Berlin or Bonn?

Where to put the capital

SO far the Bush administration has been silent on an issue that in Germany is proving divisive. On the surface it's an internal affair: Should the federal bureaucracy of unified Germany be moved back to Berlin, where, until the collapse of the Nazi regime, it had always been housed? Or should the seat of government remain in Bonn, which, despite its reputation as a small and even sleepy town, has served as the capital of a resurgent West Germany for over 40 years? Those who argue on behalf of Berlin insist that the capital must be restored to what has historically been its rightful place. Defenders of Bonn, on the other hand, see no reason to tamper with success. West Germany has thrived with Bonn as its center; why mess with a good thing?

But if at a glance the debate over where to site the federal government seems mundane, Americans should not be misled. In Germany, it's a hot topic. And for the United States the implications are real.

Earlier this month I took part in a public forum on the subject, held in the great hall of the Alexander Koenig Museum in Bonn. As I listened both to my colleagues on the panel, and to the informed and impassioned audience, it became clear that the dispute had little to do with the virtues of one city over another, or in fact with the pragmatic aspects of what it would cost to move the machinery of government. To be sure, the intimacy of Bonn was contrasted with the cultural and commercial enticements of Berlin. And mention was made of the price tag associated with upgrading Berlin's infrastructure: transportation, communications, housing stock, and so on. But this debate was not about concert halls and autobahns. Rather, it was about the German national character and the consequences thereof for the future of Europe.

Bonn became the capital of West Germany in 1949 at the insistence of Chancellor Konrad Adenauer. Adenauer, who in any case wanted the capital in his beloved Rhineland, took the high road in his rhetoric: ``The capital should be situated ... where Germany's windows are wide open to the West. ... Whoever makes Berlin the new capital will be creating a new spiritual Prussia.'' Thus - although a third alternative, Frankfurt, was considered - was the dichotomy established: Berlin versus Bonn, the East versus the West, the old order versus the new.

Then as now Germans presume that their capital is their message, that what it is is what Germany is. If the decision is made to ditch Bonn in favor of Berlin, one set of signals will be sent. If, to the contrary, the determination is to stay put, to join West and East Germany under the banner of Bonn, the tidings will be quite different. Since the Germans themselves are attaching great symbolic importance to their selection of a capital - the word for capital in German, Hauptstadt, also means ``main city'' - Americans should do the same.

What will their choice of a capital tell us about how Germans see themselves?

Those who argue on behalf of Berlin cite public opinion polls that even in West Germany support relocation of the capital. There is strong sentiment among Germans for going home, for going back to the place where - powerful memories of Hitler strutting down its broad avenues notwithstanding - architectural glories such as the Brandenburg Gate and Alexanderplatz testify to a great city in the heart of Europe. In fact, the case is made that precisely because Berlin is associated with National Socialism it, much more than Bonn, would compel Germans to remember their past.

But there is a subtext here, one that suggests strongly that so far as American interests are concerned, Germany's capital should remain Bonn. The US has two priorities regarding unified Germany: first, that it further the strong democracy that was established in West Germany a mere 40 years ago; and second, that it be anchored to the West, particularly to NATO (or its successor) and the European Community. Berlin is less well positioned than Bonn to support both these objectives.

Because of Berlin's history it plays to those Germans who dream of a strong national state. And because of its geography - Germany was always regarded as the east of the West and the west of the East - it plays to those Germans who long for a Europe dominated by Germany rather than one in which Germany is fully integrated. Other Europeans, including the Soviets, are particularly sensitive to what Berlin evokes: militarism, authoritarianism, centralization, expansionism, the hunger for power.

Bonn is, necessarily, also a symbol. But the message it sends was forged only in the recent - and far happier - past: trust in German democracy, belief in Western values, European integration.

In its short history as the capital of West Germany, Bonn has served its country, and the international community, remarkably well. The Bush administration should weigh in on behalf of a city that has emerged as the seedbed of a German tradition in keeping with America's own.

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