Dunedoo – Building Bridges to the Old World.
A comparison of two unloved capitals. The blustery romance of the German urban landscape.
The role of Versailles in fickle Teutonic fortunes.
In the beginning there was no Germany and there were no Germans.
– Peter Wende
An American correspondent based here once observed that Bonn “is half the size of Chicago cemetery – and twice as dead.”
– William Touhy, Los Angeles Times
I have a cousin who comes from Dunedoo.
In case you’ve never heard of Dunedoo, it’s pronounced DUNN-ee-DOO, and it’s a small town in the heart of sheep and wheat country about 400 km north-west of Sydney. There isn’t much to see there aside from a petrol station, a pub and a pony club.
There’s a German lady who lives there. She’s pretty, blonde, intelligent and bossy and she’s married to one of my cousins. I met her once at a wedding, and she was excited to hear that I would be going to live and work in her “Heimat”, a German word for which there’s no precise English equivalent that I know of. It means something like a homeland and is akin to the German word “Vaterland” but with more a sense of love and longing than of obligation; and without the negative connotations to non-Germans. She spoke at length of Germany, a land of poets and thinkers, a land of high culture, high mountains, natural beauty and beautiful orderliness.
When she found out I was going to Bonn, her face dropped.
“Bonn will poison you against Germany!” she said, “Go to Hamburg, or Berlin, or Munich, but for God’s sake, don’t stay in Bonn.”
“Do you know what the letters in Bonn stand for?” she asked.
“Um no,” I replied, “what?”
“Bundesstadt ohne nennenswerte Nachtleben.”
That is to say, federal city without noteworthy nightlife.
I was surprised to hear a German speaking like that about the city that was the capital for five decades, and I was inclined not to believe it, but then I thought of Australia’s much-shunned capital, Canberra.
The reputation of the nightlife offered up by the Australian capital fares little better among Aussies than Bonn’s reputation among Germans, but I figured it would all be new and interesting and chose to ignore her well-intentioned advice. I reckoned I’d be able to find enough to keep me amused for a year or two, at any rate.
As it turns out, Bonn and Canberra share numerous parallels. They are each home to a little over 300,000 inhabitants. Both are on flat ground surrounded by hills on three sides. Both have a university and a large student population, both have a handful of large, modern museums and both have a significant population of civil servants. Both cities have an urban layout in which it is surprisingly easy to get lost, both are conservative and quiet. But it goes deeper than that.
Neither city became a national capital by natural means. Bonn, like Canberra, is a nowhere place which was selected for the role of capital to quell the bickering between two major rival cities. In Australia’s case, between Melbourne and Sydney, in Germany’s case between Berlin and Frankfurt. Canberra after the second World War was still described as not much more than a village. Bonn was just a collection of villages, agglomerating into a city in the late 1960s. They are both fake cities and cities of fakes, which give off a somewhat artificial feeling, an air of being not quite real and not quite right, as if the city were just plywood facades erected for a film shoot, to be pulled down and taken away again in a few days.
The major difference is about six thousand years of urban history. The first evidence of human activity in both locations goes back tens of thousands of years, but while Bonn’s first permanent settlement and associated structures appeared around 4,000 years before Christ, nothing much changed in Canberra until the white folks decided to erect their capital city there just under a century and a half ago. When you look behind the facades and under the streets, Bonn has spent a lot longer accumulating the architectural detritus of history than Canberra has.
On a scale of importance in the day-to-day running of a country, Canberra has outlasted Bonn by half a century. Perhaps the Australians will eventually see sense and move their capital to Melbourne and it will be Canberra’s turn to slink back into the history’s obscure corners, an anomaly and an embarrassment for the few who remember it.
The East German government gnashed its teeth and roiled in a puddle of its own vitriolic pee…
Despite being the seat of German government from the end of the allied occupation after the second World War, the city has managed to keep itself off the map and under the radar. It’s almost as if the German government and media deliberately downplayed Bonn’s importance, because the plan was always to move the capital back east after waiting a suitable length of time for the unpleasantness from 1933 to 1945 to subside – and to resolve the sticky issue of a divided Germany. It’s odd to think that to the government of the West, reunification was always on the cards but to the people nothing could have been more repugnant; while in the East, the people hankered after a reunified nation, while their Government gnashed it’s teeth and roiled in a puddle of its own vitriolic pee at any mention of reunifying with the Western neighbours.
