Back to Normal in Ludwig Van Beethoven's Hometown ; Has Bonn, Germany, Turned into a Sleepy Little City Now That Berlin's the Capital?

Article excerpt

Let's pretend. Washington's stature as our nation's capital comes to an end. The cumbersome workings of governmental power get moved to Manhattan, or Los Angeles.

Ten years ago, Bonn lost that kind of prestige, as Berlin took its place as Germany's center of geopolitical influence.

Backtracking to 1949, Chancellor Konrad Adenauer looms large in this placid city's postwar history. His regional clout (he lived just across the river and had been mayor of neighboring Cologne) resulted in Ludwig van Beethoven's hometown being named the new federal republic's provisional capital.

"Provisional" meant "temporary." Bonn was regarded as safely far- enough removed from the cold war's menacing Iron Curtain. Optimists thought Germany's East-West division amounted to a short-term aberration. With the split quickly mended, they believed, Berlin would regain its eminence as capital of a reunited country. Bonn, in turn, would revert to its modest essence amid Rhineland hills, castles, and vineyards.

Which is what eventually happened - after four decades.

Berlin's new importance as the national seat of government leaves Bonn as something of an outlying branch office. Several federal ministries have stayed put; six United Nations organizations have transferred from comparably low-key Geneva. And now, in a modernistic complex, communications giant Deutsch Telekom is headquartered here.

Moreover, a local company helps to keep the economy humming. Since 1920, Haribro GmbH - an acronym for Hans Riegel Bonn - has produced a sugar-and-gelatin confection in assorted colors. Namely Gummibarchen (Gummi Bears), with 70 million of the chewy tidbits turned out daily.

Many Bonners care scarcely at all that their city no longer plays a starring role on the world stage. They prefer what used to be.

Truth is, "what used to be" never completely disappeared. Attention simply shifted to the new government district, hastily developed as the southerly adjunct to a genteel community dating back to Roman colonization.

Career diplomats accustomed to big-shot postings in London, Paris, and Rome found Bonn, by comparison, to be cozy and charming, but ho-hum unexciting, fitting its Bundesdorf ("federal village"), nickname.

Here's an indicator of Bonn's laid-back ambiance. One summertime evening, a Bechstein grand piano has somehow materialized on the Munsterplatz. A young musician draws a crowd by playing impromptu snatches of Beethoven sonatas and the Emperor Concerto for marks and pfennigs dropped into a glass jar. Close by and facing his way: a statue of Ludwig himself.

Beethoven's boyhood home is a short stroll away in the city center. A bust of the composer embellishes the low-ceilinged back room where he was born in 1770. …