The Reichstag in Berlin


The Historic German Parliament Building
Also see Christo’s Wrapped Reichstag (1995) below.

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The historic Reichstag building in Berlin is home to the Bundestag, Germany’s parliament. PHOTO © Hyde Flippo
MORE: Reichstag Photo Gallery (larger views)

I had a difficult time deciding whether to visit the Reichstag dome by day or by night. I solved the dilemma by doing both, and I can recommend that.

But some things have changed since my first visit to the Reichstag. Whether you go during the day or in the evening, be sure to plan ahead. You can no longer just show up and stand in line with crowds of people. For security reasons, all visitors must now go online and make a reservation for a specific date and time – and go through airline-style security. Learn more about these new requirements below.

Since the German capital and government moved from Bonn to Berlin in 1999, the Reichstag building has housed the Bundestag, as Germany’s main legislative body is known. Besides a visit to the dome and upper terrace, it is also possible to tour the Bundestag chamber (with reservations and a tour guide).

The Reichstag Building Today

First, let’s clear up a few things. The German word Reichstag means “imperial parliament” (das Reich, empire + der Tag, diet). The term Reichstag actually refers to the historic series of governing bodies in the German realm, and the former Prussian/German legislative body that was created in 1867 (for the North German Confederation). However, the term is often also used as shorthand for the building in which the Reichstag met for many years. Today the Reichstag building (das Reichstagsgebäude) houses the Bundestag, but it has kept the traditional “Reichstag” name.

Dome reflection

A reflection of the German flag in the glass of Sir Norman Foster’s Reichstag dome. PHOTO © Hyde Flippo

Most people, if they know anything about the Reichstag at all, associate it with the Nazi era and the Weimar Republic. But the German parliament building has a long and fascinating history that reflects the struggle between monarchism/dictatorship and democracy in Germany itself. The current Reichstag building was first used in 1894. It served as the seat of Germany’s government from that time until the infamous Reichstag fire in 1933.

History of the Reichstag (German Imperial Diet)

The First Reichstag (777-1806)
There have been three different Reichstage, or imperial diets. The first was actually a series of different governing bodies that served as part of the Holy Roman Empire of the German Nation, beginning with the era of Charlemagne (Karl der Große in German). The governing body was not even formalized and given its Reichstag name until 1489. The Reichstag would meet occasionally in different cities until 1663, when the Immerwährende (“perpetual”) Reichstag was established in Regensburg.

The Empire (das Reich) itself was only a loose confederation at this time, with most of the real power still belonging to dukes, kings, and other rulers across the territory that would later be Germany. It was not until the founding of the German Empire (Deutsches Reich) in 1871 that the Reichstag gained any true power. Even then it had to wait another 23 years before getting a permanent building for its legislative chambers!

The Second Reichstag (1867-1870 and 1871-1945)
The second Reichstag was established after a fallow period that ran from the fall of the old empire in 1806 until the founding of the North German Confederation in 1867 – and then its expanded version after 1871. The Reichstag’s first home in Berlin was in the Preußische Herrenhaus (Prussian House of Lords) at Leipziger Straße 3 – which today houses the contemporary Bundesrat (Federal Council).

The New Reichstag Building (1884-1894)
Following the founding of the German Empire (Reich) in 1871, the now larger Reichstag needed a new home. Plans were made to erect a new parliament building within the next five or six years, but the Reichstag would move several times over the next two decades before the cornerstone of its new home was laid in June 1884. The building was not finally dedicated until December 5, 1894. The 24 million marks that the building cost were drawn from French war reparations (Franco-Prussian War, 1870-1871).

Original Reichstag building

The original Reichstag building in Berlin between 1894 and 1905 (Photochrom print). PHOTO: Wikimedia Commons, Library of Congress

The new Reichstag building, designed by Paul Wallot, had chambers for both the Reichstag (lower house) and the Bundesrat/Reichsrat (upper house, 1871-1918). For its time, the new structure was state of the art. It had temperature-controlled central heating, its own electrical power station, telephones, toilets with running water, and double-glazed windows. Among other things, there were also reading rooms, conference rooms and a library. The one big deficiency was a lack of office space for the legislators. Compared to other European parliament buildings, the Reichstag building was then and is still much smaller. Today German members of parliament (Abgeordnete) have their offices in a separate nearby building (the Paul-Löbe-Haus) in Berlin’s Spree River bend government complex.

