A man called Christo wanted to wrap the Reichstag. Somewhere back in the 1980s … oh, let’s start at the beginning, shall we?
There is a large building in Berlin called the Reichstag. You will find it near the Brandenburg Gate. It was built by Paul Wallot from 1884 to 1894 to house the German parliament. At that time, Germany was still a very young nation state, having only been founded in 1871. It was a relatively authoritarian state and the parliament had little power. Political supremacy rested with the Emperor and the Chancellor. Wilhelm II, who came to power in 1888, was particularly conservative and openly expressed his contempt for the “talking shop” within the Reichstag. His dislike of parliamentary politics was enhanced by the fact that the leftist Social Democrats, the SPD, had become the strongest Reichstag faction by 1890.
The political splits running through Germany were plastered over in 1914 when the country enthusiastically rushed to war. For once, there was harmony in the Reichstag! But this consensus did not last. The war dragged on endlessly and the population started suffering from malnutrition. In a futile gesture to appease the public, Wilhelm II had the inscription To the German People fitted to the Reichstag in 1916. In doing so, he fulfilled an old popular demand. At that point, however, most people did not care about the inscription anymore – they wanted food.
The old order collapsed in 1918. Germany was losing the war and the Kaiser had to step down. From the Reichstag’s balcony, the SPD politician Scheidemann declared a German republic while, two hours later, Karl Liebknecht proclaimed a socialist republic from the City Castle. The SPD, allied with the military and the police, subsequently got its way and put down several communist uprisings – thus effectively splitting the working class movement.
The new German democracy, the Weimar Republic, was a “republic without republicans”. Only the SPD, the moderate Catholics and some Liberals kept it going with a number of increasingly fragile coalitions. Since the mid-twenties, a new political force was hammering away at the system: the Nazis. The Reichstag saw increasingly vitriolic exchanges between the speakers, some of them ending in fights.
In 1933, Adolf Hitler became the German Chancellor. A short time later, the Reichstag was set on fire. It is still not clear who caused the blaze but it gave the Nazis a perfect excuse for suspending all civil liberties and cracking down on the communists. The Reichstag was then reduced to a mere rubber-stamp for Nazi legislation. When the Soviet army took Berlin in 1945, heavy fighting in and around the building left a charred ruin.
After the war, extensive measures were undertaken to stabilize the crippled building. The Reichstag was located at the eastern edge of the British sector and when the Berlin Wall came down in 1961, it literally had its back up against the Wall. Since 1971, the Reichstag housed an exhibition dealing with recent German history.
The East German communist system imploded in 1989. Within a year, the two Germanies were reunited. The decision that Berlin should be the country‘s capital again was taken in 1991 after long debates. And the Reichstag would, after extensive rebuilding (including Sir Norman Foster‘s famous new coppula!), house the parliament again. Since 1999, the Bundestag, as it is now called, holds its sessions there. Looking at the Reichstag, I can only wonder: how much more history, how much more symbolism could you possibly cram into one single building?
A Bulgarian artist named Christo wanted to wrap the Reichstag. Somewhere back in the 1980s, people in Germany heard about this proposal. A few of them knew that Christo and his wife Jeanne-Claude had already wrapped some other objects, like a museum and an island or two. But hardly anyone believed that Christo would ever lay his hands on the Reichstag. Germans were (and sometimes still are) very touchy about their historical symbols. In this country, the past is always just around the corner … it may creep up on you from behind! It will suddenly unfold in front of you! Authoritarianism, doomed democracies, the Nazis, the communists – don’t open the can of worms! Don’t touch it!
But Christo did. After two decades of persuading, waiting, planning and hoping, he finally came along in 1995, a 100,000 square metres of silver-coloured polypropylene in his pockets, and wrapped our Reichstag! And there we stood, for two warm summer weeks, 5 million people altogether, and couldn’t believe what we saw. Had the hippies put LSD into the water supply? Was it just a big hallucination? Sure, this was our Reichstag – but not as we knew it! Christo had wrapped it up like a little (or rather large) present, a present for a nation which was at last unified, democratic, free and on good terms with its neighbours! It felt as if we could, for once, step out of the shadow of the past and be a little bit playful.
Since the war, Germans have often been very grey and middle of the road. After the previous barbarities, we wanted to be as inconspicuous as possible, live our lives, keep out of trouble and keep our heads down. We wanted to be good girls and boys! In such a stuffy climate, there was little space for big visions. And it surprised nobody that our Chancellor at the time, Helmut Kohl, voiced strong objections to Christo‘s project. Like many others, I thought: They’ll never do it – they’re too square-minded. New York or Paris perhaps. But not us. The old men won’t have it!
But to our amazement, Christo managed to convince enough politicians to realize the project. And so it happened! Those who saw it, knew that this was something really big, something really outrageous. This wasn’t the go-into-the-gallery-and-look-at-some-nice-pictures-and-have-a-coffee-afterwards art, but something which deeply touched us. It was the most monumental work of art I have ever experienced.
Vielen Dank, Herr Christo!