Berlin vs. Bonn

May 16, 1991

Berlin is already the official, ceremonial and historic capital of united Germany. The question now is whether it will become the actual seat of government, with the chancellor's office and most federal ministries moving from Bonn, or whether Bonn will remain the seat of real political power.

As the Germans debate this problem with their usual angst, one calumny against Berlin should be put to rest: The idea that Hitler's brief association with the grand old city on the Spree somehow makes it a distasteful symbol and an unseemly capital.

Berlin's history goes all the way back to the 12th century, and its character was shaped not by a crazed Austrian whose Thousand Year Reich lasted a dozen years but by a stellar array of scholars and statesmen, dramatists and architects, industrialists and labor leaders. Hitler actually hated "Red Berlin" and the feeling was reciprocated. Though his storm troopers marched down the Under den Linden, the reception they got from the populace was a lot chillier than it was, say, in Nuremberg or Munich.

There is talk in Bonn these days about the tens of billions of marks it will cost to move the capital to Berlin. But this is mere cover for more intense and important arguments: staid Bonn vs. raucous Berlin; westward-looking Bonn vs. eastward-looking Berlin; comfortably ensconced Bonn bureaucrats and legislators vs. public opinion decidedly in favor of Berlin. The list goes on, complicated by Bavaria's age-old rivalry with Prussia and the vast gap in living standards between the western and eastern sectors of the once-divided nation.

Chancellor Helmut Kohl has now come out in favor of Berlin, a gesture that may make him a pariah in Bonn, the not-so-small town on the Rhine, but a lot more popular with voters who lately have rebuffed him. On this issue, party lines will mean nothing in the Bundestag; regional, religious and personal considerations will mean a lot.

The outlines of a de facto solution already exist. Frankfurt is the financial capital of Germany, the seat of the Bundesbank. Karlsruhe is the judicial capital of Germany, the seat of the high court. Bonn is not only the present political capital but the site of the Defense Ministry and some other government agencies that undoubtedly will stay right where they are. So if Berlin becomes the seat of the legislative and executive branches, German government will have the geographical diversity that historic circumstances seem to mandate.

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