Parliament returns to site of 'end of democracy'

The Reichstag building embodies Germany's road to democracy like no other structure in this city so cluttered with the symbols of a tumultuous past.

When the Bundestag, or parliament, gathered yesterday for its first session in the renovated Reichstag building, it returned to a structure that has witnessed some of the darkest moments of the 20th century.

"The building has a large, multilayered historical significance for Germany," says architectural critic Sebastian Redecke. "The burning of the Reichstag was a symbol of the end of German democracy."

Mr. Redecke refers to the mysterious fire that gutted the Reichstag, then-seat of the parliament, a week before elections in 1933. Using the fire as a pretext, the Nazis arrested opposition leaders and swept into power.

As the Third Reich crumbled with the onslaught of Allied forces, anti- aircraft batteries were placed atop the four corner towers of the former parliament building. In 1945, when the Soviet Red Army fought its way into the capital, the Reichstag was at the center of the street battles. The most famous photograph from the Battle of Berlin shows a Russian soldier raising the Soviet flag over the Reichstag.

Renovated in the 1960s, the building hulked uselessly on the fringes of West Berlin. The Berlin Wall passed right along its eastern side.

In 1992 British architect Sir Norman Foster received the commission to rebuild the Reichstag building as the new seat of the Bundestag. The generous use of glass is reminiscent of the transparency and modesty that the former Bundestag building in Bonn conveyed. A central cone consisting of 365 mirrors casts natural light onto the assembly. Another carryover is a modified sculpture of the federal eagle, nicknamed the "fat hen," which, contrary to the architect's wishes, will hover behind the speaker's podium.

To historian Brian Ladd, it is unproblematic that the Bundestag is moving into a building that once symbolized German democracy's downfall. "The move to the Reichstag represents an acceptance of 20th-century German history with all its complications," he says. "The move into the Reichstag is not denial, it's acceptance."

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