DEM DEUTSCHEN VOLKE
The famous inscription above the Reichstag building’s main entrance (“To the German People”) was chosen by architect Paul Wallot. Those words were supposed to be placed upon the building’s west portal before its dedication in 1894, but the intended space remained empty for 22 years! It was not until Christmas 1916, during WWI, that the missing words could finally be seen on the Reichstag. (The reason for the delay has never been historically established.) The 23-inch-tall (60 cm) letters for the three words DEM DEUTSCHEN VOLKE were cast from melted-down French cannons captured during the Napoleonic wars (1813-1815).

The Third Reichstag (1919-1933)
The third incarnation of the Reichstag was a short interlude, historically speaking, that came after the disaster of the First World War and the collapse of the monarchy. Known as the Weimar Republic, this German attempt to establish a true democratic republic failed for a variety of reasons, including political and economic problems – most notably a worldwide economic crisis, known in the US as the Great Depression. In 1933, only four weeks after Hitler’s rise to power, on the night of February 27, the Reichstag building was almost totally destroyed in a fire of mysterious origin. The blaze gave the Nazis an excuse to put the Reichstag in limbo, citing anti-communist national security measures. On March 23, 1933 the Reichstag (meeting in the nearby Kroll Opera Building) voted to essentially put itself out of business, ceding power to the Nazi dictatorship.

The Nazis and the Reichstag
Although it is likely that the Nazis were responsible for the burning of the Reichstag building in 1933, they never held a parliamentary session in that structure. During the Hitler era, the few times the Reichstag convened at all, it did so in a former opera house opposite the Reichstag building.

The Reichstag in 1945

The Reichstag building in Berlin as it looked right after the war. PHOTO: Wikimedia Commons

Following World War II, the Reichstag was a ruin, having been heavily damaged by Allied bombs and fighting during the last days of the war. It now stood in the British Zone next to the border of the Soviet Zone. After 1961 the Berlin Wall ran along the back of the building. Since the capital of West Germany was now in Bonn, the Reichstag could not be used as a seat of government. However, in 1955 the German Bundestag decided that the structure should be preserved. An architectural contest was held for the design of the renovation of the Reichstag building. Architect Paul Baumgarten designed the reconstruction which took place from 1961 to 1964, but the building sat largely unused until 1990 and German reunification. After 1971, the Reichstag housed a museum with an exhibit called “Fragen an die Deutsche Geschichte” (“Questions concerning German history”).

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The Wrapped Reichstag by the artistic team of Christo and Jeanne-Claude in the summer of 1995. Only experienced climbers need apply! PHOTO © Hyde Flippo

The Wrapped Reichstag – Verhüllter Reichstag

In the summer of 1995, following preliminary work for the Reichstag’s renovation, the environmental artists Christo and Jeanne-Claude wrapped the building in thick silver-colored woven polypropylene fabric with an aluminum surface. Held in place by 10 miles (15 km) of large blue rope, the wrapped Reichstag was on display for two weeks, from June 24 to July 6. Christo and his wife Jeanne-Claude personally supervised the work done by a crew of 90 professional climbers and 120 construction workers. The project, first envisioned by the couple in 1971, was entirely financed by the artists through the sale of preparatory sketches, drawings, collages, scale models, other early works and original lithographs.

Christo and Jeanne-Claude
Christo and Jeanne-Claude were both born on June 13, 1935 (he in Bulgaria, she in Morocco). They later became American citizens. Jeanne-Claude died in November 2009, aged 74.

An estimated five million people viewed the Wrapped Reichstag during its two-week display. On July 7, the unveiling began. Soon thereafter, a complete gutting of the interior and major reconstruction of the Reichstag was undertaken. The renovated Reichstag with its new dome by Sir Norman Foster was not completed until 1999. The Bundestag convened in its remodeled home for the first time on April 19, 1999. – Also see the Web links below.

