Power city: Berlin’s political nerve centre

What happens in the German capital affects us more than the goings-on inside the Washington Beltway or even Whitehall’s square mile. Ahead of Germany’s federal election tomorrow, it’s a good time to stroll through the heart of the Berliner Republik

Corridors of power: seven key spots in the city. Illustration: John Cassidy

Corridors of power: seven key spots in the city. Illustration: John Cassidy


After half a century in Bonn, Germany’s federal government packed its bags and, on September 6th, 1999, raised the curtain on the Berliner Republik.

An emotional debate eight years earlier ended when German MPs voted, by just 18 votes, to uproot the parliament from the Rhine and reopen for business in the old Reichstag.

One camp saw the move as healing a historical rupture; others eyed Berlin with distrust as the cradle of Prussian militarism and Nazi fascism that had triggered two calamitous world wars. How would the new, old capital alter the cosy, politics of modesty practised in the West German capital, Bonn, and immortalised as John Le Carré’s “small town in Germany”?

“I think Berlin has catalysed changes that were already happening in German politics, particularly in the more questioning view of Europe, ” says Noel Fahey, who was the Irish ambassador during the Bonn-Berlin move. For him Bonn represented cosy Rhineland-style politics, while Berlin politics is influenced by the historic Prussian style: more distant, cool and correct. “Rhinelanders are good at compromises,” he says. “Prussians are not.”

For years after the government move, Berlin was like a political field of dreams: a new, sprawling government quarter where nothing happened. Then the financial and euro crises propelled Germany into the spotlight – and, with it, Berlin. From no direct flights from Dublin in 1999 to two daily flights today, Berlin is on Irish – and European – radars like never before. What happens in Germany, and in Berlin, affects us more than the goings-on inside the Washington Beltway or even within Whitehall’s square mile. Ahead of tomorrow’s federal election, it’s a good time to take a stroll through the heart of the Berliner Republik.

1 Chancellery
The nerve centre of German politics is the chancellery, commissioned by Helmut Kohl and first occupied by Gerhard Schröder in 2001. Designed by the architect Axel Schulte, its exterior concrete walls are stained by the elements. Inside, a chilly atmosphere prevails thanks to white plastered walls and to carpets, doors and banisters all in mint green. In the long winter months, the cool green and watery sunlight give the place the surreal air of an expensive aquarium.

Angela Merkel’s office is on the seventh floor, and she forgoes her enormous desk to work at the corner of a meeting table with a cup of peppermint tea. Dinners for visitors are held in a white dining room on the sixth floor with a Picasso on the wall. Press conferences are held on the first floor, and foreign dignitaries are welcomed in a paved courtyard out front.

A boxy hulking structure, dubbed the “washing machine” by locals, the chancellery is an enormous place, about eight times the size of the White House. It takes so long to walk around it that staff have dubbed the trek to the canteen the “hunger mile”.

2 Paul-Löbe-Haus
Directly opposite the chancellery is Paul-Löbe-Haus, a monumental structure 200m long by 100m wide that is named after the last democratic Reichstag president, who was ousted by Herman Göring in 1932. The building is quite a sight at night: through the front windows, staircases zig-zag up seven storeys on either side of MPs’ offices and the illuminated curves of the circular committee rooms.

Bundestag committees have considerable political power and do most of Berlin’s legislative heavy lifting. They demand, and receive, masses of files from ministries before backing government policy. In the wood-panelled budgetary committee chamber, for example, German MPs perused the details of Michael Noonan’s budgets before agreeing to release German contributions to the Irish bailout.

Paul-Löbe-Haus is as chilly as the chancellery, with plain concrete walls and shiny grey floor tiles. There is more steel, glass and black leather sofas here than in an entire block of bachelor pads.

3 Marie-Elisabeth Lüders Haus
One of the best views of the Berliner Republik is from the bridge, high above the River Spree, that connects Paul-Löbe-Haus with Marie-Elisabeth Lüders Haus.

Named after one of democratic Germany’s earliest woman politicians, this houses another secret of the Berliner Republik: the Bundestag library. With 1.4 million books, it’s one of the biggest parliamentary libraries in the world. The rotunda reading room, with huge windows facing the river and the Reichstag, is an oasis of calm in the capital.

