Village-Class Capital : Bonn--It Rhymes With Yawn

Times Staff Writer

There are the great capitals of Western Europe--London, Paris, Rome, Madrid, Lisbon, Vienna, Brussels, Stockholm. And then there is Bonn.

Bonn, the federal village, the accidental capital, the butt of bad jokes, ranks 19th in population among West German cities even after annexing neighboring communities. It is the unlikely seat of government for the powerhouse of Europe, a nation which, after all, boasts such world-class cities as Berlin, Munich, Hamburg, Frankfurt and Cologne.

Provincial Bonn is scorned and derided by politicians, diplomats and journalists who live here. They point out that having Bonn as the capital would be like having Sacramento, Springfield, Ill., or Albany as the capital of the United States.


Ignaz Kiechle, the minister of agriculture, is fond of saying that “the best thing about Bonn is the train to Munich.”

‘Crippled Villages’

Former Chancellor Helmut Schmidt called Bonn “a collection of crippled villages.” He spent weekends in his native Hamburg.

An American correspondent based here once observed that Bonn “is half the size of a Chicago cemetery--and twice as dead.”

And a visiting politician, who had asked a colleague, “Where’s the red light district?” was told, “She’s gone to Cologne to visit her sick mother.”

Is Bonn really all that bad? Is it really the drab, boring “small town in Germany” that John le Carre wrote about in his novel of that name?

Not necessarily. Bonn has its boosters, although they seem to be well in the minority.

Frank Johnson, the scholarly correspondent of the Times of London, has said of Bonn: “As Mark Twain said about Wagner’s music, it’s not as bad as it sounds.”

‘An Active City’

A city official, Friedel Frechen, rises to its defense, saying: “Bonn is not boring. It is an active city, full of life. People like to live here and work here. Newcomers love Bonn--after a short period. You have to look at the human point of view. There are no high-rise buildings. No slums. No crime. Plenty of parks and green space. Of course, there are some people who may not like this.”

The city fathers have adopted a new logotype: the word BONN with the vowel fashioning an inviting pair of carmined lips. This makes for a slightly erotic image that most observers think is ill-deserved.

Dozens of diplomats, particularly those with growing children, say that Bonn and its southern extension, Bad Godesberg, combine the excitement of work in a major capital with the amenities of small-town life.

“The place has got charm and human scale,” a diplomat said. “You’ve got the Rhine and the hills; there are concerts and cafes. What more do you want?”

Some people, Germans as well as foreigners, want more.

“There are no decent museums,” the German wife of a diplomat complained. “There is no shopping to speak of. You’ve got to go to Duesseldorf or Frankfurt for that. You rack your brain trying to think of something to do on weekends. How many walks along the Rhine can you take?”

Another woman, who has lived in New York, Washington, London and Rome, said: “There’s no intellectual life here, no artists, scientists, theater people. No stimuli. At parties, the talk is all politics, politics, politics. And the more interesting government people and diplomats seem to be gone half the year, leaving just the old burghers, students and pensioners behind. Some capital!”

Nearly 2,000 Years Old

Bonn was designated as the federal capital in 1949, but it is not a new city, like Brasilia, for example. In the 1st Century it was a Roman garrison town, Castra Bonnensia. Three years from now it will celebrate its 2,000th anniversary.

In the Middle Ages, though Bonn was overshadowed by Cologne, 20 miles to the north, two Holy Roman emperors were crowned in the Romanesque Catholic cathedral here, the Muenster. Ludwig van Beethoven was born here, in 1770. In 1818, the University of Bonn was founded, and it was this that led to Bonn’s chief claim to fame, as a college town. Wealthy merchants from Cologne built fancy villas in Bonn and in Bad Godesberg, which became a spa.

Bonn was bombed in World War II but has been handsomely reconstructed, with an appealing pedestrian mall that serves as a daytime marketplace and, in summer, the site of a nighttime music festival.

Konrad Adenauer, West Germany’s first postwar chancellor, is generally credited with promoting Bonn as the provisional capital because he lived in the nearby village of Rhoendorf. But delegates from Berlin also lined up behind Bonn; it was understood that Berlin would resume its place as the real capital once a peace settlement was signed.

