A new Germany; A new Berlin
In shifting the government from Bonn to Berlin, Germany chooses to
BERLIN — When the German parliament assembled here yesterday it marked an event of historic dimensions. Nine years after German reunification, the government finally has returned to Berlin.
Germany's political center, planted for 50 years in tidy Bonn, is shifting to this raw eastern metropolis that is still in the process of redefining itself and its role in Europe.
The move from Bonn can be read on any number of levels. The German parliament, or Bundestag, is moving into the Reichstag building, long a reminder of the Nazi hijacking of the first German democracy.
The government, in a sign of reunified Germany's regained sovereignty, is self-confidently moving into a city filled with the memories of a dark and difficult past.
And the German capital, once a stark symbol of Europe's cold-war divisions, now represents both the pitfalls and successes in integrating Eastern and Western Europe.
German political commentators have already heralded the beginning of the "Berlin Republic," much to the displeasure of politicians, who insist on a seamless continuity with Bonn's democratic traditions.
"The politicians are right to object for a good reason: It's the same Constitution," says American historian Brian Ladd. "And yet in some ways the move to Berlin completes a process that Bonn began - the process of reformulating German identity through confrontation with German history."
The 'Berlin Republic'
Once at the center of the sprawling German Reich, or empire, Berlin today is only 40 miles from the Polish border. The geographic displacement of Germany's center of power promises to give new impulses to a country - and a continent - still faced with deep economic and social divisions.
"If Germany becomes more truly unified, it will be different," says Mr. Ladd. "The 'Berlin Republic' will be a Central European state, as opposed to a Western European border state. But it's a gradual process."
That process began in 1991 with heated debates in the Bundestag over whether the newly reunified Germany needed a new capital. Many feared the cost of the move - now some $12 billion - while others were opposed to moving into a city that had been home to Prussian militarism, the nerve center of Hitler's killing machine, and more recently, the capital of communist East Germany.
By a majority of only 18 votes, the parliament decided for the historic German capital.
A frenetic period of construction, demolition, and renovation began (and remains unfinished), as city planners and speculators scrambled to stitch back a city that had been torn down the middle.
The Berlin Wall, hated symbol of the cold war's division, vanished from the face of the capital, and the Brandenburg Gate, central hallmark of the city, was opened to traffic.
Subway stops that had been cemented shut by the East German government were excavated and reopened; gloomy communist-era neighborhoods received new faades and gleaming shopping centers.
Long the urban embodiment of the East-West confrontation following World War II, Berlin now is the place where two worldviews, once diametrically opposed, fuse and clash.
A fusion of worldviews
"As a combination of East and West, it hasn't been terribly successful, because too many easterners have felt left out of the process of planning - left out of a city center that many see as having been built for rich westerners," says Ladd, author of the recent book "Ghosts of Berlin: Confronting German History in the Urban Landscape."
One example is the huge construction site at Potsdamer Platz, in the 1920s Europe's busiest traffic intersection and during the cold war a barren no man's land between capitalism and communism.
Today it is one of the biggest construction sites in the city, with Sony and Daimler Benz racing to complete a sleek urban quarter, still quite disjointed from the rest of Berlin.
In this multipolar city, old stereotypes provide little orientation, however.
Many merchants in the western half of the city are watching with dismay as business shifts eastward to the historical center of Berlin. And most of the capital's poorest districts are located in the West, not the East.
Berlin suffers from a 16 percent unemployment rate and a stagnant growth rate, the worst in any German region.
The city government, once propped up by fat federal subsidies, is bankrupt. Compared with the industrialized regions in western and southern Germany, the country's largest city is still an economic dwarf.
"Berlin was the showcase of two systems. In many ways, it didn't orient itself to the market," says Elmar Pieroth, a long-serving Berlin politician and now the city's economic envoy to central and eastern Europe.
A businessman himself, Mr. Pieroth recalls that while the command economy snuffed out private initiative in the East, subsidies from Bonn likewise stifled entrepreneurship in the West.
The loss of the capital's Jews, who played a vital role in Berlin's economic life before the Holocaust, was a further blow, he adds. "The first step is to turn Berlin - the westernmost city of eastern Europe - into the distribution and production point of eastern European companies," Pieroth says, describing his recipe for Berlin's recovery. "The customers are in the East; the western markets are already strongly occupied by western companies."
Geography is key for city promoters, who are banking that the eventual expansion of the European Union will turn the capital into a focal point for East-West trade. Lehrter Bahnhof, the city's new train station, is expected to become the European rail network's new hub, with a quarter of a million passengers passing through it daily.
The largest city between Paris and Moscow, Berlin still exudes a certain air of self-conscious provinciality incongruous to its population of 3.5 million.
The roots lie in the island mentality of West Berlin and the isolation of East Berlin from outside influences. While the easygoing cosmopolitanism of Berlin in the 1920s is returning to the city, Berliners still seem uneasy about their place in the world, constantly measuring themselves up against New York, London, or Paris, cities certainly not burdened with inferiority complexes.
The capital has three airports but only two intercontinental flights - to Havana and Ulan Bator, the Mongolian capital.
And Berlin boasts three daily newspapers but not one that speaks for the nation. Recent front-page stories in the local sections announced which one-way streets had opened to two-way bike traffic, and detailed the color choice - gray or purple - of seats in suburban trains.
"Berlin is a collection of villages. You move in your neighborhood and have everything around the corner," says Volkmar Staub, a Berlin-based political cabaret artist. "The funniest thing about Berlin for a comedian is that it's not worth parodying a single city politician. They are really provincial."
Yet Mr. Staub doesn't assess Germany's inherited cold-war unpretentiousness negatively. "Germany will now sing along in the choir of the great powers, so it needs a presentable capital," he says. "In that sense, I would welcome the modesty of Bonn."
It is inevitable though that the view from Berlin will change the perspective of Germany's political elite.
That the government comes to this city fully aware of its troubled history is less a sign of a resurgent Germany than of a self-confidence to accept its central role in the project of European integration.