Envoys stake claim on prime sites of Germany's old capital: After 60 years the British are returning to Wilhelmstrasse, writes Steve Crawshaw in Berlin

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The Independent Online
FOR the moment, it is just a stretch of grass, just round the corner from the Brandenburg Gate. Only a small plaque marks the spot. Already, however, grand plans are under way. In a few years' time, this will again be the site of the British embassy to Germany, as it was until the Second World War.

Wilhelmstrasse, the site of the embassy, was the heart of the government quarter in pre-war Berlin. The British embassy was close to Hitler's offices, opposite Goebbels' propaganda ministry, and just up the road from the Gestapo headquarters. Now, after an interruption of 60 years, the diplomats are getting ready to move back in.

The move has been somewhat delayed, by force mineure. The German parliament voted in 1991 to return to Berlin. Then, in the following two years, politicians and civil servants in Bonn indulged in constant delaying tactics, to avoid implementing the decision. Berlin was said to be too expensive; too crowded and dirty; and besmirched for ever by its experience of totalitarian rule. Bonn, according to this argument, represented civilisation, democracy, and common sense. Not until January of this year did parliament finally agree on a timetable for the move: the government is due to arrive in a rebuilt Berlin in five years' time. Even the fiercest opponents of the move have reluctantly conceded defeat.

In the words of a resentful Christian Democrat poster in Bonn: 'The move is still a disgrace. But . . . let's roll our sleeves up.'

Once German politicians had reached agreement, foreign governments could start planning seriously. In Britain a shortlist has just been drawn up for the appointment of a project director to oversee the design and construction of the new embassy, for completion by 1998.

All that has survived of the former bombed-out embassy are the massive double entrance doors, which are stowed in the basement of a building on Berlin's most impressive avenue, Unter den Linden. They will probably be incorporated into the new embassy, providing a hint of continuity with the past.

The Unter den Linden building was Britain's embassy to East Berlin, and is now the Berlin branch of the embassy in Bonn. A complicated Communist-era swap allowed Britain to obtain the Unter den Linden site, where diplomats worked out of bugged premises above a dress shop.

In return for the site, Britain waived its rights to the plot on Wilhelmstrasse (which had meanwhile been renamed Otto-Grotewohl-Strasse, after a Stalin-era leader). Now an almost equally complicated unscrambling arrangement is under way, to return the ownership to the previous status quo.

Others, too, are gearing up for the biggest collective move in European peacetime history. Thus, for example, on Pariser Platz, by the Brandenburg Gate, a plaque shows where the Americans have put down their towels on the diplomatic deck-chairs - again, on the same spot as the embassy that was destroyed half a century ago.

Some do not need to worry about where they will be based. The Russians, for example, still occupy their enormous building on Unter den Linden, a monument of Stalinist architecture which marked the true seat of power in East Berlin. Lenin still stands outside. In the words of the embassy's press spokesman: 'We've had no instructions - so I guess the statue will go on standing. You can't cut down your history.' Where Russians used to be the masters, they are now the supplicants. Moscow's most urgent contemporary message is: please send more money, soonest. The number of Moscow's diplomats in Berlin has shrunk, by two thirds. Nowadays, the most conspicuous Russians in east Berlin are not the once all-powerful military, but the traders, who, just across the road from the embassy, offer for sale the bric a brac of a crumbled empire - Lenin banners, Hero of Socialist Labour medals, even KGB identity cards.

Elsewhere in Berlin, some of the world's most distinguished designers have been commissioned to help transform the wasteland left by the bombs and the Communists into a vision for the future. It is unclear whether Britain will follow in this adventurous mould, or will opt for the-way-we-were-ism, as approved by the Prince of Wales. Christopher Isherwood described the Unter den Linden district as 'so pompous, so very correct', full of 'copies of copies' of buildings. Here on Wilhelmstrasse, perhaps, is one chance to leave the pomposity behind.