The Reichstag and the layers of history

by Lena Nielsen

When I recently visited Berlin I was amazed of how apparent the past was. Everywhere I looked I was hit by the history of the city in many different ways. The many monuments, the buildings and the names of the streets that I had heard of since I was a child were so intense and foremost I was hit by the feelings in me that all of this aroused. By exposing all this, I believe the city of Berlin takes a huge responsibility for the actions that were taken during the war and makes the nation remember its barbarity (Young, pg. 22).  I touched the nameplates on the streets, the walls of the buildings and the monuments; I stood still and allowed myself to feel the history behind them. My emotions were at least to say mixed.

Reichtag1When I left Sweden I packed an article that I made a copy of a couple of years ago, “The Red Army Graffiti in the Reichstag. The rock-art in a contemporary European urban landscape”, published in “European landscapes of Rock-Art” by George Nash and Christopher Chippindale. I have always been interested in Rock Art, probably since I live in an area of Sweden were the Bronze Age Rock Art has been a made world heritage. When I found this article it just made me aware of how different acts can link us to history and vice versa.  However, the article was still unread when I left Sweden but I decided that the right time to read it was of course when I was in Berlin myself. During the trip we also got this assignment, choosing a place or a monument to write about. For me, the choice was obvious; the Red Army Graffiti! I headed off to the Reichstag to see the graffiti but realized that I wouldn´t have the time since we had a hectic schedule, but my interest for the Reichstag building itself had been awaked. When I got home I started reading and I realized that the graffiti was just one episode in the Reichstag’s long history and represented only one of its many layers.

The Reichstag is said to be one of Berlin´s most famous landmarks, situated near the south bank of the Spree River, at the northern end of the Ebertstrasse. The location is very central in the city with the Tiergarten Park directly to the west and the Brandenburger Tor to the south (Encyclopædia Britannica). After the war the building came to belong to the British zone and the former Berlin Wall was built just a few meters east of the building.

During the buildings history, four architectural competitions have been held (Foster, 2011, pg. 23) to achieve the best possible design, the first already in 18721 which was won by Ludwig Bohnstedt of Gothia even though this competition had been for naught since there were a disagreement due to the proposed site. There had also been opinions concerning the design that seemed to be too much of a compromise between Berlin neoclassicism and neo-Gothic style (Ladd, pg. 85). In 1882 another competition was held and this was won by Paul Wallot who had a tough time to meet all the demands. He was supposed to create a building that could be a symbol for Germany and of German parliamentarism which wasn´t easy since there was no consensus about what this really meant (Ladd, pg.  86). The building was however was finished in 1894 and just a few years later the trend in architecture changed to a more modern finish, leaving the Reichstag as one of the last monumental buildings in Berlin (Ladd,1997, pg. 86). The design seemed to suit most of the elected members of the Reichstag whom belonged to the upper strata of society that was in favor of designs that symbolised German imperial power (Foster, 2011, pg. 18). But this is not the full picture, Brian Ladd refers to Michael. S. Cullen who assert that the building just seem to be an expression of imperial unity but really present a different appearance on every facade, becoming an example of the division in the German Empire and he calls the Reichstag a symbol of its age and a reflection of both its  architecture and the politics (Ladd, 1997, pg. 86-87). The architecture has been called “Wilhelmine” because of the autocratic Emperor Wilhelm II who ruled from 1888-1918. Wilhelm himself didn´t actually like the building but this might have to do with his opinion about the Reichstag as an institution (Ladd, 1997, pg. 87).

After the war, when the monarchy collapsed the Reichstag building came to be a symbol of the nations´ hopes and fears for the future government. When the Weimar republic then established, the Reichstag became the center for real power for the first time but voices about the architecture was again raised and some architects turned against the impractical building (Ladd, 1997,  pg. 88). During the period of Nazi Germany, the Reichstag played a key role even though the links to the building were connected to both the Nazis and the anti-Nazis. Hitler was in favor of the architecture, and wanted the Reichstag to become a historical monument of the Nazi capital (Ladd, 1997, pg. 89).

Many different emotions and divided opinions are connected to this building. The history and the feelings seem to be incorporated layers of memories attached to the Reichstag, some more visible than others, some more conserved than others. For the Red Army, the Reichstag was a symbol for Hitler and Nazi Germany (Ladd, 1997, pg. 89). After the victory the soldiers covered the walls of the Reichstag with Cryllic writing, marking their victory, and some of these writings were discovered by the British architects in 1999. The Russians wanted their words to be read by others, they wanted to send a message in the same way modern graffiti writers do. Foster managed to save 5-10 percent of the writings and incorporated it in the interior walls (Baker, pg. 22). Frederick Baker sees the Reichstag as a place where politics, architecture and archaeology meet (Baker, pg. 20).

