The primary focus of the Parliamentary Tour’s first full day in Berlin was on the Reichstag. We started off our day with a hearty breakfast at the Käfer im Deutschen Bundestag, atop the Reichstag building. (There are four buildings that comprise of the Bundestag, but we focused only on the Reichstag building.)
The breakfast included a talk by Michael Cullen, an American architecture expert living in Berlin. He is notable for a number of reasons, but of particular note is the fact that he had the idea of letting Christo wrap the Reichstag in 1995. He had the idea in the 1970s, but it took 27 years for him, Christo, and the artist’s wife Jean-Claude to get permission for the project. As it turned out, the wrapping became a strong symbol for Berliners of the reunification.
After breakfast and a brief tour of the Berlin skyline viewed from atop the Reichstag, Cullen took us all on a bus tour of notable architecture in Berlin. Not surprisingly, the specter of the Nazi regime haunted a number of places that we saw. The Olympiastadion, for example, is where Jesse Owens triumphed in the 1936 Olympics, humiliating Hitler and his supposedly superior Aryan runners. The stadium is still in use as the home of the Bundesliga club Herta Berlin.
We also drove through the Wannsee lake district, where we saw the villa on Grossen Wannsee where Nazi officials held the Wannsee-Conferenz that hammered out the plans for the Final Solution.
We spent most of our time riding in our bus and driving past (sometimes slowly) the noted buildings. However, we did stop to spend time at one area: the Grunewald train station, where the Final Solution was put into action. Both sides of the railroad track at the station were lined with metal plates, each one representing a boxcar the Nazis used to transport Jews to the concentration camps. The plates listed the number of Jews on the car and the train’s ultimate destination.
The pictures I took don’t really capture the effect, but the plates are lined up for several yards on both sides of the track. Taken at once it is sad enough, but reading the numbers on each plate make it frightening.
Cullen said that he took Maya Lin, the designer of the Vietnam War Memorial, here and she described it as the most powerful memorial of the Holocaust that she had seen, and I agree. It’s moving.
On our way back to the Reichstag, we passed the Kaiser-Wilhelm- Gedächtniskirche, a church that was bombed during World War II. Instead of repairing it, it was kept in its bombed-out status to remember the destruction war causes.
Remember in the last post when I commented on how empty Berlin was in the morning? By the evening, the area around the Brandenburg Gate was flooded with people. Given today’s significance, that’s not surprising. But we did pretty much get the Reichstag to ourselves. While there were a lot of people in line to visit the dome atop the Reichstag (which has glorious views of Berlin), there were also a lot of people visiting the plenary chamber. Our group walked around the building to see the artwork that was installed after the building reopened in the 90s.
Cullen had earlier noted that the Reichstag was never used by Hitler during his reign because, after all, it was the burning of the Reichstag soon after he became chancellor that helped him consolidate his power. The parliament moved to another building after the fire.
When the Soviet Army moved into Berlin, they made a point of taking over the Reichstag building as a symbol of their triumphing over Hitler, who waged a brutal campaign against the Communists. The Russian soldiers scrawled graffiti all over the building’s walls. Sir Norman Foster, the British architect who redesigned the building, made a point of keeping the walls with the graffiti up.
Our tour guide told us that as part of the project, a number of known artists representing West and East Germany, as well as the four Allied powers, were asked to provide artwork to the Reichstag. The pieces ranged from an LED display of notable parliamentary speeches created by American Jenny Holzer to a room whose walls are lined with archive boxes with the names of all the democratically elected members of Parliament by Christian Boltanski of France. (One archive box is painted black to represent the years of the Nazi regime.) I couldn’t get good pictures of these, but the pieces I could get shots of are in my Germany photoset on Flickr.
I had every intention of going back to the Brandenburg Gate for some of the festivities tonight, but my dislike of crowds has won out. Seriously, it’s really packed there right now. I’m hoping for fireworks, though, because I should be able to see them from my balcony.