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  • Environments of Change: Building the New Berlin For the New Millennium
  • Francis J. Greene (bio)

Today, in the city of Berlin, is found the largest construction site in Europe, and not surprisingly since Berlin is an environment of almost total change—economically, socially, politically, and most certainly in terms of architecture.

When the Berlin wall was opened in November, 1989, an intense and often bitter debate began within Germany almost immediately over where to locate the capital of a newly reunited Germany. Should the capital return to Berlin or remain in Bonn where it had functioned quite effectively since 1949? Partisans on both sides waged an extensive media campaign throughout 1990, using newspapers, journals, billboards, radio and television in an all-out effort to sway public opinion to their side. The pro-Berlin faction agreed that Berlin had been the capital and that its history and geographical location made it a natural choice. Their highly organized effort was known as the “Berlin as Capital Campaign.” President Von Weizsäcker proposed that an added argument in favor of choosing Berlin was that it would symbolically make East Germany feel more a part of the unified state since, in his words, Berlin was an asset which East Germany could contribute to the unified nation. 1 A survey conducted at the time indicated that seventy percent (70%) of East Germans preferred Berlin to be the new capital (Richie 854).

The pro-Bonn contingent argued that Bonn had served very successfully as the capital since 1949, seeing Germany through redevelopment and into prosperity. Berlin, they argued, was tainted by its close association with the history of the Third Reich and the Second World War.

The pro-Berliners quickly responded that active participation in the efforts of the Third Reich was hardly limited to Berliners, nor to [End Page 222] the city of Berlin, and that no community could declare itself exempt from association with that era. Furthermore, they argued, Berlin had become, since 1945, a symbol of resistance to totalitarianism, making it all the more appropriate as the choice for capital. Thus much of the debate was centered on issues of the Nazi past. As Alexandra Richie says in her recent study of the history of Berlin: “The fight over which city was ‘more guilty’ of the crimes of the Third Reich missed the point and was often offensive . . . . The fight over the capital became bogged down in historical arguments of dubious value” (Richie 854).

A second wave of arguments focused on what might be called the geographical issue—whether Berlin was too “Eastern,” too close to “sensitive” and unstable Eastern state borders, too much associated, in some minds, with the former East Germany to be acceptable to many West Germans. Bonn, it was argued, was safely further West, removed from all these questionable associations. Of course the pro-Berliners argued that Berlin’s geographical position made it a perfect bridge between East and West—a fulcrum of sorts.

Others labeled Berlin’s association with the North as being too Prussian, Protestant, and urban, favoring Bonn as more acceptable to the Bavarian, largely Catholic, and rural South. Here too past history played a major role since comparable geographical debates marked much of nineteenth century German discourse.

The third major issue of contention was financial. The estimated cost of moving the capital from Bonn to Berlin was ninety billion deutschemarks. On this issue the Mayor of Bonn, Hans Daniels, had much to say, pointing out that thirty percent of Bonn’s population worked for the federal government, over one hundred thousand individuals. He stated the case in simple but grim terms: if diplomats and civil servants were to leave, Bonn would die. Whatever the merits of the various arguments, historical, political, geographic and economic, many in Germany saw it as logical and inevitable that the capital return to Berlin, where it had formerly been, now that the country was unified. In this regard Willy Brandt argued that no one in France ever thought of keeping the capital at Vichy after the occupying forces were out of the country; Paris was immediately restored as capital (Richie 857). Brandt’s point was the logical and inevitable nature...

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pp. 222-231
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