In 1960, yet another architectural competition was held which was won by Paul Baumgarten. This time the building needed to be rebuilt to prepare for an anticipated return of the German parliament (Foster & Abel, 2011, pg. 20-21). Work had already begun to make the building safe after the war (Foster, 2000, pg. 238). In 1961, the same year as the wall was built, the restoration of the Reichstag begun. When the Bundestag, 30 years later confirmed the Reichstag as its new home the latest competition was held, won by Norman Foster. Interesting with this architect is that he is from the UK, a former occupying country, which can be seen as reconciliation act from Germany (Foster & Abel, 2011, pg. 23). One of Fosters ideas was the new cupola which is both functional and symbolic, it supports the building with day light and has become a new public space and it also is a symbol of the vigour of the German democratic process (Foster, 2000, pg. 130, 160). Christos wrapping of the building (which in itself can be seen as a temporary monument) and the festival in 1995, marked the end of a divided era and functioned as a rit de passage. All kinds of feelings and messages can be interpreted in the action since the message wasn´t clear but it surely started a new chapter in German history (Ladd. 92-96).

I believe Norman Foster did a fantastic job, incorporating the past in the present and by mixing old and new. (Foster & Abel, 2011, pg. 7). He had an idea that the Reichstag should be a museum of its own history and wanted to expose all its layers (Baker, 2002, pg. 22). Instead of hiding the history of the Reichstag, Norman Foster has created an amazing mix where everything is shown and has come alive. The Reichstag truly is a museum in itself, where the different architectural trends are visible and the feelings the building has evoked has become part of the buildings soul, as layers of memories. Not only has the Reichstag been a witness to key events in Germany, each event has also reworked the urban landscape around it as one of war and then one of peace (Baker, 2002, pg. 23).

Going back to the mixed emotions I mentioned in the beginning of the text, I have come to understand how a monument or a building doesn´t only consist of different layers of history and memory but also of many different layers of emotions. The Reichstag is one of the most central buildings in German history (Foster & Abel, pg. 21), both as a participant and as a witness to many key events in Berlin (Baker, 2002, pg. 23) that all bring forth emotions. These emotions can of course be different, depending on underlying opinions. This seems to be common when it comes to monuments. The wall is an obvious example of different significance, depending on which side of it one lived (Young, 1993, pg. vii). James Young describes the monuments as living their own lives in public minds and since memory never stands still the layers of meaning connected to them can always change (Young, 1993, pg. ix-x). A memory can be national but it can also be individual and when a monument is built, an important task seem be to investigate what feelings it should evoke. A way of making a monument identifiable to many people can be to not make it too precise.

When reading “The texture of Memory”, it becomes clear to me how the layers of memory work in different directions, they work linear but also parallel. What I mean is that every period in the monuments lifetime is attached to different events that are connected to memories and during these periods the memories can be very individual and opposite from each other. If the monument is a monument of victory, someone has to be the loser, if the monument is a memorial, someone might very well be the killer, or a relative of the killer. Before this assignment my approach to monuments was somewhat unreflected. For me, they were just monuments standing there, sending out one message. The book made me realize how complicated this can be and I know that I will look at monuments with different eyes in the future, asking different questions but first of all – asking questions! To me Young’s book made me realize how monuments are having a life or their own and  as Young says “time drags old meaning into new contexts” (Young, 1993, pg. 47). I think of the Reichstag and I´d say that history made this building important and the people’s emotions over time has uphold this importance. As the Bundestags´ new home and with Norman Fosters design the history has been made visible and with the symbolism of the cupola they show that they want go in a different direction.  In my opinion, as after the First World War, the building is again a symbol for the hopes of the nation!


Baker, Frederick, “Red Army graffiti and the European landscapes of rock-art / edited by George Nash and Christopher Chippendale, London: Routledge, 2002

Foster, Norman, “Rebuilding the Reichstag”, 2000

Foster, Norman & Abel, Chris, “The Reichstag” 2011

Brian Ladd, The Ghosts of Berlin: Confronting German History in the Urban Landscape. Chicago and London: University of Chicago Press, 1997

Young, James Edward, The texture of memory: Holocaust memorials and meaning, Yale University Press, New Haven, 1993

Encyclopædia Britannica</p>

By Marcela (Own work) [GFDL 1.2 (, via Wikimedia Commons</p>

By Hewitt (Sergeant), No 5 Army Film & Photographic Unit  Post-Work: User:W.wolny [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons</p>

Bundesarchiv, B 145 Bild-P054499 / Weinrother, Carl / CC-BY-SA [CC-BY-SA-3.0-de (, via Wikimedia Commons</p>

By Mario Duhanic (Own work) [CC-BY-SA-3.0 (, via Wikimedia Commons

1 According to Foster, the first competition was held in 1871 ( Foster, 2011)