Carl Holm’s long-awaited first abandoned book, “Much ‘Achtung!’ About Nothing” (finally available here in blog form) attempts to deliver a platter of selected highlights from the history of Bonn, Europe’s second most boring city. Through extensive research and dark, drunken lonely hours observing the denizens of the best of Bonn’s worst bars, the author is well-qualified to take the reader on a wild and wistful ride through the murky past and the convoluted present of a small town in Germany.
Bonn. Germany’s forgotten city. How many people know where to find it on a map, let alone that for half a century during the Cold War it was the capital of the most powerful country in Europe?
On June 20th, 1991, the German parliament voted to move the capital back to Berlin. A quarter-century later, Bonn is still deeply traumatised by her 50 years on the international stage.
There were all sorts of knock-on effects in the local economy. The shift brought to an end a gravy-train era for local contractors. Taxi drivers took a heavy blow. Many restaurants and bars no longer had the upmarket and cosmopolitan client base which formed the core of their business; and they either closed or went down-market, trying to attract nondescript students in a town already awash with nondescript student bars and over-priced greasy spoons. The government put in place a range of compensatory mechanisms to enable strange and unviable businesses to survive. There were schemes to resettle lower socio-economic groups from other parts of Germany into Bonn’s outer suburbs, with the thought that this would stimulate new business. Government schemes allowed estate agents to survive, keeping prices inflated even though the supply of foreign diplomats and their families had dried up, leaving high-end properties empty for decades.
Today Bonn has Germany’s highest number of almost-Irish pubs per capita
Over the last two hundred years writers have described Bonn as “pretty, but insignificant”, “stultifyingly dull”, and “an unnatural capital village”. During Bonn’s time as the capital, one US diplomat remarked “The city is just half the size of Chicago’s Central Cemetery, and twice as dead.”
This is where people live the German dream. Kaffee und Kuchen at three in the afternoon, Ruhezeit on Sundays and Tatort on TV every Monday night. There is no higher goal on the mind of the good Bonn citizen than “Gemütlichsitzen” – sitting cosily.
In the years Carl Holm worked as a journalist in the “Bundesstadt Ohne Nennenswerte Nachtleben” (Federal City Without Noteworthy Nightlife) he discovered a deeply divided city. Some Bonners resented the government’s departure, relegating them once more to the status of just another provincial town. Others were glad that all those foreigners had left. No longer would people trawl the streets at midnight, in search of some object of perversion which they called an “espresso.”
Despite its parochial dullness, the city has a rich history, going back some 50,000 years, which is largely unknown to the bulk of those who live there.
Bonn was the site of the oldest known permanent settlement in what is now Germany. Julius Caesar slung the first bridge across the Rhein here, and during the 30 Years War Bonn laid claim to the title of Europe’s witch-burning capital. Bonn was the birthplace of at least two reasonably great composers and proudly lays claim to the title of childhood home of Germany’s most infamous rapper.
Today Bonn has Germany’s highest number of almost-Irish pubs per capita and a Roman harbour that’s still visible when the Rhein is at its high-summer ebb.
In the posts to come, the dark, the quirky, the strange in Bonn’s history will be revealed, across an ill-constructed bridge to the sensational, bizarre and striking in Bonn’s present. Carl Holm lived among the German people for nearly a decade and investigated some of their myths and mantras, including the belief that William Shakespeare’s work was originally written in German, by a German and for Germans.
Carl delivers an account edgier than Bryson and rivalling Theroux in misanthropy, weaving a yarn of love, death, Christmas and herpes – and tries to answer the big questions on every German’s mind: how dangerous is it for men to pee standing up, and do spiders die if you suck them up with a vacuum cleaner?