On Tuesday 29 December I attended a lecture in the plenary hall of the German parliament – the Bundestag (the Reichstag is the name of the building – we’ll get to that later). These lectures are free, they happen on Tuesdays at 11.00am, and you really have to book ahead.
You won’t be disappointed. Visiting the Reichstag Building is a Berlin must. The two hours or so you spend here will give you an excellent sense of the history of Germany, from the days of the Holy Roman Empire up until today.
THE BUILDING ITSELF
The Reichstag Building was inaugurated in 1999. The reunified German Bundestag began meeting here from 19 April of that year, moving from Bonn (where the West German government had sat since the partition of the country after World War II.)
Construction on the building began in 1871, when 25 states/tribes/kingdoms all unified to become Germany. Wilhelm I (formerly of Prussia) was proclaimed Kaiser in Versailles after the French capitulation in the Franco-Prussian War. The Kaiser got to appoint a Chancellor, and Wilhelm appointed Otto von Bismarck, who had engineered the wars which led to the creation of the German Empire in the first place.
Settling on the design of the original Reichstag building was no easy matter. The German peoples were a diverse lot with strong opinions. For example, the Bavarians were really into Baroque architecture while the Prussians hated it – they liked the Neo-Renaissance look.
In the end the original building made nobody happy. Apparently the Kaiser described it as the ‘epitome of bad taste’. The original plenary hall was 640 sqm and everything was made of oak (the German national tree). There was no natural light at all.
The modern plenary hall couldn’t be more different. Natural light is absolutely everywhere. The English architect in charge of the redesign, Norman Foster, kept only the facade of the original structure.
Now there is nothing but glass between the entrance and the plenary hall. Inside the glass dome is a series of mirrors and a rotating shade which ensures the plenary room has the maximum amount of natural light, while minimising the heating effects of magnified sunlight during summer. At its peak the building is 54m tall and there are 40,000 sqm of glass.
The seating plan of the plenary hall is taken from the French style, with the government – and the speaker and Bundesrat – sitting facing the plenary. Our guide notes that the political Left and Right we talk of today is derived from where particular parties were sitting in the Estates General during the French Revolution.
The job of the room, the guide says, ‘isn’t to do the work, it’s to present the work that has been done.’ The colour grey was chosen for the decor because ‘it’s not distracting’. The only structural feature that isn’t grey is the oak flagpole the German flag hangs from. (The European flag pole is aluminium).
An interesting feature of the room is that it is essentially a construction kit, all of the chairs can be removed and rearranged. This occurs at the beginning of each parliament, depending on which parties are elected, and how many seats they need.
The public galleries are prominent, hanging above the plenary, not tucked away like they are in many parliaments, and the podium from which most speeches are delivered faces the both the public and the plenary, with their back to the government. Foster’s rationale was that politicians ‘should be able to see the people from wherever they are in the building.’
THE GERMAN PARLIAMENT
The German Parliament is in session approximately 22 weeks of the year. There are currently 630 members of the Bundestag (a national assembly basically). Around half of them represent particular constituencies or electorates, whereas the other half are elected from party lists, ensuring proportional representation.
Parties need to pass a 5 per cent threshold in order to have people elected from party lists. This generally keeps out extreme-right and left parties, although our guide points out that the Socialists are regarded by some (not him) to be extreme Left-wing, and that there is a chance that an extreme right party will crack the 5 per cent barrier in the next election.
Currently in the Bundestag the Socialists (Left Party) have 64 seats, the Greens (with Alliance 90) have 63, the Social Democrats have 193 seats and the ruling Conservative Coalition has 310 seats. The number of seats determines how long each party gets to speak in debates. In an hour-long debate it works Conservatives – 27min, Social Democrats – 17min, the Greens and Socialists both get 8 minutes each.
Except when they are addressing the plenary, MPs have to stay in their allocated party seats. This is to assist the stenographers, who impressively must know every German dialect.
The German Bundesrat is kind of comparable to an upper house, or senate. Technically it’s a ‘parliament of the governments in the federal states.’ There are 16 German federal states (or Bundeslands), each with their own constitutions and the President/Minister of each state is typically the person who sits in the Bundesrat section in the Bundestag plenary hall
This is to the right of the Speaker, mirroring the seats that the government has (on the left). The balance and status of the Bundesrat suggests the importance of the autonomy of the federal states in German national politics.
The Bundesrat suggests about 15 per cent of the laws that pass through the Bundestag (the vast majority comes from the government, of course) and interestingly is only required to approve around 40 per cent of the legislation, laws which directly affect the constitutional autonomy of the states. The Bundesrat has to right to express opposition to any piece of legislation, but they can be overruled on the majority of it.
A new Bundesrat president is elected each year by the collected heads of state. The Australian equivalent is COAG (the Coalition of Australian Governments) where State Premiers and territory Chief Ministers meet to discuss the implementation of Federal Legislation which directly affects the states.
GERMAN HISTORY THROUGH THE REICHSTAG
Our guide makes a note of pointing out that ‘you can’t reduce German history to the dictatorship of Adolf Hitler.’ He points to continuous Germanic presence in the area all the way back to the Roman Empire around the time of Christ.
The Reichstag building was there at the beginning of Germany as a country (1871 as mentioned earlier) and has played an important role in each stage of German history.
Unlike all other Chancellors in modern Germany, Hitler was not elected, he was appointed by the President. He never gave a speech inside the Reichstag Building. Our guide points out that the first time he was in the building was the day after the famous Reichstag Fire in 1933, which the Nazis used as an excuse to pass laws that allowed them to start arresting people.
Immediately following the Second World War there were calls from some quarters to demolish the building entirely, but it was pointed out that, following the end of the German Empire in 1918, the Reichstag is where the parliament of the Republic established in Weimar in 1918 sat. Hitler’s government never sat in the building.
During the Second World War the building was used as a hospital. About 100 children were born in the building, and these Germans are (or were) the only people who were allowed into the building without a reservation – it is regarded as their birthright.
In 1948 the building became a symbol of resistance against the Russian presence in East Germany as West Berlin became isolated from the rest of the world. It was the site of large public demonstrations, and where the Mayor of West Berlin called on the world to turn their eyes to the city.
The Reichstag is a super impressive building that I highly recommend to anyone travelling to Berlin. 2.5 million visitors a year would appear to agree.