‘To the German people’: What is the history behind Berlin’s iconic Reichstag?

“The heart of democracy beats here, or it does not beat at all”: Germany’s Reichstag is known today as one of the most iconic parts of the German capital’s cityscape. But why is the building so important, and how did it become the symbol of civil liberty it is today?

'To the German people': What is the history behind Berlin’s iconic Reichstag?
The Reichstag building is a reminder of Germany's turbulent history. Photo: DPA

The Reichstagsgebäude (Reichstag building), which sits at the height of Berlin’s Regierungsviertel (Government District), is the current home of the German Bundestag (Parliament).  

Nowadays, it is widely regarded as a symbol of open democracy and welcomes over three million visitors from across the globe each year.

This status, however, was hard-won. Since it first opened its doors, the building has borne witness to 130 years of Germany’s turbulent history, the traces of which can be still seen in the building’s architecture today.

It was in the spotlight this weekend as anti-coronavirus protesters tried to storm it, an incident which Germany quickly decried as an attack on democracy. 

READ ALSO: Germany slams 'unacceptable' attempt to storm Reichstag

Early beginnings 

Following the unification of Germany and the establishment of the German Reich (German Empire) in 1871, the need arose for a building to house the newly formed Reichstag (Imperial Diet). 

After ten years of land disputes and delays, the foundation stone for the Reichstag building was finally laid on Königsplatz (King’s Square) on June 20th 1884. 

The Kaiser did not live to see the building’s opening in 1894, however, and his successor did not take so warmly to the concept of parliamentary democracy.

In fact, Kaiser Wilhelm II was so opposed to the notion that he initially fought against the words chosen for the main facade of the building. His suggestion, Der Deutschen Einigkeit (To German Unity), was soundly rejected by his parliament, who voted instead for the now-iconic inscription Dem Deutschen Volke (To the German People).

But the days of the Imperial Diet, much like those of the Empire, were numbered. In 1918, Germany’s defeat in the First World War led to revolution and paved the way for the collapse of the monarchy.

A fragile democracy

Shortly after the Kaiser declared his resignation, politician Philip Scheidemann appeared on one the balcony of the Reichstag, triumphantly declaring the birth of the Weimar Republic.

For the first time, the building found itself home to a truly democratic parliament, free from the constraints of monarchical power and elected by the people of Germany. 

The country enjoyed relative stability during the Golden Twenties as the economy flourished and political tensions subsided. 

However, the worldwide financial crash of 1929 and the subsequent economic crisis proved fatal for the fragile Republic, leading to mass unemployment, spiralling hyperinflation and unworkable political divisions in parliament.

The NSDAP (Nazi Party), on the other hand, saw the crisis as an ideal opportunity. Profiting from widespread discontent, the party went from just twelve seats in the Reichstag in 1928 to 196 in November of 1932.

Its leader, Adolf Hitler, became Chancellor in January of 1933, and just one month later the Reichstag Building was engulfed in flames. 

The Reichstag building in flames in February 1933. Photo: Ullstein

The exact cause of the fire remains unknown, but the Nazis used the incident as a spring board to arrest communist opposition and suspend civil rights across Germany. 

Shortly after, under great intimidation from Nazi security forces, the Weimar parliament passed the Enabling Act of 1933, signing away its own power and marking the effective end of democracy in the country.

From one dictatorship to another

Although the building was scarcely used during the Nazi dictatorship, it was viewed by the allied powers in the Second World War as a symbol of the fascist enemy they were determined to defeat.

In early May 1945, after days of fighting in the capital, Russian troops closed in on the Reichstag and planted their flag on its roof, marking the end of Nazi rule. 

Visitors to the building today can still see the graffiti left by allied soldiers and bullet holes caused by the fighting on sections of wall preserved in the building’s reconstruction.

After the war and the subsequent division of Germany, the Reichstag lay in ruin and disuse. It was provisionally restored in 1954 but was used only for occasional meetings and cultural exhibitions.

The West German parliament relocated to Bonn, the new capital of the Federal Republic of Germany, whilst the East German Volkskammer (effectively a rubber-stamp parliament) sat in the nearby Palast der Republik (Palace of the Republic).

As tensions between East and West grew and the Berlin Wall was erected in 1961, the politically-significant Reichstag lay too close to the border to be able to serve any purpose. 

Nevertheless, it remained the stage for many of the historically defining events of the Cold War. West Berlin mayor Ernst Reuter stood in front of the building to plead for help during the Berlin Blockade in 1948-49, and singer David Bowie used it as a backdrop for a protest concert demanding the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1987.

Huge crowds gathered to celebrate the reunification of Germany. Photo: DPA

A new chapter

This demand became a reality just two years later, paving the way for the end of decades of division.

In March 1990, East Germany held its first free and fair election and in October of the same year, hundreds of thousands gathered in front of the Reichstag to celebrate the reunification of Germany.

It was decided that the German parliament should move back to the Reichstag building in Berlin, which became the country’s capital city once more.

Architects from across the world submitted their plans for the redesign of the Reichstag, but it was British architect Norman Foster that was ultimately tasked with the restoration project. 

In the lead-up to the building’s reopening in 1995, artists Jeanne-Claude and Christo wrapped the Reichstag in 100,000 square meters of silver fabric to symbolise the beginning of a new chapter in Germany’s history. 

Symbolic Architecture

Today, the building boasts an internationally renowned dome, made with transparent, energy-efficient glass that allows German citizens to (quite literally) watch over their democratically elected representatives. 

