Monday, September 5, 2016

The Reichstag

Among the world's legislative buildings, few others have been through as much history and through such profound transformations as the Reichstag in Berlin.  The US Capitol is much older, by almost a hundred years; but, its transformations were mostly expansions to keep up with a growing USA. The Reichstag went through empire and humiliation, revolution, totalitarianism, crime, war, defeat, destruction, infamy, occupation, division, and reconstruction; through the whole ordeal of the 20th century along with Germany.  The third German Kaiser objected to the building's existence and to the legislature that it housed.  At the end of the First World War, it became a symbol of the dreams of the 1848 Revolution fulfilled in the Weimar Republic, the first republic of a united Germany.  Many others loathed the Reichstag as a symbol of a defective republic of dubious legitimacy born out of the chaos at the end of the Great War.  Arsonists set fire to the Reichstag and Hitler used its burned out interior as a pretext for seizing power.  Upon becoming Führer, he discarded both the building and the institution that it once housed. The Reichstag stood empty on the frontline of the Cold War for many years.  Today, a rebuilt Reichstag once more serves as home to the representative assembly of the German people, the Bundestag.

Only a few of these are my photos.  The rest are historical pictures.

I didn't really get a chance to spend time visiting the Reichstag.  I was in Berlin only 3 days, and a visit to the Reichstag has to be planned in advance.  You can't just drop by and go through.  You must make a reservation 8 to 12 hours in advance of your visit.  This is mostly for necessary security precautions.  In the Age of the Terrorist, the days of the wide open legislative building are over all around the world.  I understand that the US Capitol has similar requirements for visits now.

My photo of the Reichstag at twilight.

"To the German People," an inscription added in 1916 to the intense irritation of Kaiser Wilhelm II who hated any kind of democratic sentiment.
My photo.

Norman Foster's glass dome.  My photo.

The present Reichstag was built on the site of the Racynski Palace on the Königplatz seen here in 1880.  Photo from Wikipedia.

As soon as the German Empire was created out of the victory in the Franco-Prussian War in 1871, it became necessary to find a suitable meeting place for the new German parliament.  The old meeting places of the Prussian parliament in Berlin were too small and not suitable.  By 1873 with the persuasion of Bismarck, Kaiser Wilhelm I agreed to the construction of a new building for the new German Imperial parliament, the Reichstag.  The site agreed upon was this mansion of a Polish nobleman who was very reluctant to sell the property.  The nobleman agreed to sell many years later, but only after difficult negotiations and a lot of argument and intrigue within the Reichstag and with the new Emperor.

The new Reichstag about 1900.  Photo from Wikipedia.

Work on the present building did not begin until 1884 after the Frankfurt architect Paul Wallot won out of a competition between 200 other architects.  Wallot submitted a design inspired by an American building, the Memorial Hall from the 1876 Centennial Exhibition in Philadelphia.  Kaiser Wilhelm II laid the capstone finishing the building in 1894.  Construction finished only after numerous delays and controversies over the new building, not least of which was the explicit hostility of Kaiser Wilhelm II to the whole project.  Unlike his father, Wilhelm II had little patience or sympathy for parliaments or anything that smelled of democracy.  He contemptuously referred to the Reichstag building as a "monkey house."
When opened, the press and the public celebrated the new building as a modern wonder of the world.  The large glass skylight over the center that illumined the legislative chamber below was singled out for special praise as an engineering marvel.

The Reichstag, instituted in 1871 with the creation of the German Empire, was the lower house of the German parliament.  Today's Bundestag is also the lower house of the Federal Republic.  The upper house, the Reichsrat (today the Bundesrat) met in a separate location, the old Prussian House of Lords.  Both the former Reichsrat and the current Bundesrat are the assembly of all the German states, similar to the Senate of the USA.

The Reichstag about 1900 with the Siegesäule in its original location before Hitler moved it.  Hitler also made the column taller.  Photo from Wikipedia.

The central chamber of the Reichstag in 1903.  Photo from German language Wikipedia.

The Reichstag in session in 1906.  Photo from Wikimedia Commons.

The Reichstag in 1920.  Photo from here.

