Also see the Wrapped Reichstag (1995) below.
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 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.
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
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).
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 Postwar Reichstag (1945-1990)
The Wrapped 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.
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 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.
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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