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The view from the top. The Reichstag dome offers a 360-degree panoramic view of Berlin. PHOTO © Hyde Flippo

Touring the Reichstag in Berlin

The Reichstag building, its dome and the Bundestag chamber are all open to the public – but only with advance reservations. Below is a guide to arranging your visit.

Visiting the Reichstag and its Glass Dome
Admission is free, but advance registration by email is required. The details about visits and registration (in English) can be found at Visit the Bundestag and Registering to visit the dome of the Reichstag Building (www.bundestag.de). A single registration request can be submitted for up to 50 persons. You must list every person’s surname, first name and date of birth. The dome is open daily from 8:00 am until midnight (last admission at 11:00 pm). Groups are admitted every quarter of an hour. Cameras are allowed, but all visitors must go through security screening before entering the building. Audioguides are available in 10 languages.

Note: If you do not have reservations, and you want to visit the dome, it is sometimes possible to get in by checking with the personnel at the entrance to the security-check building. If there is space available, you may be able to join a tour group within the next hour or so. You still need to provide names and other info mentioned above.

Food and Drink: A small food stand on the ground floor of the dome sells drinks and light snacks (bottled water, hot dogs, cookies, chips, ice cream, etc.). There is also a roof-top restaurant, but it’s on the pricey side and reservations are required.

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Also see the related pages and links below.

KEY DATES in Reichstag History

1489 | The first official Reichstag convenes.

1663 | The first Reichstag with a permanent seat convenes in Regensburg.

1867 | The North German Confederation is founded. Its parliament in Berlin is called the Reichstag.

1871 | The German Empire (Deutsches Reich) is established. The Reichstag needs a new, larger home, but it will have to wait until 1894 to get one.

1884 | Construction of the Reichstag building in Berlin begins. Emperor Wilhelm I dedicates the cornerstone on June 9.

1894 | The new Reichstag building is officially dedicated in December.

1916 | After a two-decade delay, the inscription “DEM DEUTSCHEN VOLKE” (“To the German people”) is placed over the main entrance to the Reichstag, in the midst of WWI.

1919 | After WWI the German monarchy falls and the democratic Weimar Republic is established, with a newly elected Reichstag.

1933 | Although the Nazis had already begun to undermine the Weimar Republic, the Reichstag fire in February leads to the end of the Reichstag as a truly democratic body.

1945 | The Reichstag building is in ruins after six years of war.

1955 | The West German Bundestag decides to restore the Reichstag building in West Berlin.

1961-64 | The Reichstag building is rebuilt – minus its dome. Since the West German capital is in Bonn, the Reichstag can’t be used as a parliament building. In August 1961 the Berlin Wall goes up. Part of it stands right next to the Reichstag.

1989 | The Berlin Wall comes down on November 9.

1990 | German reunification is officially declared on October 3.

1991 | On June 20, with a bare majority of only 18 votes, the Bundestag votes to move the German capital back to Berlin from Bonn.

1993 | A competition for designing the Reichstag’s renovation begins. From an original field of 80, the British architect Norman Foster wins out over two other final contestants. Neither Foster’s first nor second design for the Reichstag includes a dome. Both plans are rejected in the end.

1994 | In January the Bundestag in Bonn votes to approve the Wrapped Reichstag project.

1995 | Foster proposes a new plan with a transparent glass and steel dome open to the public. His design, with a spiral walkway, copies earlier proposals by two other architects. Today the dome is the building’s most popular feature.

1995 | For two weeks in June/July, the Wrapped Reichstag is on display. At the end of July, construction work begins on the renovation of the Reichstag building.

1999 | In April, a symbolic key ceremony opens the renovated Reichstag building and its dome. In September the Bundestag convenes there for the first time.

2010 | A terrorism scare closes the Reichstag building to the public briefly in December. After that, the public can only visit the building with advanced reservations for a specific date and time.

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