Reichstag is opened for one day only

Click to follow
GERMANY'S HISTORIC parliament building woke yesterday from more than half a century of slumber, its new glass dome glimmering in the sunshine as the chamber filled with the reassuring sound of heckling.

The Reichstag was reopened for one symbolic day, to show the world that Germans were ready to reclaim their past - warts and all - and become a normal nation again. It began with brass bands, beaming politicians and light-hearted ceremonies, but inevitably reached its climax with sombre assurances that lessons had been learnt.

"Our democracy and parliament are strong and stable," said Chancellor Gerhard Schroder. "The move to Berlin is not a break in the continuity of post-war German history."

Any fear that Mr Schroder's generation and the "Berlin Republic" he was inaugurating would suffer from amnesia was quickly dispelled by his contrite address. "The move to Berlin is a return to German history, to the place of two German dictatorships which brought great suffering to the people of Germany and Europe," the Chancellor said.

It made no sense, he added, to equate the Reichstag with the Reich. While he was an advocate of retaining the Reichstag's name - some Social Democrats had tried to abolish this last reference to the Reich - Mr Schroder saw no danger of backsliding on principles. "The success of the Bonn democracy, the politics of understanding and good neighbourliness, a firm anchorage in Europe and the Atlantic Alliance, as well as the aura of life in freedom, have all helped make possible the Berlin Republic in a unified Germany," he declared.

But it was hard to ignore the irony of the moment. The Berlin Republic, the new improved Germany with self-confidence thrown in, was being launched just as the Luftwaffe was completing another sortie over the Balkans. The Bonn Republic had survived for nearly 50 years without firing a bullet in anger.

To Germans aware of their history, this has caused great anguish. Mr Schroder defended his government's actions by alluding to the "historical responsibilities of a country that had spread genocide and aggression to our continent".

He did not say in what ways the Berlin Republic would differ from its predecessor. The key difference, though, will probably be poverty. The politicians had not been confronted by much of that in the old miniature capital, but in Berlin, as the Chancellor noted, one out of every six adults is on the dole.

Indeed, as MPs discussed the progress of reunification under the halo created by the dome, anarchist demonstrators were clashing outside with mounted police, unemployed building workers were chanting "The Reichstag stands and we are on the dole", and nurses picketed in protest against imminent hospital closures.

The fact is that the capital of the new republic is broke. The Reichstag cost DM600m of federal money and was built, as the German workers outside never stopped lamenting, mostly by cheaper foreign workers.

The architect was also a foreigner. Sir Norman Foster was in attendance, handing over the key to the building and receiving several rounds of generous applause from MPs for his good work.

As the politicians wrapped up the proceedings, another symbolic event was unfolding a few blocks away. President Roman Herzog and Ignatz Bubis were opening up the new five-storey headquarters of the Central Council of Jews in Germany, to replace their much humbler abode in Bonn. Now only the government is missing from this capital.

For the next few months, MPs will go back to Bonn to pack their bags and prepare for the shift to Berlin. Some politicians will gather in the Reichstag next month to elect the country's president, and then almost everyone will be on the move to their new home.

On 6 September the Reichstag reopens in earnest, and perhaps it will stay open a little longer than the last time.