Wednesday 20 November 2013
The German Parliament building has a troubled history going back more than 130 years. After a ten-year construction period under architect Paul Wallot, it was opened on 5 December 1894 as the Reichstag (Imperial Parliament).On 27 February 1933, just before Hitler and the Nazis seized power it was subjected to an arson attack symbolising the end of parliamentary democracy and the persecution of political opponents.
In May 1945, at the end of the Second World War and the division of Berlin, the Reichstag fell into the Soviet zone and the red flag flew over the building. On 13 August 1961, when the Berlin Wall was erected, it passed immediately in front of the building.
On 20 June 1991, following German reunification, the Bundestag (Federal Parliament) voted by 338-320 to move the national capital from the small Rhineland town of Bonn back to Berlin and move into a restored Reichstag. Hence today the building remains the Reichstag but the parliamentary assembly that meets there is the Bundestag.
The British architect Norman Foster was commissioned to lead the reconstruction of the building, including its modern, accessible dome. On 19 April 1999 he handed over the keys to the Bundestag president, and on 6 September the same year the parliamentary assembly held its first sitting there.
Art for the Bundestag
Choosing a work of art for the Reichstag proved a tricky task for the parliamentarians. The choice, which eventually fell of a painting entitled “Time and Life” by Bernard Heisig (1925-2011), was a controversial one because of Heisig’s record in East Germany. According to his Wikipedia biography: “The controversy was part of the larger German-German Bilderstreit (image battle) over what role East German art and artists should be allowed to play in the new Germany.”
Heisig was one of the second generation of East German artists to be discussed in Part 18 and was associated with the Leipzig School. His experiences in the Second World War on both the western and eastern fronts were a recurring subject in his art.
He was highly regarded by the East German regime and according to Deutsche Welle, the German broadcaster, for years he was one of the most revered artists in East Germany; indeed, he was widely considered among the flagship painters in the regime. He painted Lenin and other leaders of the socialist world, depicting scenes from a leftist historical perspective, commissioned, and appreciated by the likes of senior officials including Erich Honecker, East German leader from 1971-1989.
But in many ways Heisig was also considered an outcast of the regime, an obscure teacher and painter who was not true to the party’s principles. He was a man who returned national awards honouring him and who eventually withdrew from the ruling Communist Party (SED). A man who two years after the end of the war resettled in the east and joined the SED, was simultaneously state artist and state critic.
“Time and Life,” the Heisig work adorning g in the Reichstag building, is described thus on the Bundestag’s website:
“The motifs, almost bewildering in their abundance, include references to Frederick the Great, the opportunism of fellow travellers who claim only to be doing their duty and Icarus, the hubristic figure from classical mythology who played such a significant part in the art of the GDR (East Germany). In his painted frieze, Heisig brings to life the perpetrators of crimes, their victims, and their hangers-on. In doing so, he addresses the fundamental problem of individuals living in environments dominated by state violence and indoctrination: how far is it possible for them to lead an ethically justifiable existence in accordance with their personal desires?”
Today the Bundestag stands at the heart of an expanding government quarter, facing the German Chancellor’s office complex across a green space, within easy reach of the Brandenburg Gate and Main Station. It claims to be the most visited parliament building in the world, with 3m visitors annually.
Thursday 21 November 2013
Before the Second World War Potsdamer Platz was at the bustling heart of Berlin, a sort of Piccadilly Circus. After the war it was a wasteland, flattened by bombing and long left un-redeveloped because of its position on the border between East and West. Part of the Wall can still be seen in a secluded area of the Platz. Today its glistening steel and glass buildings rising as high as 21 storeys (106 metres) by world-famous architects symbolise the new Germany and new Berlin that the nation hoped to create after reunification.
In 1990, following a competition, the Berlin Senate commissioned Munich architects Hilmer and Sattler to design a masterplan for the site of around 60 hectares. Construction work started on 11 October 1993. Italian architect Renzo Piano designed a complex for Daimler-Benz and the German American architect Helmut Jahn a European headquarters for Sony, The British architect Richard Rogers added a residential area in 2008. It was in Potsdamer Platz some years later (Part 22) that Alec used to sit in a cafe with an American fellow student preparing their joint presentation on the work of the German philosopher G.W.F. Hegel (1770-1831).
Between the Bundestag and Potsdamer Platz stands the huge Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe, otherwise known as the Holocaust Memorial. The monument is not just a memorial (Denkmal) of a past horror but a warning (Mahnmal) against allowing such a grotesque atrocity ever to happen again.
The Memorial was designed by the American architect Peter Eisenman with the British engineering consultancy Buro Happold and consists of 2,711 concrete slabs of up to 4.7 metres in height, arranged in north-south and east-west rows covering a site of 19,000 sq. metres. There is no universally accepted interpretation of the meaning of the design.
Building work started on 1 April 2003 and was completed on 15 December 2004. The Memorial was inaugurated on 10 May 2005, 60 years after the end of the Second World War in Europe.
The Holocaust Memorial is not the only memorial in Berlin to Jews and other victims of the Nazis. All over the city are so-called stumbling stones (Stolpersteine), brass plates the size of cobbles, embedded in the pavements outside the homes of Nazi victims from the years 1933-45, recording the names, other brief details, and their fates. While the Holocaust Memorial is a reminder of the sheer scale of the horror, the stumbling stones call attention to the individuality of each victim.
An American Jewish woman whom Alec met living in Berlin told him she felt comfortable in the city as it appeared to have come to terms with what had been done by the Nazis; she did not, in contrast, feel at ease in Vienna as she believed the Austrians were still in denial about their role in the genocide.
Not far from the Holocaust Memorial in the Tiergarten Park are to be found two other memorials to groups persecuted by the Nazis – one to Sinti and Roma people and another to homosexuals.
Between 220,000 and 500,000 Sinti and Roma were murdered in the Nazi genocide and the memorial to them designed by Israeli artist Dani Karavan was inaugurated by Chancellor Angela Merkel on 24 October 2012.
German homosexuals were persecuted by the Nazis under a provision of the German Criminal Code which came into force in 1871 and was not finally repealed until 1994. Exactly how many thousands of homosexual men died in the Nazi camps is unknown. The Bundestag granted permission for the memorial, designed by Michael Elmgreen and Igmar Dragset, in 2005 and it was opened on 27 May 2008. Elmgreen, who is Danish, and Dragset, a Norwegian, worked together on many projects to explore the relationship between art, architecture, and design.
Join Alec next time when he goes west to stroll along the Kurfürstendamm for some up-market window-shopping before returning to eastern Berlin to visit a museum near the main station and another on the Museums Island.
Meanwhile, don’t forget to sign Parliamentary petition calling on the Government to make it easier for schools to organise European trips.