Democracy returns to Reichstag

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AT THE refurbished Reichstag that stands both as cradle and grave of their democracy, German parliamentarians will gather today to proclaim the dawn of the Berlin republic.

Chancellor Gerhard Schroder will address the nation from the chamber, MPs will debate progress in German unity, and the rest of the world will look on in a mixture of awe and apprehension. Germany is trying to infuse its sanitised post-war identity with elements of its grimy past, and no one knows what the end result will be.

But the building, erected 105 years ago when the Second Reich was in its ascendancy, is a useful signpost of official intentions.

The venue of an impotent debating society until the end of the First World War, the Reichstag became the home of the shambolic democracy of the Weimar Republic, until it was burnt to a cinder in February 1933. The fire gave Hitler the pretext to wipe out all opposition, beginning with the Communists.

Stranded in the West after the war, the authorities stripped the bombed- out hulk of all its dignity, turning it into something akin to a warehouse. Then came reunification, and MPs in Bonn decided in 1991 to bring parliament back to Berlin.

The British architect Sir Norman Foster won the competition to rebuild the Reichstag at a cost of DM600m (pounds 210m). Artists from the US, France and Russia were commissioned for work to hang on the walls, in a gesture described by a conservative Bavarian politician as "kowtowing to the victorious powers".

The victors did not have it all their own way, however. Sir Norman's initial design, which had proposed a glass tent over the building, was negotiated down by the various committees into the glass dome that sits atop the debating chamber today. The architect's plan for a universal colour scheme of grey was thwarted by Helmut Kohl, the former chancellor. He wanted bright colours inside, and Sir Norman had to oblige.

But amid all the compromises, the building that has emerged is a lot closer to the original than many had foreseen, down to the restored graffiti left behind by Soviet soldiers at the end of the Second World War. The dome, offering and symbolising transparency of the political process, has met with almost universal approval.

The rest of the artistic content has proved less popular. Again, the selection was done by committees applying strict quotas, yet not enough women and East Germans have found a place in the new parliament, say the critics. One East German who did, the highly decorated painter Bernhard Reising, had been too close to the communist regime, charge other detractors.

In all the discussions about the origins and orientations of the artists, one question has been overlooked: Will their modern oeuvres fit into what is, after all, a 19th century building?

Review, page 12