Stressing Temporary Status

Also, the Berliners did not want a strong competitor, like Frankfurt, where German emperors used to be crowned, or Hamburg, or Munich as a capital. So Bonn was chosen as a way of emphasizing the temporary status of the new capital.

For this reason, some government buildings, like the Parliament building, have an improvised look about them. The Bundeshaus, the Parliament building, was converted from a school building. It is a curious structure. Housing both the the lower house, the Bundestag, and the upper house, the Bundesrat, it has seven side doors but no main entrance.

The move to Berlin, of course, never came about. The goal of reunifying the two Germanys remains elusive. In 1973, in accordance with Chancellor Willy Brandt’s policy of normalizing relations with East Germany, it was tacitly agreed that Bonn would cease to be the provisional capital and would become the permanent capital.

So, as writer Ingeborg Flagge has put it, “At the mention of Bonn, the average person thinks of political quarrels and legislation, but not of a real city.”

Doubled in Size

Before 1969, Bonn was only about half the size it is today. Then it incorporated Bad Godesberg, Beuel, on the east bank of the Rhine, and a score of villages. This made the capital even more diffuse. Census takers are not at all sure about the accuracy of estimates that put Bonn’s population at 285,000.

Unlike Washington and other capitals, Bonn has no federal status. It is just one more community in the state of North Rhine-Westphalia, of which Duesseldorf is the capital.

Bonn does not even have a radio station of its own, or a daily newspaper of national reputation. Its airport is closer to Cologne, and its railroad station is tiny, even though Bonn is on the main line between northern Germany and southern Germany. There are few underpasses or overpasses along the city streets that cross the tracks, and with 300 trains a day, the red-and-white gates at the 10 major crossings are down more often than up.

Bonn is a kind of political dormitory for legislators, who spend four days of the week here and then return to their wives and families. Consequently they show little interest in the city.

Women outnumber men, but most observers agree that Bonn is a man’s city.

‘Have to Adjust’

“This is a macho society as much as it was 30 years ago,” said Hildegard Hamm-Bruecher, a Free Democratic Party member of the Bundestag. “The women are busy bees but they have little influence. As in the old days, they have to adjust.

“There are jokes in the sensational press about all the secretaries having affairs with their bosses, about loneliness and drinking, and depression. But the evenings for single women are empty and the weekends are even worse.”

Another woman member of the Bundestag, Herta Daeubler-Gmelin, a Social Democrat, said: “There is no life in Bonn. But I recognize the fact and that’s why I don’t suffer.”

Her personal assistant, Gaby Witt, added: “The male members of Parliament are as lonely as women in the evening. That’s why as many men have drinking problems as women.”

Heike Stollenwere, a bar owner, observed, “The loneliness is the reason why spies are so successful with secretaries in Bonn.”

Filled With Students

Still, Bonn has its charm. During the academic year, the streets are filled with students. There are 40,000 of them at the university, and discos and bars cater to their tastes. The university has a lovely park, the Hofgarten, which is sometimes considered suitable for mass demonstrations, and there are often concerts and theatrical productions.

It is less and less difficult to find a good restaurant; the Michelin Guide lists four one-star restaurants in the area. At places like Maternus, one may hobnob with Cabinet ministers. At carnival time, the proprietor, Ria Maternus, gives a couple of parties that verge on being Roman orgies, and leading government figures let their hair down in public.

There is very little industry to pollute the air, and just outside town is the most frequently climbed mountain in Europe, the Drachenfels (Dragon Cliff), where Siegfried of Teutonic legend slew a monster.

Heavily Policed

The crime rate is close to zero, in part because Bonn, with its high count of Cabinet ministers and ambassadors, is one of the most heavily policed areas in the world.

Bonners find their city gemuetlich, that is, cozy, comfortable, snug, pleasant. If the night life is less than incandescent, many like it just that way.

As the late Nobel laureate Heinrich Boell said of those who grumble about Bonn’s quiet ways: “A nice old aunt can perhaps teach you how to crochet and the proper way to serve sherry. But you wouldn’t expect her suddenly to start talking the whorish slang that everyone in Bonn seems to miss so painfully.”

Political commentator Johannes Gross, who calls Bonn the “minimum capital,” put it this way: “We are living with Bonn as the Swiss do with Bern. This must surely be the strangest suburb in world politics.”