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German Reunification

Bonn booms since losing its status as capital

For over 40 years the small town of Bonn was the capital of the Federal Republic of Germany. After reunification the government moved back to Berlin, but Bonn didn't sink into provincial obscurity. Quite the contrary.

The Post Tower in Bonn

Bonn has been experiencing steady growth

The change in Bonn is most apparent on the streets around the Deutsche Welle building between eight and nine o'clock in the morning. Rush hour in the Post Tower next door: hordes of young men in their mid- to late 30s (black suit, white shirt) and young women (business suit, blouse), all on their way to the office. Laptop cases under their arms, cell phones glued to their ears, they stride confidently along, heading to their desks in the headquarters of the logistics company Deutsche Post DHL. They could easily be employees going to work in a metropolis like London or Paris.

For some, Bonn is just a stopover en route to Singapore, New York or Hong Kong. Some only stay half a year or so. Others, like Christopher Wade, stay here longer. Born in the United States, he now heads the communications team at Deutsche Post. He met his wife when he was in Bonn for a year as an exchange student and moved here in 1999.

"I stayed without planning to," he says. He likes his office, high up in the transparent glass tower; on a clear day he can see as far as Cologne. His daughter is well looked after in the Deutsche Post nursery. Life is good in the little town on the Rhine, even now that the politicians have left.

International working environment

The Post Tower, a lofty 162 meters (531 feet) high, is visible for miles around. It has long since replaced the modest Beethoven House as the town's best-known landmark. The tower is a symbol of the former capital's new status as a linchpin of international business.

A bust of Beethoven in front of the house where he was born in Bonn

Beethoven was born in Bonn but spent little time here

Many development organizations have settled here, too - as has the United Nations. It is represented in Bonn by a number of different departments, including the Secretariat of the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change.

This aspect of the town is one that Christopher Wade, and others like him, particularly enjoys. His working environment is an international one: "There are Germans, Romanians, Filipinos and colleagues from Singapore working in my team," he says. His circle of friends includes people of many different nationalities, and a great many bi-national marriages.

"Bonn is certainly not a big city, but it's got a good atmosphere. It's very international and multilingual. You have the International School here; there are students from all over the world studying at the university, and wherever I go I meet parents who work in some kind of international context."

No call for nostalgia

The days of the so-called "civil servant shuttle," which would ferry homesick employees from their ministries back to Bonn, are long gone. Everybody has moved on. Some have settled in Berlin, while others have found new jobs.

A 1.4 billion euro ($1.8 billion) package to compensate the town for its diminished importance and the loss of its former glory has helped to move some federal institutions to the banks of the Rhine; and six of the 15 government ministries still have their main seat here.

Most of the political action now takes place in the new capital - but that doesn't mean Bonn is completely out of the picture. Former embassies have been spruced up and have found new owners; the parliamentary chamber is now a conference center, and one million tourists a year demonstrate that there's still considerable interest in the old capital on the Rhine.

Nimptsch in front of Bonn's town hall

Mayor Nimptsch faced a disaster when he moved into Bonn's town hall

Almost 20 years after the decision was made to move the capital to Berlin, no one in Bonn seems nostalgic for the old days. Why would they be? Bonn has had to give up a lot, but it has also gained a great deal.

Unemployment is relatively low, numerous modern businesses have settled here, cultural life is blossoming. Even so, Bonners are currently experiencing something they are not at all used to: they're having to tighten their belts.

"In the old days, when this was the capital, money flowed as if on tap," explains Juergen Nimptsch, the mayor of Bonn. "Now we have to save millions of euros, and at the same time we have a problem with a building that's still under construction," he adds, referring to the project he from the days when everything was conceived on a grand scale, regardless of the cost.

A big problem for a small town

The "World Conference Center" (WCCB) was conceived as a way to make Bonn more attractive as a conference location after it lost its status as capital city. But it was in reality an expensive vanity project dreamed up by a group of big shots. It combined massaged or falsified accounts, official incompetence, dodgy business partners and criminal intrigue.

Now the town is stuck with a huge unfinished building and a mountain of debt.

Even so, Mayor Nimptsch says he wouldn't want to go back to the old days: "I prefer to live in the here and now!" And Christopher Wade in the Post Tower agrees. "I think Bonn has pretty much all you need. Just one thing: the weather could be better. More sunshine. I miss that here."

Author: Cornelia Rabitz/cc
Editor: Nancy Isenson

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