Leading Article: Allied farewell to Berlin

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The Independent Online
THE WITHDRAWAL of Allied troops from Berlin, marked yesterday by a moving ceremony at Tempelhof airport, is an event loaded with historical symbolism. The Soviet blockade of the city in 1948-49, and the subsequent Allied airlift, transformed the occupying powers into defenders and accelerated the transformation of Allied- occupied Germany into the Federal Republic the following year. The Western powers formally became allies when the Federal Republic joined Nato in 1954.

With the erection of the Wall across the city in 1961, Berlin became a living symbol of the Cold War. The allied presence in West Berlin confirmed the West's determination not to surrender what had become a threatened enclave of democracy within Communist East Germany. Their commanders retained reserve powers to assume control of their sectors until the day before unification in October 1990. At Germany's request they stayed on until the departure of Russian troops, which was completed last month.

Berlin resumed its status, if not its role, as Germany's capital under the unification treaty of August 1990. After much debate and national heart-searching, the Bundestag agreed in June 1991 that it should also once again become the seat of government. Some parliamentary sessions have already taken place in the old Reichstag building hard by what was the Wall. The move from Bonn is scheduled to take place between 1998 and 2000. Meanwhile, Berlin will become the biggest building site in Europe, with 250 major construction projects set to metamorphose it once again into a major political and cultural centre.

Many Germans, and not a few non-Germans, are fearful of the effect Berlin's renaissance may have on the German psyche: especially if Chancellor Kohl or his successors take John Major's line and regard the European Union as a group of competing nation states. Bonn is a sleepy little university town on the Rhine, with a government sector attached to one flank. It is not far from Belgium and France, and faces unequivocally westwards. Berlin, by contrast, is a mere 40 miles from the Polish border, and is no less indubitably in central Europe, facing eastwards.

Berlin is, furthermore, redolent of history, much of it unpleasant. Its associations are with Prussian militarism and - for all the Prussians' and Berliners' distaste for Hitler - with fascist nationalism, the glorification of Hitler at the 1936 Olympic Games, and the horrors of Kristallnacht and the subsequent persecution and destruction of the Jews. Amid that darkness only the the cultural glories of the Berlin of the Twenties cast a decadent glow.

The move to Berlin will be part of united Germany's psychological maturing process. It obliges today's Germans to come to terms with their history. The departure of Allied troops is a welcome stage in that process. It should also serve to remind other Europeans that the German question remains at the heart of the continent's destiny.