On the left bank of the Rhine, on the leafy outskirts of Bonn, there’s a building that encapsulates the Bundesrepublik’s best and worst of times. For 44 years, the Villa Hammerschmidt was the official residence of the German President, Germany’s equivalent of the White House. No longer. Now, the German President resides in the Bellevue Palace in Berlin, 300 miles away.
Architecture reveals a great deal about the shifting psyche of a nation, and these two contrasting buildings sum up the difference between the Bonn government of the Cold War and today’s government in Berlin. The Villa Hammerschmidt here in Bonn is ornate yet modest – the Bellevue Palace is bigger, grander, more bombastic. Bonn never could have remained the capital of a reunited Germany – the move to Berlin in 1994 was inevitable. Yet strolling along the towpath, squinting in the autumn sunshine, watching the huge barges chugging past, north to Holland and south to Switzerland, I can’t help feeling nostalgic for those few heady years after the Wall came down, when Berlin was a city of layabouts rather than civil servants – and the capital was still confined to this quaint university town beside the Rhine.
I last came to Bonn in 2010 to write about the Beethovenfest, an annual music festival devoted to Bonn’s most famous son. It’s no coincidence that the West German capital was also Beethoven’s hometown. Beethoven was the perfect poster boy for the nascent Bundesrepublik – liberal and artistic, and untainted by the Hitlerzeit (unlike Wagner and Bayreuth). After the horrors of the Third Reich, this was the reassuring image West Germany wanted to convey to a wary world, and locating its new capital in Beethoven’s birthplace was central to its rehabilitation. Has a nation ever undertaken a more successful PR campaign? From the foundation of the Bundesrepublik in 1949 to the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989, West Germany transformed its public image from disgraced dictatorship to pleasant and prosperous democracy – and boring, inconsequential Bonn was a crucial facet of this transformation. How could we fear a country whose capital was a humdrum market town, where the most imposing monument was the municipal post office? As Roy Jenkins observed, ‘Its marble staircases were few, its guards of honour were unflamboyantly dressed and its motorcycle escorts were a model of quiet good manners.’ Its 44 years as Germany’s Hauptstadt now seems like a relic of a simpler time.
Since I last came to Bonn I’ve been to Berlin numerous times, and like every visitor to Berlin, I encounter a different city every time. Yet returning to Bonn, after seven years away, I find nothing much has changed. They still sell fruit and veg outside the old town hall – the atmosphere is still sleepy and provincial. It’s the sort of place where everything shuts down on Sundays so shopkeepers can go to church and eat Sunday dinner with their families – an epitome of the infuriating yet comforting country I used to know and love.
Brits who want to discover Germany usually begin in Berlin, but Berlin is an anomaly. No other German city is like Berlin – no other Germans are like Berliners. Conversely, there are countless places in Germany a lot like Bonn – discreet and unassuming, innately yet moderately conservative, with a fine university and a first class concert hall, lush parks, handsome suburbs and not much else. These are the quiet Germans who work hard and keep their heads down, don’t care too much about politics, support good causes and pay their taxes, and wonder why everyone else doesn’t do the same. Deutsche Post and Deutsche Telekom are both based here, and so is DHL (a recent Deutsche Post acquisition). Ten per cent of residents are students (30,000 out of 300,000) yet it doesn’t really feel like a student town. After nightfall, Bonn shuts down.
So what does Bonn tell us about the changing shape of German politics? That beyond the big cities like Berlin, this is still how most Germans chose to live. It also illustrates that, 23 years since the government left Bonn and went back to Berlin, Germany is still two countries – impoverished East and industrious West. As Angela Merkel sits in Berlin, trying to stitch together a new coalition, she shouldn’t forget her core voters here in Bonn – the people whose taxes fund all the expensive state projects in the East. With so many East Germans backing extremist parties, there’s been lots of talk about how to bring Eastern voters back on board, and revive their faith in centrist parties like Merkel’s Christian Democrats. A visit to Bonn is a timely reminder that Merkel also needs to retain the confidence of her faithful Western supporters. Their faith was badly shaken by the migration crisis. Now is the time for her to rebuild that trust. Bonn is a Hauptstadt no more but a generation since reunification, some things haven’t changed. Bonn is still a city that looks West not East, and the Benelux is still a lot nearer, and a lot less alien, than Berlin.