The once and future Berlin

Capital: After a half-century void, a great city again, will govern a united and peaceful Germany

July 25, 1999

WEST Germany is dead. Long live Germany. Bonn, the sleepy university town on the Rhine called upon to anchor a disgraced Germany in the West, reverts to its old status after a half-century.

Berlin was one of the great cities of the world -- an artistic, architectural, financial, military, sinful and imperial capital -- from 1871 to 1945. From the creation of the German Empire by Otto von Bismarck until the destruction of Adolf Hitler's Third Reich.

The old Germany was more Protestant than Catholic, more Socialist than conservative, Central rather than Western European. Bonn served the purposes of Konrad Adenauer to revive his part of the country as West Germany. It was more Catholic than Protestant, more conservative than Socialist, fully Western. And it helped found what would become the European Union, to make another war between France and Germany impossible. Bonn is the West.

The Communist state headquartered in East Berlin was a parody of the Soviet Union in which everyone was made to spy on everyone else. Eventually it became a prison with walls the only way of keeping people inside.

Sept. 1 is now the official date for Berlin to replace Bonn as the capital of the one, complete Germany, a move 10 years in the making. Prime Minister Gerhard Schroeder can't wait. He despises Bonn and personifies the really new, united Germany.

Berlin is getting ready. Redevelopment is enormous. The prices of real estate are out of sight. Bureaucrats and politicians for whom Bonn was long home are hoping to commute. The arts, journalism -- just about everything except finance, in which Frankfurt will remain dominant -- are converging on the capital, which will dazzle Europe once again.

Berlin will soon glitter beside Paris, Rome and London as the ultimate capitals of Europe. The long decentralization of Germany has gone into reverse.

The new Germany will not be so Western in spirit. Berlin is closer to Poland than Bonn to the Netherlands. But unlike the old Germany, the new pursues good relations with all neighbors. And there is no doubt of its overt Western links. The East offers no alternative.

The Berlin republic will dominate Europe, and there's the rub. Germany is in the economic doldrums. Since the German-dominated euro's creation at the new year, its value has sunk.

Mr. Schroeder has a lot to worry about. But he will do his worrying in one of the great capitals of Europe, not an overcrowded university town on the Rhine.

Pub Date: 7/25/99

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