The Reichstag is the home of Germany’s Parliament, and it has also proved to be a highly symbolic site – for various reasons – throughout its existence.
It was originally built – construction began in 1884 and was completed in 1894 – to symbolize German reunification after the Franco-Prussian War and the declaration of the German Empire that began in 1871.
The design, in a neo-Renaissance style, was by Paul Wallot and was intended to capture the spirit of German optimism. The building was funded by reparation payments made by the defeated French Republic.
In 1916, at the height of World War I, the words “Dem Deutschen Volke” (meaning “to the German people”) were added to the façade and are still in place today. At the end of the war in 1918, German defeat led to the formation of the Weimar Republic, the declaration of which was made by Philip Scheidemann at the Reichstag.
The symbolic importance of the building became apparent in February 1933 when the main hall of the Reichstag was destroyed by fire. Many explanations have been offered down the years as to how the fire started, but at the time the blame was placed on a young Dutch Communist named Marinus van der Lubbe, who was later executed for the crime.
Adolf Hitler had become Chancellor of Germany only four weeks before the fire, and the Nazis used the event as potent ammunition in their fight against the Communists.
The Reichstag had not been rebuilt by the time that World War II broke out in 1939, and further damage was caused during the war by air raids and the 1945 Battle of Berlin. The Soviet troops that captured the city made a beeline for the Reichstag and flew the hammer and sickle flag from the top of the building to symbolize German defeat.
Between 1957 and 1972 much of the damaged stonework, including the dome, was removed. The building had no official function at this time, given that Germany was again divided, with the Parliament of West Germany located in Bonn.
When the Berlin Wall was erected in 1961 it passed close to the Reichstag, but on the eastern side. It could therefore form a highly symbolic backdrop for demonstrations and events, such as rock concerts, held on the western side that could be heard on the other side of the Wall, much to the annoyance of the East German authorities.
Following the reunification of Germany in 1990, reconstruction of the Reichstag began in 1995 and was completed in 1999. The result was a modern meeting hall built within the original shell, and with a highly original design for the dome that was the work of the British Architect Sir Norman Foster. This takes the form of a glass structure that visitors can walk around on the inside, looking down into the main hall and out across Berlin.
The Reichstag is an iconic building that has packed a huge amount of history into its relatively short existence.