German parliament divided in debate over capital city

June 17, 1991|By Ian Johnson | Ian Johnson,Special to The Sun

BERLIN -- Antje Pieper is bewildered by a bitter division in her reunited country.

"Sometimes I think that we Germans try to make everything difficult for ourselves. We unified the country peacefully, but now are killing ourselves over where the government should be. It's ridiculous," she said.

For Ms. Pieper, 26, a bookkeeper, the question of where unified Germany should locate its government is clear: Berlin. But for the 656 members of parliament who have to make the decision Thursday, the question is being treated as the most controversial decision of their careers.

With parties split down the middle over the question and no compromise in sight, mudslinging, arm-twisting and breast-beating have reached a frenzy as the debate exposes deep divisions that were glossed over during the country's quick unification last year.

The unification treaty called for Berlin to be the new country's capital. But clever West German negotiators ensured that Berlin was named the official capital and that their capital, Bonn, became unified Germany's actual seat of government -- the place where bureaucrats and politicians run the country.

Thursday's vote will determine whether to keep the current arrangement or move the whole business to Berlin, the country's largest city and the historic capital of Germany since 1871.

Although both sides have presented myriad studies purporting that their city is the most cost-effective and reasonable choice, each admits that any move would be made over 10 to 15 years to minimize any economic impact or costs.

L The decision has become an almost exclusively emotional one.

Pro-Berliners say that a vote for Bonn is a vote against social unification and a betrayal of the divided city.

Bonn supporters see their small town on the Rhine River as a guarantee of a modest, functioning democracy free of the megalomania and emotionalism associated with Berlin.

To be sure, Bonn is considered one of the most boring capitals in Europe -- part of the reason for its selection as the post-World War II capital of West Germany. Berlin is the repository of the best and the worst of German history from the kaiser to Hitler to its prominence as the symbol of Cold War division and now the symbol of post-Cold War reunification.

Germans who favor Bonn, however, are accused of neglecting economically depressed eastern Germans who badly need a sign that the government is in touch with their worsening situation, according to Wolfgang Thierse, assistant chairman of the Social Democratic Party and one of the few East Germans to play a leading political role in post-unification Germany.

"The debate about how much a move to Berlin will cost and whether there is enough office space misses the point. People in the east need recognition that they are part of the country," Mr. Thierse said.

What the argument finally comes down to is how people view unified Germany, Mr. Thierse argues. If it is just West Germany with more territory, then the government should stay in Bonn. If not, then Berlin is the better choice, he said.

But others see the support for Bonn differently.

Political commentator Gunter Hofmann believes that West Germans used to be embarrassed that their country was only an artificial creation by the Allies after World War II. But with East Germany having proved to be a failure, their country -- dull capital and all -- appears not to have done too badly after all.

Berlin by contrast seems a Cold War anachronism, a relative from childhood who has popped up on the doorstep.

It may have been the capital that everyone wanted after World War II and remained the German capital in countless political speeches since then, but all of that is far removed from western Germany's stable success, Mr. Hofmann wrote in the newspaper Die Zeit.

In an effort to avoid further polarization, top politicians have been

proposing alternatives that could give the unified country a divided government.

One model calls for the Foreign Office and embassies to go to Berlin with the rest staying in Bonn, while another proposal has the upper house of parliament, the Bundesrat, going to Berlin with the more powerful lower house, the Bundestag, and the chancellor and ministries staying in Bonn.

Some ideas have bordered on the absurd, with the post and telecommunications minister wanting the government split between the two cities and hooked up by video conferences. One wag even suggested that the government move around the country from city to city like the German emperors of the Middle Ages.

What may well happen is that the heart of the government will stay in Bonn but that Berlin will be given the upper house of parliament, a ministry or two and the promise that the question will be reviewed again at the end of the decade when Soviet troops have completed their withdrawal from eastern Germany and Berlin has solved its economic, transportation and housing problems.

"I think there has been some move toward agreement here, to talk about various consensus solutions," said Rita Suessmuth, the speaker of parliament. "The main point is to avoid a confrontation."

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