Berlin or Bonn? Germans ponder the capital issue

October 16, 1990|By Ian Johnson | Ian Johnson,Special to The Sun

BERLIN -- Through either a "lousy trick" or "pure reason," this city may be denied what some people feel is its birthright: being the capital of a united Germany.

True enough, the state treaty that united East and West Germany calls for Berlin to be the capital of the country, but the treaty divides this ceremonial function from the nitty-gritty "seat of government," the place where the top bureaucrats and politicians live, spend money and make real decisions.

The united German parliament is dominated by big West German states, most of which want the former West German capital of Bonn to stay the seat of government. Berlin could be left with little more than a ceremonial role.

"This was a dirty trick," said Wolfgang Kohlhoff, spokesman for the former West Berlin government. "For years every politician has spoken of Berlin as the capital of Germany, and now it may be just a capital in name."

"Pure reason says that everything shouldn't be concentrated in Berlin," said Johannes Rau, premier of North Rhine-Westphalia, the most populous state in Germany and the one where Bonn is located. "The moving costs would be enormous."

Bonn is said to represent the first successful democracy in German history. It is small and peaceful, is more Western-oriented and already has all the government buildings in place. Berlin represents the Third Reich, a failed democracy, Prussianism and -- sin of sins for most Germans -- "chaos" because of its sometimes tumultuous local politics.

But Berlin-backers say that their city is cosmopolitan, a bridge between East and West Europe and a symbol of German unity and that it would not force lawmakers to live in the isolation of a small city. Bonn is dull, provincial, hermetic and philistine, they argue.

Bonn is a city of 300,000 on the Rhine River that is reputed to have become the capital in 1949 because West Germany's first chancellor, Konrad Adenauer, lived nearby.

With 3.5 million residents, a lively night life and hectic pace, Berlin is just the opposite. Its history as a seat of government began in 1701 when it became the capital of Prussia; it was made the first capital of a united Germany in 1871. It was only the capital of a democratic Germany, however, between 1919 and 1933 -- 14 years to Bonn's 41.

Each side has spent millions of dollars to win what is also to a great degree an economic issue.

Besides supposedly representing the soul of a nation, being the capital means thousands of lucrative government-related jobs.

Bonn officials, for example, estimate that 95,000 jobs are at stake, while Berlin's mayor has said that whether his city is the seat of government will determine if it will succeed economically.

Polls, too, have become part of both sides' arsenals, although they seem to work in favor of Berlin. Since February there have been 13 polls on the subject and Berlin has won 12 of them, losing only a survey commissioned by a Bonn newspaper. In general, the results show that about two-thirds of West Germans and 90 percent of East Germans favor Berlin.

Some see the surprising support for Bonn more positively. Writer Guenter Hofmann wrote recently that West Germans used to be embarrassed that their country was only an artificial creation of the Western allies after World War II. But with East Germany having proved a failure, their country -- dull capital and all -- appears to have done not too badly.

Berlin, by contrast, seems a Cold War anachronism, a relative from childhood who has popped up on the front doorstep. It may have been the capital everyone wanted after World War II, but that is far removed from West Germany's stable success, Mr. Hofmann wrote in the newspaper Die Zeit.

"My republic [West Germany] looks . . . a little bit like Bonn. No [real] capital, a lot of middle ground. Berlin has little to do with this republic, and this makes the fight over the capital more difficult than one would have thought."

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