The (new) Bonn identity
BONN, Germany — Bonn’s reborn. Again.
The quiet, cozy university city on the banks of the Rhine experienced its first unlikely reincarnation when it became the capital of West Germany after World War II.
Now Bonn is basking in the afterglow of showing off its new identity — as a global green hub — at the COP 23 international climate change conference over the past two weeks.
Bonners feared the local economy would suffer after Germany reunified and the government moved to Berlin in the 1990s. But the city of some 300,000 people has thrived by holding onto a lot of public sector jobs, retaining major companies that were privatized, and reinventing itself as a hub for international environmental organizations.
The U.N.’s climate change secretariat and its nearly 500 staff, as well as about 150 NGOs and other global warming hangers-on, have their permanent home in Bonn, all located in a riverside district that was once home to the West German parliament and government ministries, now called the U.N. campus.
The Langer Eugen tower, a rare high-rise building in a low-rise city, once housed MPs’ offices. It is now home to several U.N. agencies. Next door is Deutsche Welle, Germany’s international broadcaster, in another building originally constructed for parliamentarians. And in recent days, negotiators from around the world have been wrangling over emissions and financial support to curb climate change in the plenary hall of the old Bundestag.
“I think Bonn really showed itself again to be a good host,” German Environment Minister Barbara Hendricks said in her closing press conference on Friday. “I studied here, and even after many years — it’s an eternity since I studied here — I still feel quite at home.”
When it was the seat of the West German government, Bonn was often mocked as a boring, provincial backwater, not even worthy of comparison with capitals such as Paris and London. Apart from politics, its main claims to fame are that it was home to Ludwig van Beethoven and is the global hub of the Haribo candy empire.
“The Bonn republic was bureaucracy, administration, and, of course, the big bubble of journalists that, more or less, could hold their drink. Today, it’s young families, IT types, NGO workers” — Peter Ruhenstroth-Bauer, former German government spokesman
But veterans of the West German political scene remember it fondly, as a place teeming with ideas, intrigue and ambition. The new Bonn is more placid, perhaps more like the stereotype of the place in the old days.
“The Bonn republic was bureaucracy, administration, and, of course, the big bubble of journalists that, more or less, could hold their drink. Today, it’s young families, IT types, NGO workers,” said Peter Ruhenstroth-Bauer, a former German government spokesman under Social Democrat Chancellor Gerhard Schröder.
“In the Bonn bubble — where the U.N. campus is today — there were the newsrooms, the parliamentarians, and a few pubs, too,” recalled Ruhenstroth-Bauer, who cut his teeth as a radio journalist in Bonn and — after an interlude in Berlin — now heads the U.N. refugee center in the city.
Some locals, however, have been happy to see the city slide back into relative obscurity.
“Bonn, in terms of relevance, did slip out of the public eye, but that’s not negative,” said Irene Malzburg, who works in the catering trade. “With the U.N., they found a good arrangement.”
Since 1996, when Bonn officially became a U.N. city, the organization’s presence has swelled to some 18 agencies. From Bonn, the U.N. leads its work on fighting climate change, protecting endangered species and battling desertification.
Unlikely as it might seem now, if a small number of MPs had voted differently a quarter of a century ago, the German parliament might still be meeting in that plenary hall occupied by climate experts over the past couple of weeks.
Some MPs felt parliament had to move to Berlin to show citizens of the formerly communist east that they had not simply been taken over by West Germany. Others worried about the symbolism of putting political power back in Berlin, given its associations with Nazi rule and Prussian military aggression.
After nearly 12 hours of impassioned debate, on June 20, 1991, a total of 338 MPs voted in favor of the move and 320 voted against.
“Back then, there were great concerns that the city would fall into a long sleep,” said Rolf Wenkel, a veteran economics reporter for Deutsche Welle.
Instead, “Bonn weathered the move very well,” he said.
As part of a political deal signed into law in 1994, the government agreed that Bonn would be the main seat of six ministries — while the ministers would move to Berlin, the back offices would remain where they were. In addition, various federal agencies stayed in — or moved to — the city.
A mockup of a planet Earth is displayed at the Rheinaue park during the COP23 United Nations Climate Change Conference in Bonn, Germany | Patrik Stollarz/AFP via Getty Images
That deal remains a matter of some dispute. Bonn complains that Berlin hasn’t kept its side of the bargain. Instead of 12,000 guaranteed ministry jobs, there are only 7,000 left in the city, according to German media.
On the other side of the debate, a German taxpayers’ alliance has complained about the cost of effectively maintaining a second seat of government and demanded that all ministries move to Berlin.
But Bonn’s prosperity is not just down to government jobs and international organizations. Business heavyweights such as Deutsche Telekom, Deutsche Post DHL and Postbank all have their headquarters in the city, employing some 30,000 people.
“People were drawing the blackest of pictures [about the government’s move to Berlin], but the opposite was true,” Ruhenstroth-Bauer said. “Property prices have gone up.”
Still, there is no substitute for a splash of limelight. And over the last couple of weeks, Bonn got another taste of what it was like to be the center of attention. The city that once played host to VIPs such as Britain’s Queen Elizabeth was back on the political map once again. Chancellor Angela Merkel, French President Emmanuel Macron and U.N. Secretary General António Guterres visited the climate conference on Wednesday.
For Merkel, it was in some senses a trip back to her political roots. She first served as a government minister in Bonn, under Chancellor Helmut Kohl, more than 20 years ago.