Berlin, not unlike any other city of historic significance, has its share of cultural icons. During my three years in Berlin I chose to visit many of those icons; at the same time some were simply part of the daily landscape; and a few, regrettably, I missed altogether. Sites such as the Charlottenburg Palace, the Kaiser Wilhelm Memorial Church, and the Victory Tower were reminders of Germany’s past. Others such as Checkpoint Charlie, the Wall, and the Deutsche Oper were symbols of its present (speaking in early 1980s terms, of course). The structural icon that stood out, at least to me, was the Reichstag. Even in its largely unused state it was a symbol of Germany’s past, its then-divided present, and its hopes for the future.
I first visited the Reichstag during a three-day tour of Berlin with my father in the spring of 1975. As I recall, the only use being made of the building’s interior was to house an exhibit lining a long, circular ramp that was a pictorial history of Germany. Even at the age of 17 I recognized some of what the building symbolized: the failure of the Weimar Republic, the rise of Nazism, and the Soviet victory in the Battle of Berlin. Upon returning to the city in 1983 for duty at Field Station Berlin I made a point of going back to the Reichstag. In fact I went back there several times. It had a certain draw for me, and on a number of occasions I made my way from Andrews Barracks to the spot on the south bank of the Spree River where the building sits. There was a large empty expanse in front of the building. The building's limited use during the 1980s was probably responsible for the near complete absence of other people each time I visited the site. The fact that there were rarely any people around was probably responsible for the contemplative, almost haunting nature of those visits.
As deeply compelling as the building itself was, a spot around the back side of the Reichstag and near the river was existentially transcendent. There, within view of East Berlin, was a small memorial of crosses dedicated to some of the people who’d died or been killed trying to cross from east to west. I took a picture of the east from that spot on one of my trips. East Berlin was unremarkable from that vantage point, and that was why I wanted to record the image. The outwardly mundane appearance of the DDR provided a deceptive contrast to the historically significant spot just across the river. So much of what East Berlin and the DDR stood for was deliberately, cynically, and brutally deceptive, and the view from the back of the Reichstag, one of the most important sites in modern German history, confirmed that perspective in a way that mere words simply can’t convey.