The Reichstag's iconic glass dome has become a worldwide symbol for open democracy. Photo: DPA

Foster also ensured that the building’s history remained part of its architecture, preserving elements of the building that remind visitors of Germany’s difficult road to democracy. 

In the basement, visitors will find the “Archive of German Members of Parliament”, which is home to around 5,000 boxes remembering every democratically elected politician between 1919 and 1999. 

Visitors will also find multiple black boxes representing the schwarze Jahre (black years) of Germany’s political history, with one box for each year that the German people spent without a democratically elected governing body.

Germany’s open democracy is not just represented in the building’s architecture, however: every year on the Tag der Ein- und Ausblicke (Open Door Day), the building opens its doors to the people and offers them a detailed insight into the workings of parliament.  

Since its reopening in 1999, the Reichstag has become the most visited parliament building in the world. Few other buildings pay greater tribute to the importance of democracy for German citizens today. 

For many, the Reichstag is testament to Germany’s desire to look hopefully into the future whilst also remembering its past. 

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‘Like part of a war’: East German athlete recalls Munich Olympics massacre

Klaus Langhoff experienced World War II as a child, and found memories of the war flooding back when he went to Munich in 1972 as a handballer captaining East Germany at the Olympics.

'Like part of a war': East German athlete recalls Munich Olympics massacre

Langhoff and his teammates were staying just across from the apartment block that Palestinian gunmen stormed into on September 5th, 1972, taking the Israeli team hostage.

As the day wore on, he witnessed helplessly the terrifying scenes unfolding from his balcony — from terrorists dropping the lifeless body of an Israeli coach on the street to the tense negotiations carried out between the hostage-takers and the West German police.

“It was like part of a war,” said Langhoff, who had seen corpses of German soldiers lying in hastily dug graves as a six-year-old.

“These memories of the war came back” when he saw the gunmen carrying out the body of Israeli wrestling coach Moshe Weinberg and leaving it on the street, he told AFP.

The shock had been doubly hard to bear as the Games had started off so well, said Langhoff, who still cuts an imposing figure at the age of 82.

Langhoff had counted among the few East German citizens who were permitted to head abroad for the first time and had arrived in Munich “with great expectations”.

The first week at the Olympics was “so excellent, so joyful,” Langhoff recounted.

But that ended abruptly when the team’s secretary general woke him up at 5:30am.

“He came to me in the room and said ‘Klaus, inform all the other players. Over there at the Israelis’ lodgings, there’s been a shooting and a terror attack’,” said Langhoff.

READ ALSO: Germany and Israel to mark 50 years since Munich Olympics massacre

‘Only medals counted’

The East Germans were initially told to stay well away from the windows and to remain inside.

But it soon became clear that they were not the target, so Langhoff began looking out and going on the balcony where he took photographs of the terror.

Pointing to one of the photographs, Langhoff said he saw a member of the Palestinian militant group Black September patrolling the roof “with a Kalashnikov ready  to fire”.

Below, guarding the front door “was always someone, probably the head of this terrorist group, who always had a hand grenade in his hand.”

During a scuffle, coach Weinberg was shot and killed.

His body lay on the street “for a long time until they took him away,” said Langhoff.

“It was awful. Whenever we looked out of the window or on the balcony, we saw this dead athlete there.”

Weightlifter Yossef Romano was also shot dead, while another nine Israelis were taken hostage.

But West German police’s bungled rescue operation ended with all nine hostages killed, along with five of the eight hostage-takers and a police officer.

‘Games must go on’

With the Games suspended for the first time in Olympic history, the team prepared for a complete cancellation.

However, they were halted for only 34 hours, with then-IOC President Avery Brundage declaring “the Games must go on”.

Langhoff said it was “doubly difficult” for his side to focus on their sporting objectives after the attacks.

The team lost against the Soviet Union and ultimately finished fourth.

Despite the harrowing experience, the team found little understanding from the East German public upon returning home.

Klaus Langhoff

Former handball player from Eastern Germany Klaus Langhoff, who witnessed the 1972 Munich Olympics hoastage-taking, gives an AFP interview in Rostock. Photo: Tobias Schwarz / AFP

“Only medals counted,” he recalled. “For us in the GDR (East Germany), finishing fourth was a shock to the system. I mean, there wasn’t a prison camp, but only places one to three were financially rewarded.”

The East German government, allied with the PLO and hostile to Israel, officially called the hostage-taking a “tragedy”, while there was hardly any mention of the atrocity in the media.

The Communist authorities “completely ignored this attack and didn’t include us in any evaluations or anything else… (they) were only concerned with being successful in the competition,” Langhoff said.


But the West German government was also criticised for failing to acknowledge responsibility for the disaster.

In 2012, Israel released 45 official documents on the killings, including specially declassified material, which lambasted the performance of the German security services.

Included in the reports is an official account from the former Israeli intelligence head Zvi Zamir who said the German police “didn’t make even a minimal effort to save human lives”.

Munich Olympic massacre

Policemen barricade the entrance of the Olympic village, on September 05th, 1972 in Munich after Palestinian terrorists of the “Black September” group stormed the Israeli athletes quarters. Photo: EPU / AFP

Relatives of victims have over the years battled to obtain an official apology from Germany, access to official documents and appropriate compensation beyond the €4.5 million ($4.5 million) provided in 2002.

Only on Wednesday, 50 years after the atrocity, did Germany reach a compensation deal of €28 million with relatives.

“In retrospect, there were great omissions in the process of reckoning with the terror,” Langhoff said. “I don’t even want to get started with the financial aspect. But even morally there are many things that are just incomprehensible.”

By Daniel Wighton