Berlin uber alles

Georgie Anne Geyer

June 26, 1991|By Georgie Anne Geyer

Berlin -- THERE should have been wild celebrations last wee when the Bundestag, the German Parliament, voted to make Berlin the capital of the new Germany. Instead, Berlin, reunited for eight months, greeted the news with only a pleased calm.

In other cities, there were a lot of folks warning that Berlin is now about to become the center of some new German empire. After all, in poor little bypassed Bonn,the biggest joke is that the most interesting thing in the city is the fast train to Munich. And has anyone really ever heard anyone proclaim, "Ich bin ein Bonner"?

That is what the lengthy and often impassioned argument in Germany -- an argument that ended by a tight 337-320 vote -- was all about. The first postwar chancellor, Konrad Adenauer, a Rhinelander, even warned 40 years ago that "as soon as Berlin becomes the capital again, foreign mistrust of Germany will be unquenchable. Whoever makes Berlin our capital is spiritually creating another Prussia."

So the debate, which has gone on for months, is at heart about much more than just a capital. It is about no less than the very character, not only of the new post-unification Germany, but of struggling Eastern Europe.

The argument for bucolic little Bonn -- the symbol of postwar Germany's wildly successful democratization and decentralization (and so boring, some say, the only interesting thing about it is when the Rhine overflows) is its success and its decency. Bonn, with leaders such as Adenauer, led Germany out of the darkness of World War II. Unprepossessing Bonn made Germany part of Europe.

Then there is also the cost. Integrating East Germany is already costing probably $60 billion a year. Do they really want to spend another $35 billion building new ministry buildings near the Reichstag here, where Otto von Bismarck unified Germany into a nation built on "blood and iron" and where Nazi leaders proclaimed their darkest dreams?

Well, Bonn seems nice, and reasonable, and right, until you really think about it. Until you listen to Berlin Mayor Eberhard Diepgen, who argues that Berlin "is where German reality is concentrated, with all its tensions and dynamism. In Berlin, it is clearer than anywhere else that the Federal Republic . . . has become something qualitatively new."

This happens to be true. The reason that Berlin was so unruffled by the Thursday vote was that it now represents empire, yes, but quite a different empire than in the past. Today, it is, and will be even more, the center of Western and Eastern democracy. The old "drang nach Osten," or "pull to the East," has now been reversed: It is today the "pull" toward democratization and development in an East struggling out of totalitarianism.

The vote for Berlin, as my conversations here among the East Germans have shown me, is above all a vote of confidence by the West that the East can make it. Berlin can, with any planning (which the Germans are good at) and any luck (which they are not always so good at), be the fulcrum of a true united states of Western and Eastern Europe.

Moreover, Berlin has been considered, since 1949, the official capital of Germany. That was why the United States went to such lengths to defend it, over and over again. It was reinstated last October as the capital as part of the treaty of reunification. What exactly was all that for, if all those promises are not now to be realized?

Above all, it is not only logical that Berlin be Germany's capital, it is right and good. It was not Berlin, or the proper Prussian officers, after all, who brought in Adolf Hitler (sorry, Konrad Adenauer). It was Germany's south; it was Bavaria's Munich. Indeed, Berlin, with its natural and inclusive cosmopolitanism, fought Hitler.

No city in Europe has been given a greater, a more tragic, lesson of the danger of irrational political illusion and ambition than Berlin. It is time that Germany be normalized, as the serious and rational country it now is, and allowed to give even more to the new world forming all about it. That is why the vote was so right.

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