On November 19, 1918, the Social Democratic politician Phillip Scheidemann declared the German Republic from a window of the Reichstag.  The German effort in the First World War collapsed in a growing mutiny in the military, strikes in industry, and general uprisings all over the country over the losses and the pointlessness of the war.  General Erich Ludendorf effectively ruled Germany from the front lines in the last years of the First World War.  In November of 1918, he ordered the Kaiser to abdicate and the long marginalized Social Democrats to form a new government.  The left wing opposition party suddenly found itself in power with a mandate from a general, a very awkward position.  The Weimar Reichstag was hopelessly deadlocked among a host of factions from Catholic parties to socialists to right wing nationalists to Communists to Nazis.  None of these parties was particularly interested in parliamentary democracy.  The governing Social Democrats frequently had to resort to emergency decrees just to get the most ordinary business done.  The Weimar Republic was crippled at birth with doubts about its legitimacy and a hopelessly deadlocked parliament representing a bitterly divided population.   That population had already resorted to shooting each other in the streets of Berlin and other major cities in 1919.  And yet, this was a united Germany's first real democracy.  The old dream in 1848 of Germany united in a liberal republic finally came true in a compromised and crippled Weimar Republic.  The new republic adopted the black, red, and gold tricolor flag of the old 1848 Revolution as the new national flag (used again by today's German Federal Republic).  The Reichstag building became an object of hope and derision; a symbol of popular democracy and a painful reminder of the scandalous circumstances of its birth from defeat in the First World War.

The Social Democrat's habit of resorting to decree to get business done would come back to bite that party.  While others both left and right were calling for a coup to do away with the Weimar Republic, Adolph Hitler resolved to use parliamentary means to stymie and then to destroy the republic.  Hitler took a lesson from the Social Democrats and used decree to rule and then to end the republic.

September 12, 1932 in the Reichstag;  Chancellor Franz Von Papen standing to the left, demands the floor and is ignored by Speaker Hermann Goering.
Photo from here.

The Reichstag Fire seen from near the Brandenburg Gate on February 27, 1933.
Arsonists (Communist or Nazi is still a point of contention) set fire to the Reichstag over night causing extensive damage to the legislative chamber with fire and smoke pouring out of the skylight.
The Nazis famously used this event as a pretext for establishing martial law and emergency rule by decree.
After the fire, the Reichstag remained vacant and unused throughout the years of the Nazi regime.
Photo from here.

During the 12 year rule of Adolph Hitler, the Reichstag rarely met at all except for speeches by Hitler announcing the Enabling Act or declaring war.  Here it meets in 1938 to hear Hitler's speech on the success of the Anschluss march on Austria.  When the Nazi Reichstag met, it did so not in the old Reichstag building, but in the Kroll Opera House that stood on the Königplatz opposite the vacant Reichstag building.  The Kroll Opera House was destroyed by Allied bombing and its remains demolished after the war.
Photo by Hitler's official photographer Hugo Jaeger.  Photo from here.
You can be sure that this time Speaker Goering (seen here in the Speaker's Chair) did not ignore Hitler when he demanded the floor.  Hitler appears in the Chancellor's seat just to the left of the rostrum (the newly created position of Führer combined the Chancellor's office with the Presidency).
I can't decide which is scarier in this photo; a chamber full of Nazis or that theatrically backlit metal robo-eagle looming behind the rostrum

One of the most famous photographs from World War II, Yevgeny Khaldei's photo of a Soviet soldier raising the Soviet flag over the east side of the Reichstag Building on May 2, 1945.
Photo from here.

Even though the Reichstag remained empty and unused throughout Hitler's reign, the Soviets made it a symbolic target and military goal in the Battle of Berlin in 1945.  The real center of power, the Reichskanzelrei a few blocks away was spared on Stalin's orders.  The Great Father of Progressive Ideas wanted to take Hitler alive and ordered his big guns and bombers aimed at the Reichstag and not Hitler's HQ.  In the end, Hitler had other ideas and committed suicide in his bunker.
The Reichstag meanwhile took a beating from Soviet artillery and bombers.  That anything was left standing at all is testimony to the quality of architect Paul Wallot's design and engineering when the building was built 50 years earlier.

The interior of the Reichstag photographed shortly after the end of the War covered with Soviet graffiti.  Some of that graffiti is preserved in the present building.
Photo from here.

The blasted ruins of the Reichstag in the summer of 1945 with kids playing in the Spree river in the foreground.  I'm not sure, but I would guess this photo is by Frederick Ramage.  Photo from here.

Photo of the ruins of the Reichstag in 1946 with a discarded stahlhelm by Werner Bischoff.
Photo from here.

The empty old Reichstag in the 1960s.  Photo from Wikimedia Commons.

