BERLIN. — THE GERMANS suddenly are making very heavy weather over the question of where their capital should be.
Since Germany was divided in 1948, West Germans and their allies have formally demanded eventual reconstitution of a united Germany with Berlin the capital. Now they have the united Germany, but neither West nor East Germany are sure they want Berlin as capital.
It is a debate that has received little attention outside Germany, but inside it has become a focus of the Germans' complicated ambitions and anxieties. What will this unified Germany really become? What are its horizons, its national purpose? What political values will rule? The choice of capital implies answers.
One might think the essential answers simple: democratic values, western horizons. Those have characterized West Germany for 41 years, and they are what East Germans aspired to last year, and committed themselves to, in the great peaceful demonstrations that brought down the Berlin Wall.
But Berlin stands for too much in German history, good and bad. Bonn, on the other hand, stands for peace in Germany, calm, hard work and success, international respect, integration into the European Community, secure alliance with the western democracies.
Bonn has no history to forget: the usual wars in the distant past; a brief period of annexation by the French; a certain turbulence as the German states and cities were pulled together under Prussian rule in the 19th Century. Otherwise it is an unremarkable Rhineland city, where Beethoven was born. It is a city of deep German civilization. There is a fine university.
The city lives by light manufacture and, since 1949, by bureaucracy. There is not much to do. People take long walks in the woods on Sundays.
Berlin stands for drama and tragedy: second and third Reichs, Bismarck, Prussian Kaisers, Prussian militarism, goose-step, columns of singing German soldiers -- marching East, marching West.
It stands for feeble democracy under the Weimar constitution, descent into mad inflation, disorder and decadence, from which Nazism sprang. It echoes of devastation, brought on Germany by Germans. Hitler's bunker is there, bulldozed and concreted over by the Russians as if the pestilence could rise again.
Berlin also stands for recovery and reconstruction, defiance of the Soviet Union's attempt to starve the city into submission in 1948 with the blockade. It recalls resistance, the workers' uprising against the communists in 1953, the flight to freedom that provoked the Wall.
Re-establishing Berlin as capital seems a German return to normality: The door closed, at last, on the war and its terrible aftermath. The people who want Berlin again to be the country's capital say that the Bonn solution was always provisional, and that a return to Berlin is necessary to confirm the new Germany's autonomy.
Other Germans see in it the risk of abandoning the pacific, westward-looking German spirit of the past four decades, with uncertain political possibilities and ambitions taking its place. For them it implies a Germany whose intellectual and moral anchor no longer is on the Rhine, in Charlemagne's Germany, but in the East. Berlin is some 50 miles from Poland, nearly as far east as Prague, Baltic-looking rather than Atlantic-tied. They fear a Germany that would rebuild Germany's eastern role at the potential sacrifice of its western commitments.
The debate is conducted as if what people really were talking about were the costs of shifting ministries, accommodation for officials and their staffs, administrative reorganization. Has Berlin the housing, the office-space, the communications infrastructure, etc.?
The real argument is over the symbolism and political effect of the move. The Germans once again are asking themselves who they are, and what purpose their nation serves. They are wrestling with the message they will deliver to themselves if they make Berlin their capital again -- or refuse to do so.
It is a dangerous debate because the controversy over Germany's identity and national purpose is a permanent one, and rightly so. It will not be settled by this generation of Germans alone. But the question of the capital will be decided, and fairly soon. The two questions should not be confused. Deciding one is not going to settle the other.
With so much symbolic and moral baggage loaded on the choice of Germany's capital, the decision, when it is made, risks seeming to the Germans themselves a fateful choice and a commitment that will shape their future.
That, it seems to me, would be a very great error. It seems logical to think that Berlin will become Germany's capital for reasons valid in themselves. Bonn's claims are reasonable enough, but Berlin is the historical capital of the united nation. It is a great cosmopolitan city, which ranks with London, Paris, Vienna and New York. The world outside Germany has always taken it for granted that Berlin would eventually be the capital again.
The debate deserves to be stripped of its symbolic encumbrances. Germany's future will not be decided by where its capital is. Settling that will not settle Germany's destiny. It destabilizes the political debate to act as if this were the case. The choice -- Berlin or Bonn -- deserves to be settled as soon as possible in the obvious practical way, by referendum. After that, the essential debate, about Germany itself and where it goes, can be resumed in ample political space and time.