new German parliament was moved to Bonn. It regained its position after the reunification of Germany. The parliamentarians had initially decided to meet symbolically in Berlin and the Reichstag. But the decision on what to do with Berlin was still not made. It took a ferocious debate and a slim majority for the decision to be made to move the capital of unified German from Bonn back to Berlin and the return the Bundestag to its rightful place in history.
This new building was designed by Englishman Norman Foster and opened in 1999 and has since then been the meeting place of the German Bundestag. Just opposite this is a new series of modern government buildings and a light show was prepared by the Bundestag ‘To the German People’ to chronicle the stories history of democracy in Germany.
It was quite a surreal experience to sit at the promenade facing back to the Bundestag and see the face of Hitler and a fair recollection of the mistakes of history and horrors he wrought on the people of the world displayed for all to see. The greatness of a people is judged by how they respond to their mistakes, owning up to their past is perhaps the greatest deed any nation could do – this lightshow was not just a lightshow about Democracy, it lit up the best of what democracy could do.
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