Bonn and Berlin: a Tale of Two Capitals

BONN is a capital where government high-rises have only lately begun to compete with church spires for control of the skyline. For now the spires are holding their own.

And yet Bonn is inescapably in the midst of a building boom, with nearly $1 billion worth of major projects under way or just completed. This includes a new art museum complex, new headquarters for the Free Democrats, and most significant, the new plenary hall for the Bundestag, which has been meeting in an adapted waterworks building close by the Rhine - temporary quarters rendered all the more crowded by the need to accommodate new eastern German members.

Funny, Bonn doesn't exactly look as if it is about to be "de-capitalized" in favor of Berlin. How ironic that this should happen just as Bonn is coming into its own as a capital.

In June 1991 the Bundestag decided to move the government to Berlin as part of reunification. Restoring Berlin as the capital was long the stated goal, but when the opportunity finally came, it was more complicated than expected.

It was a close vote, 337-320. The people of Bonn greeted the decision with stunned silence. Those on the winning side took care not to seem too victorious.

If divided Berlin was the cold war's hometown, and as Chancellor Helmut Kohl put it, "the focus of Germany's division and of yearning for German unity," it was also a reminder of two tragic wars in this century.

A government pullout would also mean great economic dislocation for Bonn, to say nothing of the costs of rebuilding Berlin at a time when the German government - wherever based - must deal with integrating eastern Germany fully into the Federal Republic. Without government as a main industry, Bonn stands to lose 100,000 jobs, and would return, if that were possible, to being a pleasant university town, with attractive baroque architecture, some ruined Rhine castles, and the distinction of having been Bee thoven's birthplace.

Bonn is full of government officials in no hurry to decamp to Berlin. They like their little houses on the edge of the woods in Bonn; how could they reproduce that in Berlin, a big city where you can spend an hour getting from one side to another? they ask.

Nor is the prospect of moving into a former East German ministry particularly enticing: Such buildings are likely to be too cramped, to be left over from the Hitler period, or to look like former headquarters for the Ministry of Central Planning for Ugly Socialist Buildings.

"We are taxpayers. We don't need a move to Berlin," say the little stickers on lampposts and cars all over Bonn.

In Berlin, naturally, things look a little different: "A decision has been taken. You've got to be consistent and follow through on it," one hears. And many Berliners are proud of the prospect of becoming, as a result of all the new development anticipated, the "biggest construction site in Europe," as one headline exulted the other day.

But it's not all a bowl of cherries. One gathers from the officials in charge of traffic flow that they wish the federal government weren't looking to settle right in the middle of town, at the Brandenburg Gate. And there's a particularly chic cafe threatened with removal to make room for the federal president's residence. Officials seem receptive to public concern; in a popular vote, the cafe might win out over the president.

Parkinson's Law would suggest that even if the move to Berlin is carried out, the bureaucrats expected to be left behind in Bonn will not diminish in number. Meanwhile, at the Cologne-Bonn airport (yes, Bonn shares an airport) they are planning, or at least hoping, for a quintupling of passenger traffic by the year 2010.

"Bonn ist ein SPD Kuhdorf!!" was a graffito I remember from my student days there a few years back: Bonn is a Social Democratic cow village. Cows still graze on the east bank of the Rhine, just minutes from the Bundestag, although their political allegiances may have changed after 10 years of conservative government - or maybe not. In any case, the modesty and the human scale of Bonn as capital have been admirable. Let's hope that isn't lost, however the transition to Berlin turns out.

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