Located at the north end of the Ebertstrasse, near the south bank of the River Spree, and with the famous Brandenburg Gate in the south, the building of the Reichstag, an iconic landmark of the city, is a silent witness of the turbulent and dramatic history of Berlin. The Neo-Renaissance building, designed by architect Paul Wallot and originally built to house the parliament of the German Empire was completed in 1894 to meet the need of the newly-unified German Empire for a larger parliamentary building.
After the unification of Germany in 1871, an architectural contest was arranged in 1872 with 133 participants to erect a new parliament building on the site of the Raczyriski Palace, the palace of a Polish-Prussian aristocrat, Athanasius Raczynski. However, there was no progress in the matter for the next ten years due to various problems relating to the purchase of the property, and arguments between Wilhelm I, the German Emperor from 18 January 1871, Otto von Bismarck, who masterminded the unification of Germany and its first chancellor and the members of the Reichstag over the procedure of the construction of the proposed building. Finally, after the end of the marathon negotiation, the Raczyriski Palace was purchased and demolished, and at the same time, a second architectural contest was held in 1882, in which the Frankfurt architect Paul Wallot became the winner. The foundation stone was laid on 29 June 1884 by Wilhelm I, who unfortunately died in 1888, before the completion of the project. Although the Neo-Renaissance building, completed in 1894, was acclaimed for its cupola of steel and glass, it drew criticism due to its mixed architectural style.
Ten years after the completion of the building of the Reichstag, Kaiser Wilhelm II, the eventual successor, and grandson of Wilhelm I, who maintained a hostile view of parliamentary democracy, refused to allow the inscription Dem Deutschen Volke or ‘To the German People’ to be enfaced on the building for its democratic significance.
However, the iconic words were placed above the main façade of the building in 1916, much to the displeasure of Wilhelm II, and it enjoyed a period of political peace and prosperity as the legislature of the Weimar Republic from 1919 to 1933, until the rise of Nazi Germany. Unfortunately, on 27 February 1933, one month after Adolf Hitler assumed the chancellorship, the Reichstag rose up in flames under suspicious circumstances. While the dome and the main meeting hall were damaged in the fire, it gave a pretext for the Nazis to suspend most of the rights provided for the 1919 Weimar constitution, allowing them to arrest the Communists indiscriminately and autocratic police action throughout the country.
The Reichstag was not used for parliamentary sessions during the 12 years of Nazi rule, when the main meeting hall of the building, which became unusable after the fire, was used for propaganda presentations. The mostly disused and neglected building sustained further damage due to Allied bombing during World War II. Moreover, due to its perceived symbolic significance, it became one of the prime targets of the Red Army, during the Battle of Berlin in 1945. While the war made it almost a ruin, neglect in the postwar years led it to further deterioration. Finally, in 1956, the West German government decided to restore the Reichstag instead of bulldozing it. According to the decision, the project of reconstructing the historic building was carried out from 1961 to 1964, under the guidance of Paul Baumgarten.
During the process of reconstruction, Paul Baumgarten removed all the statues, monuments, decorations, and the like from the inside and created a simple building inside the dilapidated Reichstag, retaining only the outer walls stripped of most of the decorations.
Even, the lavish dome that defined its structure in its early days, subsequently badly damaged in the fire of 1933 and the bombing during the Great War, was also demolished. However, until 1990 the reconstructed building was used only for occasional representative meetings and one-off events like musical concerts and finally housing a museum of German History.
However, extensive restoration and renovation of the Reichstag took place only after the reunification of Germany in 1990, under the direction of British architect Sir Norman Foster. But before the beginning of the job, the building was aesthetically swathed in silver cloth by the Bulgarian-American artists, Christo and his wife Jeanne-Claude, which attracted millions. The reconstruction was completed in 1999, along with the creation of its huge glass dome, which was once its most recognizable feature, but demolished during the earlier renovation. Besides, an interior spiral ramp was also built that leads to the top of the dome, offering a spectacular view of the city.
Today, the renovated Reichstag is considered one of the most attractive tourist spots in the city, drawing thousands of visitors each year.