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The Dustshoveller's Gazette: On the Burning of Parliaments

Monday, 27 June 2011

On the Burning of Parliaments

I'm just back from Berlin where I was attending a conference run by the ECPRD - the association of European Parliamentary libraries. Usually I don't go to these events as they're not often about archival stuff; however, this year the theme was "Parliamentary history and its communication to the public" which was right up my street.

Anyway, working on Conflagration has raised lots of questions in my mind about what Parliamentary buildings are for - beyond housing their restless inhabitants. They can be symbols of democracy or tyranny; secrecy or openness; bureaucratic inertia or thrusting innovation; all these and more.  And when they burn down the symbolism is enormous, as are the decisions taken afterwards to replace them (or not).


Few Parliamentary buildings in the world can be more moving than the Reichstag in Berlin, which is where last week's conference was based.  The burning of the Reichstag in 1933 (staged as a "Communist" arson attack by the Nazis) ushered in Hitler's rise to power. It was never used by Hitler or his regime, and lay derelict throughout the war. It was then further damaged in the Allied bombing of Berlin in the last days of the war, its dome reduced to a phantom skeleton and its walls scrawled with graffiti by the Red Army who had captured it.
As if that wasn't enough of a metaphor of the abandonment of democracy, after 1945 the building was situated only just inside the British zone of occupation.  Subsequently, the Berlin Wall ran 7m from one of its flanks, placing it barely inside West Berlin.  Close to a bend in the River Spree, the opposite bank of the river was in East Berlin, and a considerable number of people were killed by DDR border guards trying to swim towards the Reichstag building and - therefore - freedom.  The West German government had decamped to Bonn but continued to use an undamaged part of the building for committee hearings (much to the annoyance of the DDR government).

On reunification, a massive project was launched to reinstate the Reichstag as the Parliament building of the Federal Republic of Germany.  The Bundestag (MPs) would meet there, and the Bundesrat (ministers representing the German Laender) would have seats in the chamber, even though their building was on Leipziger Strasse (and had been unused during the DDR era).  Just like the competition to rebuild the Houses of Parliament after 1834, entries from architects were anonymous.   First prize was won by Sir Norman Foster, the British Architect (in fact, the top three winning plans, unknown to the judges at the time, were from non-Germans - the others being a Spaniard and a Dutchman).  More symbolism: former enemies helping to rebuild its neighbour's shattered Parliament building.

Foster made the portico which had originally been intended  for the Kaiser into the main entrance for the public (it was never used by the Kaiser in an act of contempt).  The inscription Dem Deutschen Volke (To the German People) over its entrance says it all.  The design of the dome was finally agreed on after 27 attempts, and Foster himself was not keen on the idea of a dome at all, having originally designed a tent-like canopy over the whole building.  But despite his reluctance, it was built, and the dome has now become one of the major tourist attractions of the whole city, pulling in 2m people who walk round its spiral construction each year.

Just as striking, for me, were the buildings of the Parliamentary administration.  The Marie-Elisabeth Lueders Haus and the Paul Loebe Haus were both built in a deliberately concrete brutalist style redolent of the DDR.  It was intended as a way of never forgetting the past, but the difference is that these buildings are punched through with glass walls: for transparency in every respect.  The M-EL Haus is built right over the site of the former Berlin Wall itself and memorials to those who died crossing the river outside can be seen from its window.  To cross from there to the main Reichstag building you have to move from the former East to West Berlin via a footbridge.  The whole site is a memorial to Berlin's past, present and future Parliamentary history - immensely thoughtful, stimulating and moving.

Even the Soviet graffiti from 1945 on the interior walls
has been uncovered and restored: looking as fresh as the day it was written. 
Inside the Dome

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1 Comments:

At 28 June 2011 at 12:52 , OpenID angelabuckley said...

Fascinating post - very interesting to read more about the history and symbolism of this impressive and important historic building.

 

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