Roman Mars (RM): This is 99% Invisible. I’m Roman Mars.
RM: Trying to succinctly sum up the character or purpose of any city in the world is probably a fruitless exercise. But for much of its history, Bonn, Germany was particularly..
Cyrus Farivar (CF): The first word that comes to mind is quiet.
CF: Bonn is just a quiet town.
RM: Kind of hard to pin down.
CF: We got hills on one side, river on the other side. Generally, it’s just a sleepy, quiet, you know, even quaint little town.
RM: That’s Cyrus Farivar. And he works for the German international broadcaster, Deutsche Welle. And he lives in Bonn. Bonn has just about 300,000 people, it’s on the Rhine River, so it was strategically important during World War II, and let’s not forget Beethoven was born there in 1770.
CF: But he took off in his early 20s for the burgeoning musical capital of Vienna.
RM: Not much happened in Bonn. Until the end of World War II, when Bonn was named as the provisional capital of West Germany. It became a city with a purpose. It was the government seat. And then. A half a century later, the country was reunified, the Berlin Wall came down, and Germany decided to move the capital away from Bonn and back to Berlin.
CF: Now, over a decade after its move, Bonn is trying to forge its own identity.
RM: This is what Cyrus’ street sounds like at 9 am on a weekday. He actually lives in what was once the old diplomatic quarter of Bonn. Former home to many embassies and ambassadors’ residences.
CF: It’s pretty quiet.
RM: It’s pretty quiet.
CF: But it turns out that, for newcomers like me, it’s not immediately obvious where the embassies used to be.
RM: But according to Michael Wenzel, a local journalist who grew up in the neighborhood and wrote a book about Bonn’s diplomatic history, there’s one thing that you can look for to clue you in as to where the embassies used to be.
Michael Wenzel(MW): Die Fahnenstange
CF: The flag pole!
MW: Pole! Flag pole.
RM: A flag pole. With no flag.
MW: This house was, for example, the embassy of Lebanon.
CF: Michael had a tough time remembering the English word for flagpole.
MW: But today, when you see a flag…uh… pole? Oh god. When you see a flag pole without a flag, I think that’s 80% a sign for a former embassy. Because you have no other signs.
CF: Michael explained to me that half a century before World War II, this part of Bonn was founded as a small summer retreat for the wealthy. In fact, this specific part of Bonn is known as Bad Godesberg. And this specific part of Bad Godesberg is called Die Villenviertel, the Villa Quater. Down closer to the Rhine, Michael pointed out the former British Ambassador’s residence.
CF: When the union jack was flying over this building, you said there was a certain feeling about it.
MW: Yes, it was a feeling, you know. Union Jack. Stars and stripes. A feeling of the end of World War II.
CF: So peace, basically.
MW: Peace, no. Something important. the union jack here, on the Rhine, it was a symbol.
RM: American forces took Bonn in 1945, not long before the end of the war. After the war ended, Germany was carved up into various zones of occupation. And Bonn was firmly in the British zone.
CF: In 1949, Bonn became the provisional capital of West Germany. The choice was made mainly due to the advocacy of West Germany’s first chancellor, Konrad Adenauer. He was the former mayor of Cologne and a native of the area.
RM: But Bonn was also an appealing choice as the capital city because it was a small town, relatively intact, and it didn’t really have a character. Choosing Bonn was choosing provisionality.
CF: Berlin was out of the question, of course. The Nazis had set up shop there before.
RM: Frankfurt and Hamburg were the wrong choices because they were too big and would have felt too permanent.
CF: Bonn was a clean slate.
RM: Little sleepy Bonn was still the subject of some ridicule. A 1986 Los Angeles Times article profiling Bonn had a few good one-line zingers about the city.
“Ignaz Kiechle, the minister of agriculture, is fond of saying that ‘the best thing about Bonn is the train to Munich.’”
“Former Chancellor Helmut Schmidt called Bonn ‘a collection of crippled villages.’ He spent weekends in his native Hamburg.”
RM: An American correspondent based in Bonn said it was half the size of a Chicago cemetery and twice as dead.
CF: But you shouldn’t feel too bad for Bonn. It struck it big as the capital. Bonn got tons of cash! The city built a subway, an international school, an opera house- all of this in a city of just around 300,000 people.
RM: But then the impossible happened.
RM: The Cold War ended. Germany reunified. And the Berlin Wall came down.
CF: And the German parliament voted to move the capital back to Berlin.
MW: June of ’91, when the decision fell to go to Berlin, here in Bonn it was a shock for all people. We said to each other, all things will leave to Berlin. And Bonn will… it was terrible, this moment.
CF: In other words, everyone thought Bonn would lose its mojo, at best, and at worst would become a ghost town. The Parliament decided that by 1999, nearly all government ministries would move back to Berlin. And that, of course, included the embassies, as all the action was now in Berlin.
RM: Today, the former French embassy in Bonn is the physical embodiment of all the fears that people had about what Bonn be like once the capital moved away.
CF: A ghost town.
MW: See this building? It was the embassy of France. And France sold it..
CF: It looks terrible.
MW: Terrible. It’s a ruin.
CF: Yeah, it looks like it- there’s graffiti, there’s broken glass, there are vines growing everywhere.
CF: Just to further paint the image of this old French embassy, today there are like thirty foot high bushes in the front of the building. There are broken glass and graffiti everywhere. You can see all of this on Google Streetview. And you might think that this might be the case for all of the former Embassies in Bonn, but actually what happened is that some of the Embassies got turned into consulates. Others got sold and turned into private homes. And many actually still have empty flagpoles out front. But the important thing is that Bonn is not a ghost town. It turns out that moving the capital to Berlin might just be the best thing for the city.
MW: And twenty years later, we see that it was a very good decision and Überschriften in the newspapers: “Boomtown Bonn.” It was a historic change. These houses, these buildings, they are occupied by many countries, about thirty, forty, fifty years. The countries left and these houses, buildings, office, became new owners. The first thing that the owners did was to renovate these houses. It’s wonderful.
CF: And today, what makes Bonn so attractive for lots of people, including newly privatized, major companies like Deutsche Post and Deutsche Telekom is that all of that infrastructure that Bonn lucked into getting when it was the capital of West Germany: the subway, the international school, you know, all that stuff, that’s what now makes Bonn such a nice place to live. And unlike the old and new capital of Berlin, Bonn has had both job and population growth over that last ten years. Becoming the capital put Bonn on the map.
RM: But today, to quote Bonn’s own mayor from an article in the New York Times, “Bonn is no longer a boring, bureaucrat city.”
CF: It’s now able to figure out what it wants to be, all on its own.
RM: And maybe someday, they’ll even take down all those empty flag poles. Or how about this? Put up a flag! The German flag is nice.
CF: The city of Bonn has a nice flag too! There’s a strong lion and a cross.
RM: Someone call a Vexillologist!
Roman Mars (RM): This is 99% Invisible. I’m Roman Mars.