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The Reichstag

Updated: Jan 24, 2023

A photo of the Reichstag from Platz der Republik in Berlin with the TV Tower in the background

The Reichstag

Sitting in Berlin next to the Brandenburg Gate, the Reichstag serves as the main house in Parliament in the German Bundestag. And to perhaps clarify: the modern word for the German parliament is in fact Bundestag and not Reichstag. Reich - here meaning Empire - has nothing to do with the modern system of government in Germany, thus the Bund - being "Federal" - in Bundestag make more sense.

History of the Reichstag

Regardless, the Reichstag was originally built in 1894 to serve as the parliament for the German Empire. At the time, the empire was - on paper at least - a federal monarchy consisting of several states and parties, but its power only extended to the so-called "power of the purse."

The architect was Paul Wallot who integrated elements of classic European design - mainly Neo-classical - but also a modern glass cupola either as a gesture to the coming new century, the parliamentary system itself being modern, or both. The combined style may also have been a sign of frustration due to the hesitation of the royalty green-lighting the project, leading to delays lasting 23 years (1871 - 1894).

Illustration of the Reichstag in Berlin by architect Paul Wallot
Von Der ursprünglich hochladende Benutzer war Rainer Zenz in der Wikipedia auf Deutsch - Übertragen aus de.wikipedia nach Commons., Gemeinfrei,

The Reichstag would eventually come to house an actual democracy in 1919 in the Weimar Republic. The Kaiser - Emperor - had sapped the will of the German people and military in World War I leading to his abdication and introduction of a Republic. and thus a representative democracy in the Reichstag.

The years between 1919 to 1933 were unfortunately too radical for the democracy: hyper-inflation, multiple attempts to overthrow the government, conspiracy theories, and in 1929 the Great Depression. Though as unhinged as these years come across it must be noted that the National Socialist German Workers Party (the Nazis) did in fact do poorly in the Reichstag with only 2.6% of the national vote up until 1929!

But from 1930 onward, the Nazi Party saw huge gains becoming the largest party in 1932 - winning 37% then sinking to 31% before the end of the year. With institutions and leaders in place hoping for a more nationalist German government less associated with Social Democracy or Communism, Hitler was appointed as Chancellor in January of 1933.

One month later the Reichstag was set on fire by a young Dutch communist, setting off a chain of events that led to the Nazi party fully transforming the Weimar Republic to a totalitarian regime in 1933. This set the path for War beginning 6 years later and the end of democracy - for a time - in the Reichstag.

The building would have one influencial moment during the War, though far from anything democratic. End the last days of the Battle of Berlin the Soviets were attacking the city on 3 fronts inching closer to the center government district. Spotting the Reichstag - built up as a bunker - and perceiving the significance of the moment, the Soviets decided to take advantage of the coming 1st of May - an international Socialist holiday - and have the Soviet flag hanging on top of the Reichstag. This as the story goes did occur but was later reenacted with the following photo.

A original photo of the Soviet flag being placed atop the Reichstag in Berlin
Von, CC BY 4.0,

Following the War, the Reichstag fell into West Berlin and thus - with the capital of West Germany in Bonn - would have no function in government until reunification. Unveiled in 2000 the Reichstag became the true focus of the new and unified Bundestag with a design by Norman Foster. The building is open to the public for visits and tours - all free - though registration is required.

Check out the website to book your visit!


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