Beneath the German parliament building lies an entire world of its own. Moritz Eichhorn takes us into the belly of the Reichstag to find out what perks await its new members after the September 22 elections.
Beneath the German parliament building lies an entire world of its own. Moritz Eichhorn takes us into the belly of the Reichstag to find out what perks await its new members after the September 22 elections. here are a few different types of exclusivity in Berlin. To party at Berghain, you need a vague mix of casual attire and an unfazed demeanour. To enter the private China Club behind the Adlon Hotel you’ll need cash, starting with a €10,000 sign-up fee. And if you want to relax at the rooftop pool of the Soho House on Torstraße, you’d better know someone who knows someone. But to get full access to the Reichstag, the building housing the German parliament, you need to represent about 120,000 German citizens. A requirement beyond coolness, cash or connections.
The indoor football pitch is in great demand – parliamentarians and staff often challenge each other to matches.
We walk past the long queues stretching from the bus stop to the towering main entrance and head for a nondescript door near the northern end of the building. The security people gesture to us to turn back – “You’re in the wrong place!” – but after we show our credentials the sliding door of the airlock opens, and we’re beckoned to enter quickly. Once the door has closed behind us, we exchange our passports for house passes with the man behind bulletproof glass. A second door slides away and an airport-like security checkpoint appears. Past security, we’re greeted by the Red Army – the towering walls around us covered in large, uneven Cyrillic graffiti messages scrawled by victorious Soviet soldiers in May 1945. We have arrived at the members’ entrance of the Reichstag, HQ to Germany’s parliament (the Bundestag), the country’s most famous piece of political architecture, and, as we are about to find out, a city within a city.
Norman Foster’s glass-and-silver dome is just one part of a sprawling complex housing the Bundestag’s 620 members of parliament (Bundestagsabgeordnete), their staff and other administrative personnel, some 2800 people in total. Their offices, committee chambers and a host of other facilities are all connected through an ant-farm-style network of underground tunnels. One of these subterranean pathways is rumoured to have been the escape route for the Nazis who allegedly set the infamous Reichstag fire in February 1933. That’s the one we use to make our way to the Marie-Elisabeth Lüders-Haus (MELH) and its massive book collection. Across the Spree from the Reichstag, the third largest parliamentary library in the world holds more than 1.4 million volumes and will obtain any book, magazine or journal imaginable upon request. Naturally, printing, copying and internet use are free. The 50 reading nooks overlooking the river are often vacant, even during parliamentary sessions, as only MPs and their aides have access.
From here, we take one of the countless elevators down below the surface to the sports area. There’s a large gym and fitness centre with treadmills, weights and even mirrored aerobics rooms. There used to be a sauna too, but it was so seldom used that they decided to close it. On the other hand, the indoor football pitch is in great demand – parliamentarians and staff often challenge each other to matches.
On our way to one of the two footbridges connecting the MELH with the Paul-Löbe-Haus – both named for parliamentarians ousted during the Nazi regime – we casually pass by the in-house travel agencies, still well-frequented even in a world of online booking. Next is one of the five cafeterias, nicknamed the “lamp shop” on account of its abundance of colourful ceiling lights. We check out the menu: two meat dishes and one veggie option per day, plus “daily currywurst from the grill”, everything ranging from €4-€6, none of it organic or particularly appetising. For more gourmet grub, MPs are rumoured to prefer Käfer, the Munich catering chain/restaurant known to Reichstag tourists for its roof terrace right next to the dome. They also operate a staff-only restaurant on the first floor. On our way out, we run into the parliament’s chief physician. Her team of doctors is on call for appointments, vaccinations and emergencies 24/7, 365 days a year.
Back upstairs, we cross the upper skywalk to the Paul-Löbe-Haus and catch a glimpse of the Bundestag kindergarten, conveniently located next door: despite Germany’s poor record in providing daycare for working parents, it’s never been an issue for the policymakers themselves. On the other side sits a monument dedicated to the East Germans who tried to swim across the Spree to the West at this very spot and were shot in the process. A row of crosses marks their watery graves. In fact, there are memorials all over the place here, both small and large, standing out or sneakily blending seamlessly into the architecture.
Fittingly, we’re now reaching the multi-faith prayer room, a quiet refuge even in the midst of political chaos. There’s a small cross, a custom-made organ and some very high-profile religious gifts: a prayer shawl from the Dalai Lama and restored papyrus Bible texts from the Pope. The room was designed by artist Günther Uecker, and his trademark nail paintings lean lightly against the walls.
Indeed, the Reichstag has expensive taste. A who’s who of Germany’s finest artists, worth tens if not hundreds of millions of euros, lines its courtyards and hallways. Not only that, MPs can pick and choose works from the parliament’s collection to deck their own halls with a Beuys, a Christo or some Richters.
The last stop on our little tour is the smokers’ lounge in the southwest corner of the main building. Sitting on lush red leather seats, we enjoy a farewell cigarette and talk about the countless things we did not get to see: the newsstands, the condom dispenser, the rumoured bunker, the self-sufficient energy supply… “What don’t they have in here?” we ask our guide. “A lot of time to use it all,” she answers, and leads us to the exit.