When the German parliament assembled here yesterday it marked an event of historic dimensions. Nine years after German reunification, the government finally has returned to Berlin.
Germany's political center, planted for 50 years in tidy Bonn, is shifting to this raw eastern metropolis that is still in the process of redefining itself and its role in Europe.
The move from Bonn can be read on any number of levels. The German parliament, or Bundestag, is moving into the Reichstag building, long a reminder of the Nazi hijacking of the first German democracy. The government, in a sign of reunified Germany's regained sovereignty, is self-confidently moving into a city filled with the memories of a dark and difficult past. And the German capital, once a stark symbol of Europe's cold-war divisions, now represents both the pitfalls and successes in integrating Eastern and Western Europe. German political commentators have already heralded the beginning of the "Berlin Republic," much to the displeasure of politicians, who insist on a seamless continuity with Bonn's democratic traditions. "The politicians are right to object for a good reason: It's the same Constitution," says American historian Brian Ladd. "And yet in some ways the move to Berlin completes a process that Bonn began - the process of reformulating German identity through confrontation with German history." The 'Berlin Republic' Once at the center of the sprawling German Reich, or empire, Berlin today is only 40 miles from the Polish border. The geographic displacement of Germany's center of power promises to give new impulses to a country - and a continent - still faced with deep economic and social divisions. "If Germany becomes more truly unified, it will be different," says Mr. Ladd. "The 'Berlin Republic' will be a Central European state, as opposed to a Western European border state. But it's a gradual process." That process began in 1991 with heated debates in the Bundestag over whether the newly reunified Germany needed a new capital. Many feared the cost of the move - now some $12 billion - while others were opposed to moving into a city that had been home to Prussian militarism, the nerve center of Hitler's killing machine, and more recently, the capital of communist East Germany. By a majority of only 18 votes, the parliament decided for the historic German capital. A frenetic period of construction, demolition, and renovation began (and remains unfinished), as city planners and speculators scrambled to stitch back a city that had been torn down the middle. The Berlin Wall, hated symbol of the cold war's division, vanished from the face of the capital, and the Brandenburg Gate, central hallmark of the city, was opened to traffic. Subway stops that had been cemented shut by the East German government were excavated and reopened; gloomy communist-era neighborhoods received new faades and gleaming shopping centers. Long the urban embodiment of the East-West confrontation following World War II, Berlin now is the place where two worldviews, once diametrically opposed, fuse and clash. A fusion of worldviews "As a combination of East and West, it hasn't been terribly successful, because too many easterners have felt left out of the process of planning - left out of a city center that many see as having been built for rich westerners," says Ladd, author of the recent book "Ghosts of Berlin: Confronting German History in the Urban Landscape." One example is the huge construction site at Potsdamer Platz, in the 1920s Europe's busiest traffic intersection and during the cold war a barren no man's land between capitalism and communism. Today it is one of the biggest construction sites in the city, with Sony and Daimler Benz racing to complete a sleek urban quarter, still quite disjointed from the rest of Berlin. …