4 Press centre
Head back across the bridge and look right to see the chessboard facade of the Bundespresskonferenz, the federal press-conference centre. Here, three times a week, journalists go head-to-head with ministry spokespeople and with Angela Merkel’s spokesman, Steffen Seibert. It’s all very civilised, voices are never raised and it rarely comes to a checkmate. The post-press- conference huddle, away from the microphones, is where the real news is discussed.

5 Reichstag
Back into Paul-Löbe-Haus and a secret in the cellar: a curved white tunnel that runs under the river into the heart of German democracy: the Reichstag.

Opened in 1894 to plans by Paul Wallot, this building has witnessed every station of German historic highs and lows. It was here, in 1918, that post-kaiser democracy was proclaimed and, 15 years later, went up in flames with the Reichstag fire. The second World War declared in Berlin ended here too, when a Red Army soldier climbed a Reichstag buttress and waved the Soviet flag over the devastated city. Many corridor walls still bear the cyrillic graffiti of euphoric Russian soldiers. Among them were two Americans: “George Marshall” and “E Kenedy U,S,A 13th May 1945”.

The heart of the Reichstag building is the 24m-high Bundestag chamber, with grey decor and a semicircle of blue seats. A huge eagle on the back wall keeps on eye on the visitors who walk in Sir Norman Foster’s spectacular dome overhead and on the MPs debating below.

In two balconies above their heads, journalists follow brittle Bundestag debates: all scripts, little spontaneity and no chancellor’s questions. Above heads, a large needle extends from the glass dome and extracts the plentiful hot, dead air produced in the chamber to heat the parliament. Think how much money that saves.

The Reichstag is full of hidden curiosities. There’s an interdenominational chapel with a crucifix made entirely of nails, and a pedestal orienting worshippers east to Jerusalem and Mecca. In the cellar is an art installation of brown mailboxes, one for every MP who has ever sat in this building.

“Someone punched a dent in Merkel’s box over there,” says a passing MP. Behind and below is an infamous name: Adolf Hitler. “Merkel’s is damaged, Adolf is untouched,” says the MP.

6 Café Einstein
Berlin’s government quarter is so spread out that it manages to dissipate any kind of political buzz. The buzziest place in the Berliner Republik, particularly on postelection Monday mornings, is Café Einstein, on the Unter den Linden boulevard. While tourists sit up front, politicians of all colours haggle out deals – and coalitions – in the small back room, with its crisp white tablecloths and shiny brown leather banquettes.

That Café Einstein is an oasis of civilised calm in the Berlin rough and tumble is the legacy of Dieter Wollstein. Once the protocol chief in East Germany’s Palace of the Republic, he served for 17 years, until this May, as Einstein’s unfailingly polite and faultlessly discreet master of ceremonies. On his watch Einstein has become the political laboratory of the Berliner Republik, where the correct dose of Wiener schnitzel and coffee, combined with careful seating arrangements, can subtly influence the politics of the country.

“Everyone talks to everyone here, regardless of their politics: in the Bundestag they are opponents, but here they are colleagues,” says Wollstein, who has greeted everyone from Kohl to Merkel.

Has Berlin changed German politics? He sees a more hectic and distant style, he says, less friendly and familiar – like the city outside. “I try to be polite to everyone, but I’m often shocked how unfriendly and frustrated people are in Berlin,” said Wollstein, a native of Weimar. “But if people leave Einstein in a better mood than they came in, perhaps our house had a pleasant effect on the unpleasant side of politics in Berlin.”

7 Angela Merkel’s flat
Step outside, turn left and battle your way through the huge building site that was once the leafy Unter den Linden boulevard. Take the final left before the River Spree and, opposite the Pergamon Museum, you’ll find Angela Merkel’s apartment.

Rather than move into an official residence she stayed put in 2005. She is at her sprawling chancellery by 7am and gets home to her modest flat 16 hours later, at about 11pm. Shuttling between pomposity and modesty: perhaps that contrast best sums up the Berliner Republik, 14 years on.

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