Germans choose Berlin over Bonn for capital

June 21, 1991|By Ian Johnson | Ian Johnson,Special to The Sun

BERLIN -- More than a year of public debate over united Germany's orientation ended yesterday with a decision to move the German government from Bonn to Berlin.

The vote followed an emotional 12-hour debate in the German lower house of parliament, or Bundestag, that split political parties down the middle and threatened to continue endlessly through the night.

In the end, 337 parliamentarians voted for Berlin while 320 backed Bonn. There were two abstentions and one invalid ballot.

"The decision was for Berlin because only Berlin symbolizes our country's unification," Berlin Mayor Eberhard Diepgen said.

The Bundestag, chancellor and president are to move within 12 years to Berlin, the prewar capital of Germany and capital of East Germany from 1949 to 1990.

The bureaucracy and the largely advisory upper house of parliament, the Bundesrat, which represents Germany's 16 state governments, are to stay in Bonn, a town of 300,000 by the Rhine River.

Up until the vote, Berlin had only been united Germany's ceremonial capital. The real government had been in Bonn, the city that epitomized West German economic success and political moderation.

Supporters of Bonn played on this success during the parliamentary debate, contrasting it with the Prussian and Nazi demons that they said still haunted Berlin.

"Bonn was good for our democracy. It was the best time in German history. It was without the horrors of the Nazis and the blown-up pomposity of the Stalinists," said Employment Minister Norbert Blum, a Bonn supporter.

But the most passionate speakers backed Berlin.

Older politicians, who remembered the promises they had made that Berlin would always be the German capital, joined with younger leaders from eastern Germany, who said that Germany's division could only be overcome when the parliaSee ment broke out of Bonn's sometimes suffocating small-town isolation.

"Today isn't a fight between two cities but a decision about the future of our society. We have to send a sign of solidarity to the people in East Germany that we are aware of their problems," German Interior Minister Wolfgang Schaeuble said in a speech that drew a standing ovation.

The debate cut across party lines, with some Social Democrats and Christian Democrats lining up for Berlin and others for Bonn.

"Today I've shaken my head at people I admire and clapped for people for whom I would never have moved a hand," Bonn supporter and Social Democrat Johannes Rau said.

Most analysts agreed that the division in the parliament reflected Germans' mixed feelings about where their government belongs and what emphasis they want to set on the newly united Germany.

The debate shows the uncertainty with which the new country faces its future, according to writer Henning Ritter.

East and West Germans were secure as long as they could comfortably live in the superpowers' shadows, Mr. Ritter said. Faced with the prospect of making a new start -- as symbolized in the question of their capital -- Germans balked and overemphasized the importance of the decision, he said.

"They make it seem as though the political future of Germany can be secured by the right choice of a capital city," Mr. Ritter wrote in the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung.

A more concrete factor in everyone's consideration was the cost, which ranges from $5 billion to $50 billion, according to the study. This worry was reflected in the parliament's decision to take up to 12 years to make the move.

Mayor Diepgen, however, said he expected the parliament to take up its work within four years in Berlin with the administration following slowly to save costs, minimize the damage to Bonn's economy and give Berlin a chance to build the necessary offices.

"We'll be ready when they are," Mr. Diepgen said.

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