1989 Europe's Revolution: The lost city of Bonn

Tony Paterson finds out how the old West German capital has coped with its loss of kudos
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The Independent Online

John le Carré called Bonn "a small town in Germany" when his Cold War thriller of the same name was published just seven years after the building of the Berlin Wall. Two decades on from the Wall's demise it could be argued that the novelist's town has grown even smaller.

The bulldozers have long since smashed down Bonn's former concrete box of a British embassy, where Le Carré once worked as an official and gained the inspiration for his novel. In its place is a brand new gleaming white office block that belongs to the German communications giant Deutsche Telekom.

The switch of buildings reflects what has happened to the Rhine city as a whole a decade after the town gave up its 51-year role as the political capital of West Germany. The transfer of the national parliament and most of the rest of its trappings to a reunited Berlin in a reunified Germany was completed in 1999. To soften the blow, in place of the government came a meticulously imported bureaucracy and an ensuing boom in desk jobs, but many claim that the city has lost kudos as a result.

The Bonn of the Eighties was a centre of decision-making that was of immense importance for the future of Germany. It was the town in which plans for reunification were hatched, and the scene of the mass anti-nuclear protests which gave birth to the Green Party and an East German peace movement that helped to bring down Communism. It was a city of political debate, intrigue and espionage. In the Seventies, it was the town in which draconian legislation was hammered out to combat the Red Army Faction terrorist group.

"These days Bonn has lost its former political edge," said Jörg Laubenberger, 61, a businessman and resident for over 35 years. "Perhaps that was always a bit too much for the city. Now it's gone back to what it always was. A smallish town in Germany."

"Media attention has shifted away from Bonn," admits Monika Hörig, a city government spokeswoman. "When it was still the seat of government, the city was used by the international press as a sounding board for what Germany was like. Now that role has gone."

Just over a decade ago Bonn was a city in which one could stroll into a pub or café and run into one of the country's most well-known politicians. Nowadays visitors are more likely to run into a public servant or an office communications or logistics worker. Twelve thousand of the city's employees work for Deutsche Telekom. A further 8,000 work for Deutsche Post and its affiliate DHL, both housed in a spanking new skyscraper, the Post Tower.

The city's other tower landmark, nicknamed "Tall Eugen", used to house Germany's MPs. It is now home to some 750 United Nations officials who work in 19 of the organisation's agencies based in Germany, including the UN's climate change unit.

The bureaucratic mix is completed by six government ministries, including the defence ministry, which have remained in Bonn, employing a total of 17,000 civil servants.

A total of 80 new business and research organisations have since settled in the city. They include the Centre for Advanced European Studies and Research (Caesar), which specialises in nanotechnology, a new international conference centre, the headquarters of Deutsche Welle, Germany's equivalent of the BBC World Service, and a host of Third World and scientific development agencies.

The upshot is a town in which 75.5 per cent of the working population are middle-ranking officials who spend most of their lives behind computer screens working in administration or a service-sector industry. In terms of inhabitants at least, Le Carré's small town has expanded rather than contracted. For despite the shift of Germany's seat of government to Berlin, Bonn's population has increased by some 15,000 since 1989.

The city's new breed of comparatively well-heeled office workers live in neatly restored turn of the 19th century middle-class houses in the town's so-called "south-city" where property prices have been rising.

Marc Wharton is one of the new Bonn inhabitants. A UN employee, he moved to the city with his Bolivian wife, Loupe, in 1996. The couple lived in Geneva beforehand. "Bonn is a nice, quiet place to live. It's close to France and Holland, and if you've got kids it's an ideal place because it's green and easy to get around," he said. "But we don't have that many German friends," he added.

The city's desk job boom is almost entirely the result of political horse-trading between Berlin and Bonn lobbies that took place nearly two decades ago. On 18 June 1991 the German parliament voted by a majority of 18 in favour of shifting the reunited country's government to Berlin. The decision was preceded by a heated nationwide debate about the dangers of returning government to what had been Adolf Hitler's capital and seat of government.

The shift to Berlin was bought with a multimillion-euro compensation deal for Bonn designed to ensure that the former West German capital was not doomed to economic disaster by the departure of government. "If there had been no compensation deal, then the government simply would not have moved," said Dr Hörig of the city government.

Under the €1.43bn so-called Berlin-Bonn law, €256m of central government funding has gone into improving Bonn's infrastructure and €153m into developing the city as a centre for businesses of the future. The energy giant Solar has its headquarters in the city as a result.

The German taxpayer also continues to subsidise a seemingly endless movement of civil servant commuters, who spend their time flitting between Bonn and Berlin on trains and planes, because their ministry or government agency job has been shifted away from their home.

Susanne Lampe, 45, is an employee at the German Development Service, a Third World aid agency which shifted its headquarters from Berlin to Bonn under the compensation agreement. Nowadays she commutes between the two cities, spending three days a week on the Rhine. "Frankly, it is very disruptive. Family life is affected and it feels like a complete waste of time," she said.

Official statistics recently put the number of passenger flights used by such commuters each year for this purpose at 66,000. However arguments in favour of shifting all ministries to Berlin to eliminate such travel costs are repeatedly countered by statistics which show that the cost would be far higher to the taxpayer in relocation fees if such a move were given the go-ahead.

Yet Bonn's new office worker culture has had little effect on the old small-town bourgeois environment that goes back to the turn of the 19th century, when it was the fourth wealthiest town in Prussia. Its cafés are still populated by elderly cake-devouring matrons who delight in ordering waiters around. Its pubs still offer a curiously unique Bonn beer to drinkers called Bönnsch.

"Even when the government was here, the Bonners used to refer to it as the spaceship," said Jörg Laubenberger. "The city's new status as a civil servant metropolis hasn't changed things much, Bonn is still a city of parallel worlds."

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