After a chaotic and sometimes bitter debate, the German Parliament, or Bundestag, narrowly voted this week to move the seat of government from Bonn, where it had served as the capital of West Germany, to Berlin, the capital of unified Germany. The move will be wrenching, but it was the right choice.
When Germany was unified, Berlin was named the capital, but the undecided question was whether the seat of government would actually be moved there or whether the city would be merely a symbolic capital.Opponents of the move argued that Berlin's history and reputation was too closely tied to the Nazis, for whom it was the capital, and that Bonn represents 42 years of peace and freedom, the longest such period of tranquility in German history.
But Berlin is not merely a backdrop for the Nazi past. The city was a cultural center of Europe from 1871. During the Cold War years it also was an outpost of freedom. The 1948 Berlin airlift and the uprising of East Berlin factory workers against Russian tanks in 1953 were dramatic symbols of liberty.
Bonn, a once-sleepy little village on the Rhine River, became the capital of West Germany more or less by accident. It was the home of West Germany's first postwar chancellor, Konrad Adenauer. For years, West Germany treated the town as a temporary seat of government, keeping offices in wooden barracks buildings.
The most compelling arguments for keeping the government in Bonn were economic ones. Moving to Berlin will take a decade or more and will cost up to $40 billion at a time when the government is spending billions on reunifying Germany and rescuing failed businesses in the East.
In addition, the move could cost up to 100,000 jobs in the Bonn area, since government is the only industry in the region. To ease this impact, the Bundestag voted to leave the Bundesrat - the small, upper house of Parliament - in Bonn, along with some government offices.
The move will involve not only transferring the German government, but also will affect all embassies in Bonn and countless other offices.
But Berlin still makes the best sense. It is a cosmopolitan city of 3.5 million, with some of Europe's finest shops, restaurants, theaters and museums. Bonn has a population of 290,000, has no museums, no really outstanding restaurants and few other amenities. Federal lawmakers virtually abandon the town when legislative sessions are over.
Those considerations aside, however, Berlin is the truly the historic, legitimate capital of Germany. Leaving the government in Bonn would have been artificial. The Bundestag merely acknowledged reality in approving the move.