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Reichstag (building)

The Reichstag building in Berlin was constructed as the place where the Reichstag, the parliament of the German Empire, would convene. It was opened in 1894 and became the seat of the German parliament again in 1999.

Reichstag building (June 2003)

Confusingly, today's parliament of Germany is called the Bundestag. The Reichstag as a parliament leads back to the Holy Roman Empire and ceased to exist in the years of Nazi Germany (1933-1945). In today's usage, the German term Reichstag thus refers primarily to the building.

History of the building

Construction of the building began only well after 1871. Previously, the parliament had assembled in several other buildings in the Leipziger Straße in Berlin; but these were generally considered too small, so in 1872 an architectural contest with 103 participating architects was concluded to erect an all-new building. Work did not start until ten years later though, due to various problems with purchasing property for the new building and arguments between Wilhelm I, Otto von Bismarck, and the members of the Reichstag about how the construction should be performed.

In 1882, another architectual contest was held, with 189 architects participating. This time the winnner, the Frankfurt architect Paul Wallot, would actually have his plan executed. On June 9, 1884, the foundation stone was finally laid by Wilhelm I. Before construction was completed in 1894, Wilhelm I had died in 1888 (the Year of Three Emperors), and his successor, Wilhelm II, objected to parliament as an institution much more. The original building was most acclaimed for the construction of an original cupola of steel and glass, a technical masterpiece of the time.

After World War I had ended and the Kaiser had resigned, during the revolutionary days of 1918, Philipp Scheidemann proclaimed the institution of a republic from one of the balconies of the Reichstag building on November 9. The building continued to be the seat of the parliament of the Weimar Republic (1919-1933), and was still called Reichstag.

After Adolf Hitler had been appointed Reichskanzler on January 30, 1933, the building was set on fire on February 27, 1933, under circumstances not yet entirely clear (see Reichstag fire). This proved to be a valuable excuse for the Nazis to suspend most Human Rights provided for by the 1919 constitution in the Reichstag Fire Decree.

Contrary to popular belief, during the 12 years of the Third Reich, the Reichstag building was not used for parliamentary sessions at all. Instead, the few times where the Reichstag convened at all, it did so in the Kroll Oper building, a former opera opposite the Reichstag building. This applies as well to the session of March 23, 1933, in which the Reichstag disposed of its powers in favor of the Nazi government in the Enabling Act another step of the so-called Gleichschaltung, the legal steps through which the Nazis seized power. The building (which was unusable after the fire anyway) was instead used for propaganda presentations and, during World War II, for military purposes.

Soviet soldiers raise their flag over the Reichstag building
The building was further damaged by air raids. During the Siege of Berlin in 1945, it became the central target for the Red Army for reasons not entirely clear, since it served no political, military, or strategic purpose at all. In fact, the Nazis had mostly ignored the building. The famous photo of the Soviets hoisting their Red Flag on one of the towers of the building on May 2, 1945, (right) is a fake: it was staged a few days after the soldiers actually entered the building.

When the Cold War emerged, the building was within West Berlin, but only a few meters from the border of the Soviet sector, which in 1961 became the Berlin Wall. During the Berlin blockade, an enormous number of Berliners assembled before the building on September 9, 1948, and Mayor Ernst Reuter held a famous speech that finalized in the call, Ihr Völker der Welt, schaut auf diese Stadt! (Peoples of the world, look upon this city!)

After the war, the building was pretty much a ruin. In addition, there was no real use for it, since the capital of West Germany had been located to Bonn in 1949. Still, in 1956, after some debate, it was decided that the Reichstag should not be taken down, but instead be restored. Unfortunately, the cupola of the original building was blown up. Another architectual contest was held, and the winner, Paul Baumgarten, reconstructed the building from 1961-1964. The artistic and practical value of his work was the subject of much debate after German reunification. Due to the provisions set forth for Berlin by the Allies in the 1971 Vier-Mächte-Abkommen, the Bundestag, the parliament of West Germany of that time, was not allowed to assemble formally in Berlin (even though East Germany was in violation of this provision since it had declared East Berlin its capital anyway). Until 1990, the building was thus used only for occasional representative meetings and for a widely lauded permanent exhibition about German history called Fragen an die deutsche Geschichte (Questions to German history).

The official German reunification ceremony on October 3, 1990, was held at the Reichstag building, including Bundeskanzler Helmut Kohl, Bundespräsident Richard von Weizsäcker, former Bundeskanzler Willy Brandt and many others. It was a touching event with huge fireworks, fondly remembered by many. One day later, the parliament of the united Germany would assemble in an act of symbolism in the Reichstag building.

However, at that time, the role of Berlin had not yet been decided upon. Only after a fierce debate, considered by many one of the most memorable sessions of parliament, the Bundestag concluded on June 20, 1991, with a quite slim majority that both government and parliament should return from Bonn to Berlin.

In 1992, Sir Norman Foster won yet another architectual contest for the reconstruction of the building. His winning concept looked very much different from what was later executed.

Before reconstruction began, the Reichstag was wrapped by Bulgarian artist Christo in 1995, attracting millions of visitors.

During the reconstruction, the building was first completely caved in, taking out everything except the outer walls - including all changes made by the Baumgarten work in the 1960s. The seat of parliament was transferred to the Reichstag in April 1999. The reconstruction is widely regarded as a success; at least it is obvious that the Reichstag, most importantly the huge glass cupola that was erected on the roof in memorance of the original 1894 cupola, is one of the most attractive sights for visitors to Berlin, giving an impressive view over the city, especially at night. The main hall of the parliament below can also be seen fromo the cupola. It is open to anyone without prior registration, although the waiting queues can be very long, especially in the summer.

Photographer Henning von Berg created somewhat of a scandal in July 1999 when he photographed six nude men in the glass dome.

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