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  • Bonn, Divided City:Cityscape as Political Critique in Wolfgang Koeppen’s Das Treibhaus and Günther Weisenborn’s Auf Sand gebaut
  • Jan Uelzmann

The impression that the new West German capital Bonn was, like Cold War Berlin, also a “divided city,” albeit on quite different terms, was not uncommon during the 1950s. A quaint Residenzstadt on the Rhine of some 103,000 people in 1947, Bonn’s fate would change sharply with the 1949 decision to place the nascent state’s new capital there. The capital duties, the associated construction activities, and the immigration of an armada of civil servants and politicians changed the city and its atmosphere profoundly. During the early years of the chancellorship of Konrad Adenauer (1949–63), while new buildings sprang up south of the old town along the Rhine banks, the impression that the city consisted of two quite incomparable halves was frequently mentioned in the media. Especially contemporary newsreels, which provided West Germans, many of them still suspicious of democracy, with images of the new capital, registered an unresolved contrast between the new and the old, between the foreign and the local. For example, in a 1954 Neue Deutsche Wochenschau newsreel segment, the speaker comments over shots depicting the old town’s cobblestoned streets and halftimbered house fronts: “Die Hochhausneubauten [of the newly erected federal district] stehen in merkwürdigem Kontrast zu den Fachwerkgiebeln und engen Gassen der uralten Keltensiedlung, die schon die Römer beherbergte” (“Bonn: Sitz der Bundesregierung”). A 1961 newsreel special feature, entitled Zu Gast in Bonn: Bericht aus dem politischen Leben der Bundeshauptstadt, still conveys a similar impression. Highlighting the “Bonn idyll,” the commentary argues that Bonn “beherbergt heute fast alle obersten Bundesbehörden, aber eine gewisse Reserviertheit ist ihr [der Stadt] geblieben.” The exact nature of that “merkwürdige[r] Kontrast” and the “gewisse Reserviertheit” is never specified further. As West Germans and the media were trying to figure out the provisorische Bundeshauptstadt, which in its cityscape and social composition defied all conventional definitions of a European capital, the Bonn of the 1950s remained an unresolved dichotomy, a divided city. This impression also applied to Bonn’s social structure. [End Page 436] Still during Bonn’s founding years, the politician Carlo Schmid of the Sozialdemokratische Partei Deutschlands (SPD) observed:

Ich lebe hier seit dem 1. September 1948. Aber ich habe noch nie den Fuß in die Wohnung eines richtigen hausgemachten Bonners gesetzt trotz der Universität. Der Gedanke kam ihnen nicht, mich einzuladen. In einer Tischrede habe ich einmal gesagt, wir leben hier wie in Neu-Delhi, wo die Engländer und die Inder in zwei verschiedenen Städten wohnen.

(qtd. in Dreher 201)

Schmid’s comparison of Bonn with New Delhi, which only in 1947 had become the capital of an India independent from British colonialist rule, elevates the idea of dividedness about Bonn to the level of sociopolitical interaction or, rather, the absence of it. According to Schmid, in Bonn, the locals were as sealed off from their new democratic government as the former Indian colonial subjects had been from their former British rulers – a highly critical, if not cynical, verdict on the interaction between the old Bonn and the federation. The impression of Bonn as a socio-geographically divided city continued to persist into the late 1960s, when the British novelist and Germany expert John le Carré used these words to describe Bonn in a novel about the capital he had tellingly entitled A Small Town in Germany (1968):

The very choice of Bonn as the waiting house for Berlin has long been an anomaly; it is now an abuse. […] To accommodate the immigration of diplomats, politicians and government servants which attended this unlooked-for honor – and also to keep them at a distance – the townspeople have built a complete suburb outside their city walls.


Taking Bonn’s air of division into “townspeople” and the “suburb outside their city walls” as its point of entry into the texts, this essay will examine the spatial configuration and corresponding narrative personnel of two novels from the founding years of the Federal Republic of Germany (FRG), Wolfgang Koeppen’s Das Treibhaus (1953) and Günther Weisenborn’s Auf...


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pp. 436-460
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