Touring Germany’s Bundestag was one of my favorite parts our trip to Berlin. As a political science and history double major, I was thrilled to learn about the story of the building itself during World War II and the Cold War in addition to current parliamentary tensions. The building itself was key to the Nazis’ rise to power in the 1930s. As the Nazis gained seats in the Reichstag (the name for the German parliament at the time), they fought for absolute power, led by Adolph Hitler, who had been appointed chancellor in January 1933. The Reichstag building caught fire in February, and the Nazis blamed their political opponents for the destruction.
They quickly used this as an excuse to declare a military state of emergency and imprison or exile all of the legitimate threats to their political power in the Reichstag. This was the beginning of the decline of German democracy and of Hitler’s tyrannical rule in Germany.
The current state of the Reichstag building is less depressing than this history might suggest. The Bundestag (the current name for German parliament) meets in the large central room, which is open to visitors and is apparently the most visited parliamentary meeting space in the world. The building’s renovated architecture is attractive and environmentally friendly. The ceiling in the parliament room is made of glass, and there is a mirrored cone descending from the dome above the Bundestag’s meeting room that brings sunlight down into the space, reducing electric lighting needs. We got to tour the massive glass dome on top of the building, which provided for excellent views of the city and a better appreciation for Germany’s political past, as it was filled with an exhibit on the history of the Reichstag building.
Our tour guide was kind enough to tell us about the current state of affairs in the Bundestag, which had just shifted the day before due to the elections that weekend. Across Europe and in Germany in particular, elections are revealing that people want political representation that is further from the middle of the political spectrum than in recent years. The far right and left-wing parties are gaining more seats than they have historically, which is evidence of how quickly people have forgotten the detrimental impacts of Nazi and Soviet rule in Germany. In studying politics, I’ve learned that modern democratic governments tend to sway from right to left, from centrist to extreme, as people tend to dislike whatever representation they have and desire change. While I do not have the solution to this problem, I do think that it is important to remember the lessons of history before the political pendulum swings too far in any one direction and derails democracy as we know it.