Not that long ago, the casual visitor to the German Parliament building in Berlin would be able to join a 100 metre queue and wait their turn to be hurled to the cupola on the top of the Reichstag, the whole building redeveloped by Norman Foster when he was contracted to renew again this seat of German democracy in the unified capital of Berlin a decade or so ago. Now the CCS Year 11 History trip of 2011 knew we had been required to write to the ‘Office for the Parliament’ to make special request to visit, as the authorities have tightened their security procedures in the light of an increased terrorist threat.
What we had not appreciated is that there now exists around the Reichstag an exclusion zone of steel of 50 metres or so, well protected by the Polizei and with huge signs informing all that the building is closed. There are a couple of unglamorous small portacabins at the side, at which a mêlée of electric blue jackets carrying an ‘Information’ label on the back sought to deal with the broken-hearted tourists, whose idea of a short break included a quick scamper up to the roof to look across the Berlin skyscape.
Blow me down, if when we arrived we didn’t get spotted immediately for a school group of 18 led by a Mrs Wilding. We were whisked through the fourth full body search of the day (don’t get me started on Luton airport), chaperoned over to the front entrance where we faced our fifth strip and luggage scan, and then engaged by a most articulate tourist guide named Helga. Actually I am lying about the name, but in every way, her Teutonic care of her English students was lived up to this first class billing. We visited the catacombs, touched Adolf Hitler’s letter box and a few hundred others, read the graffiti left on the wall by the Russian liberators in 1945, walked across the underground piazza that links the 6 or so parliamentary buildings, sat in the main chamber, saw members of parliament being interviewed by the press, learned why the German eagle is really a ‘fat hen’, spotted Norman Foster’ signature on the same, and witnessed at first hand just what an amazing seat for transparent government the Reichstag has become.
And then of course we took the elevator to the roof, climbed into the dome as a brilliant sun was setting to the west, colouring all around with its pink wash, and we marvelled that it had been a British architect that had created something of such engineering beauty in Germany, a land that’S home to engineers. ‘Vorsprung Durch Technik’ is their phrase we usually translate into English as ‘progress through technology’. Since the second world war, Germany has rarely had anything other than a coalition government, and it led me to muse that perhaps, in the same way it has taken Foster’s masterpiece to highlight how good government can be literally seen by everyone, we Britons could perhaps draw encouragement from the German experience that parliamentarians working together in partnership might actually be worth sticking with!