At the end of the Second World War and after the conclusion of occupation by the Allies, the victors presented the Germans with a choice between Stalin's dreams of glory and Western liberal democracy and a consumer society.  Germans voted with their feet for the latter and flooded across the new boundary between the Soviet Occupation Zone, now becoming a Soviet client state known as the German Democratic Republic (DDR), and the Western occupation zones now becoming the German Federal Republic (BRD).  The hemorrhaging of the population from east to west became so bad that the DDR built a wall across the center of Berlin in 1961 to stop it, the Berlin Wall.
A post War treaty forbade both East and West Germany from using Berlin as a capital city.  The Federal Republic moved their capital to Beethoven's home town, Bonn on the Rhine river.  East Germany broke the treaty and kept their capital in Berlin.
That treaty violation may have saved the Reichstag from demolition.  In retaliation for the treaty violation, West Germany decided to use Berlin for certain government functions and parliamentary committees.  The ruins of the Reichstag became necessary again.
The West German government decided to repair, if not quite restore, the Reichstag.  The remains of the old skylight were torn down.  In 1961 to 1964, the architect Paul Baumgarten designed a repair and renovation of the building, rebuilding the interior and simplifying the exterior by removing a lot of damaged statuary and ornament, and especially nationalist symbols now considered inappropriate and offensive.  The Reichstag had a partial resurrection as a government office building and ceremonial meeting hall.
From 1961 to 1990, the Berlin Wall ran but a few meters away from the east side of the building effectively closing off  all the eastern entrances.  The battered old building stood right on the frontline of the Cold War.

The Bundestag meeting in Bonn sometime in the 1960s.  The eagle over the rostrum, designed by the sculptor Ludwig Gies and made from aluminum speckled with lights, was the official Bundesadler or Federal Eagle meant to replace the earlier Reichsadler or Imperial Eagle.  The Bonn Bundestag eagle was much better known by its nickname, Fette Henne or The Fat Hen.
Photo from here.

Two architects of the present Bundesrepublik, Ludwig Erhard and Konrad Adenauer in the Bundestag in Bonn.
Photo from here.

The Palast der Republik in the former East Berlin, since demolished.
The DDR tore down the remains of the Stadtschloss in 1950 and built in its place this building in 1973 - 1976.  The public on both sides of the Berlin Wall derided the structure calling it "Erich's Lamp Shop" after Erich Honecker, a former leader of the DDR.  Contravening a post War treaty forbidding both East and West Germany from using Berlin as a capital, the parliament of the DDR, the Volkskammer or People's Chamber met in Berlin in the Palast der Republik.
After reunification, the Palast was demolished from 2003 to 2008.  Demolition crews discovered that the building was badly contaminated with asbestos.  Decontamination slowed demolition considerably.  Today, the Stadtschloss that once stood on the site is being rebuilt.
Photo from Wikipedia.

The Volkskammer of the DDR meeting in the Palast der Republik.  Photo from Wikipedia.

Reunification; raising the flag in front of the Reichstag on October 3, 1990.  Photo from Wikipedia.

The Bundestag made two very controversial decisions in 1991; to move the capital back to Berlin, and to move itself back into the old Reichstag building.  The debate was very contentious and the vote was close, but Berlin became the German capital again, and the Reichstag would become a functioning legislative building again after 57 years standing vacant since the fire of February 27, 1933.

In 1992, the German government held an international competition for proposals to restore the Reichstag.  British architect Norman Foster won the commission.

Before construction started on the new Reichstag, the artist Christo and his wife Jeanne-Claude wrapped the Reichstag in fabric in 1995.
Photo from here.

Photo from Wikepedia

Foster had the entire interior of the Reichstag gutted including all of Baumgarten's work from the 1960s.  Only the outer walls were retained.  Foster built an entirely new building within the Reichstag's original walls.

Foster added a great glass dome, an homage to Paul Wallot's 1894 glass skylight.  The dome contains a large set of mirrors and a moving sunshield that lights the interior legislative chamber as Wallot's skylight once did before.  Unlike Wallot's skylight, Foster's dome contains a spiral ramp for visitors to get a view out onto the city.
Photo from here.

The chamber of the Bundestag in the rebuilt Reichstag today.  Photo from here.

When the new Reichstag neared completion in 1998, proposals were solicited for a redesigned eagle for the rebuilt chamber.  The Bundestag deemed all the proposals to be too aggressive, too "imperial."  The proposed eagles looked too much like the eagles that adorned the monuments of the Hohenzollerns, and even worse, like the ones designed by Albert Speer for Hitler's monuments.  The last thing a newly reunified Germany wanted to do was to suggest a return of the old Imperial and aggressively expansionist Germany.  The new Germany would remain securely and happily within Europe.  So, a new larger version of Ludwig Gies' original "Fat Hen" was installed over the Speaker's rostrum.

My photo of the Reichstag at sunset.

My photo of the Reichstag dome from the Holocaust Memorial.

A naval march:

1 comment:

IT said...

Thanks, Doug. That was a fascinating history and I had not realized how long it was empty.