We had October 7, 2007 to ourselves to explore Berlin. I visited Alexanderplatz, Prenzlauer Berg and Kreuzberg, then headed down to Lichterfelde to have dinner at the home of our host Evelin Morgenstern. There we met with Dr. Andrea Mehrländer of the Checkpoint Charlie Foundation (the organization that provided funding for the tour) and other Berlin-based librarians. We had dined with Mehrländer on our first night in Berlin, and she had apparently spent the whole week telling her colleagues that there was an American on the tour (i.e. me) that was willing to eat and actually enjoyed Berliner Eißbein.
On October 8, we entered what I will call the “really hectic” part of our trip. Here’s our schedule:
- October 8: Train to Dresden in the morning;
- October 9: Train to Munich via Nuremberg in the evening;
- October 11: Train to Karlsruhe in the evening;
- October 12: Day trip to Strasbourg via van.
Morgenstern described our itinerary to the clerk at the Hotel Martha-Hospiz, where we stayed in Dresden, and the clerk replied, “Only a German would plan such a trip.”
Our first official stop in Dresden was the Saxon Parliament (Sächsischer Landtag). After lunch in the parliament’s cafeteria (where librarian Imke Winter noted that the beer on tap wasn’t the local brew), we were given a tour of the building. The plenary chamber is a very slick, modern room, with seating areas that can be easily rearranged so that parliamentarians can be grouped by their respective parties.
Our guide Hans-Peter Maier, the parliament’s press speaker, described the workings of the Landtag with a fair dose of cynicism. Actually, to say that he was a bit cynical is to say that Rachel Ray is a bit chipper. I guess part of the reason for his outlook comes from the fact that the National Democratic Party (NPD) holds eight seats in parliament. The NPD is the German far-right party whose platform consists of opposing immigration to Germany. It is described in Wikipedia as “a de facto neo-Nazi party” and in Encyclopædia Britannica “as neofascist in orientation.” Maier said that 2.3 million people in Saxony supports the NPD. He noted the irony of how much support an anti-foreigner party has in a German state that does not have a lot of immigrants.
Maier said that there are 124 members of parliament who each earn a €410,000 annual salary. They also receive an allowance to pay for such things as travel expenses and staff salaries. There are 400 staff members, most of whom work for the individual politicians. The Landtag has 140 permanent administrative staff members, which includes the library staff, the maintenance crew, and the stenographers. Meyer noted that the stenographers, who are often trained in Berlin instead of in Dresden, are able to accurately record the statements of 120 people speaking at once.
The electoral process in Saxony is a rather interesting process. By interesting, I mean “convoluted,” and if the following is confusing, I apologize. There are two elections. In the first, citizens vote for specific politicians. In the second, they vote for the number of seats a party can hold.
In the most recent election, the Christian Democratic Union (CDU) received two less seats in the second vote than they had won in the first. In other words, there were 55 parliamentarians elected to hold 53 seats. To make up for the discrepancy, the largest opposition party (Die Linke or “the Left”) was given two additional seats. Because of this, the Grüne (Green) party fell below the five percent of the Landtag it needed to hold a front row seat, a very important place for the party leader in the Landtag. A special rule was enacted to allow them to keep the chair.
You can see the current make-up of the plenary chamber on the Landtag website, but I will warn you that you have to view it in Internet Explorer and make sure you have an .svg viewer to see it. (The print version also requires a special Firefox plug-in, which in this case doesn’t seem to exist.) The German Wikipedia page for the Landtag also has a graphical breakdown of the chamber, but it doesn’t capture the seating arrangements as well as the official site does.
The proceedings are overseen by a president of the parliament. The president is a current parliamentarian elected by the assembly. He or she does not have the power to cut off speeches. The amount of time each party is given to speak is alloted by a committee beforehand. If a parliamentarian wants to ask a question during another member’s speech, he or she must wait until called upon by the president to do so. Maier noted that more often than not, the “question” consists of a brief speech. When asked by the president what the question is, the response is usually, “Stimmen Sie zu?” (“Do you agree?”)
Maier said that e-government services are still in their nascent stages in Saxony. He added that a great deal of technology is available to parliament members, but it is not necessarily widely used. The sessions are taped and can be viewed on the Landtag website. The videos are provided to the library, but no one has determined yet what the library should do with them. Imke Winter gave us a brief tour of the library after our discussion in the plenary chamber.
UPDATED: I should note at this point that I will be updating these posts as I get notes from other people on the tour. For example, I corrected the name of our guide in this post.
“Germany.” (2007). Encyclopædia Britannica Online. Accessed December 27, 2007.
“National Democratic Party of Germany.” (2007). Wikipedia. Accessed December 27, 2007.
“Sächsischer Landtag.” (2007). Wikipedia (Deutsch). Accessed December 27, 2007.