Through all those years Bonn and its citizens, or Bürger, kept a low profile, kept their heads down and remained largely unnoticed, pretending that the government wasn’t really there and secretly hoping it would go away. When it eventually did, they were publicly enraged but behind closed doors, most were quietly relieved. And although almost everyone in the world who’s heard of Germany could name Berlin as a German city, few people would have the same familiarity with Bonn, nor would they be able to point to Bonn on a map. Indeed many foreigners (and a good many Germans born after 1990) wouldn’t even be aware that the German capital had wandered off to the banks of the Rhine for half a century. Fans of Cold War spy stories would have heard about Bonn in peripheral mentions, but the main action was always in the dynamic and divided Berlin, far to the east and deep inside the German Democratic Republic.
If one really wants to understand Bonn, one must first put the place in a broader cultural and historical context by trying to understand a few things about Germany.
Germany is a land of myths, both ancient and modern, a country and a people as heavily defined – and deluded – by myths of Germanness today as it was 500 years ago or even further back, perhaps even to Roman times when the Germans were first given a collective name and identity. It is a country of contradictions, a geographical region with a long and – to a child of the New World such as myself – bafflingly complex history; although Germany as a clearly defined national entity has only existed a relatively short time when compared to Spain, England, Sweden, Russia or France.
But, as countries go, few have a history that has left the modern world with such a sense of fear and loathing as this patch of Central Europe on which close to 90 million people are busy scratching out an existence. That difference in perception by foreigners is perhaps a little unfair – all major European powers having had their flirtations with atrocity. But it’s possible that Germany stands out like a bruised thumb among its European neighbours largely because the last age of atrocity was so recent and has been given such comprehensive treatment by the historical experts in Hollywood. In the global consciousness, France and Spain have been so romanticised that their awful colonial histories and more recent episodes of violence and persecution have been forgotten.
In France the forgetting has been so thorough that talk of Algeria or the crimes which so many French citizens committed under the Vichy regime will, more often than not, meet with blank looks, confusion and denial. The French drink a lot of wine with lunch.
In Spain, the civil war is almost ancient history and after the last remaining eye-witnesses have gone it may well fade from the nation’s popular memory altogether. It’s quite possible that, apart from Ernest Hemingway’s account in “For Whom The Bel Tolls”, the rest of the world has already forgotten.
Part of the reason the stains of recent history are so stubborn could be that the German brand of romance seems to be a poor seller when stacked up with the Fatherland’s neighbours to the south-west. Tourists get excited about sipping a pastis at an outside table with a view of the Eiffel Tower, or a glass of wine in a small lively bar on a warm evening in Granada or Barcelona. Not many people can see the romance in wearing an overcoat to eat a cheap sausage on a dirty and windswept city square between the hurriedly erected post-war concrete office blocks which define the aesthetic of so many German cities. The Germans have one seventeen syllable word to describe the enjoyment derived from this activity.
Germany as a country, as a single, stable entity with a coherent geographical footprint resembling what it is today, has only really been around since 1871 – when Otto von Bismarck united the German States by force, having spent the previous summer steamrolling through France at the helm of the Prussian military machine. As the smoke cleared after some fairly uneven fighting with Louis Napoleon’s armies, Bismarck humiliated the French by forcing them to sign a punitive treaty in the Palace of Versailles’s hall of mirrors. In this lavish pleasure-dome of the Sun King, Louis XIV, Bismarck made the French hand back the territories of Alsace and Lorraine (Elsass and Lothringen) and then signed the German State into being. He further humiliated Louis Napoleon by presenting him with a bill for Prussian expenses incurred while conquering France. In this way Bismarck made Napoleon III pay for the escapades of his great uncle, who had humiliated Prussia and the German peoples just two generations earlier by taking away Elsass and Lothringen with one hand stuck in his coat.
It was also a way of repaying France for the predations and pretensions of the Sun King, even further back. Bismarck’s diplomatic tactics, and choice of venue, would come back to bite the Germans later as the eternally spiteful tit for tat over the lands along the Mosel continued down through the generations. The Germans would be back in the Hall of Mirrors less than fifty years later, this time on the other side of the table.
But German’s are so steeped in their own popular mythology, they place such weighty importance on national myths about who they are and where they come from, that they have almost completely lost sight of the realities of their history. One could say that all nations share this characteristic to a degree; but there are few peoples who wallow so deeply in their own popular mythology, and have ensconced themselves in such a fugue of misinformation, as the Germans. (It must be said, though, that the Australians would give them a run for their money in the myth-making Olympics.)
From a certain perspective, Bonn is the fulcrum on which the country’s modern delusions and contemporary myths balance and spin. And any Bonner Burger who can be coaxed into conversation outside of the “Drei Tolle Tage” of Karneval (six days of madness during which most people are too drunk to speak) will expound endlessly upon the perceived positive aspects of this.