Despatches from the wilderness – and a wily old fox. Much “Achtung!” About Nothing. Episode 23.

Never underestimate the cunning of an old man.


How the Federal Village came to be. The life and death of an old man.

An introduction to the German sense of humour.


Measure not by the scale of perfection the meager product of reality.

– Friedrich Schiller

Bei sich zu Hause ist der Hund am stolzesten.
(The dog is proudest when he's at home.)

– German saying

At this point, the question on everybody’s mind is probably “Why was Bonn ever made the capital in the first place?” The blame for that can be placed squarely at the feet of a guy who was popularly known as “The Old Fella.”

It was Konrad Adenauer, Germany’s first post-war chancellor and an ex Mayor of Cologne, who lobbied hard for Bonn to become the post-war capital instead of Frankfurt (obviously in light of some recent unpleasant events, Berlin was out of the question at that time).

The arguments for Frankfurt were clear enough. Frankfurt was a large city, and an important inland shipping hub. Bonn was not much more than a collection of villages on an S-bend of the sewer of Europe. The place had no infrastructure aside from a train station which had been plucked out of a model railway set; and no airport aside from a small bombed out Luftwaffe field at Hangelar, about twelve kilometres away. That’s considered quite a distance in Germany, as it’s too far to ride a bicycle without raising a sweat.

Konrad Adenauer was well connected to the Karneval Mafia, the evil clowns who run Cologne from the shadows

But, skulduggery and vote-buying won the day for the wily old Colognial, and in the end Bonn came out on top by just one vote.

Konrad Adenauer was born in 1876 in what must be one of Cologne’s narrowest houses, in Balduinstrasse, when the German nation was still in its infancy. His holidays were spent less than 5km from Bonn’s city centre, at the house where his father and grandfather had grown up, in Messdorf, a village which was eventually incorporated into Bonn in 1968. He studied at Bonn University, and was several times Lord Mayor of Cologne. Aside from brief periods studying in Freiburg and Munich, and a few state visits during his time as post-war Chancellor he, like a significant section of German society, spent his entire life within a 50km orbit of his birth-place. Not even repeated arrests by the Gestapo could induce him to leave the Rhein Valley; and even when the Nazis sent him to a camp, it was just across the river from Cologne in Deutz, on what is now the Cologne Trade Fair grounds.

Adenauer died surrounded by his family aged 91 in April 1967, a few days after his third heart attack and more than ten years after the Swedish press first reported his demise. The little half timbered house just south of Bonn in the hamlet of Rhöndorf was only a few hundred yards from where he would later be buried. His final resting place is a carefully landscaped and meticulously tended plot on the terraced slopes of the Waldfriedhof just behind Rhöndorf and is regularly bedecked with wreaths in the Black, red and mustard of the German national colours. Adenauer, who during his time as Chancellor had the nickname “Alte” or Old One, seems to have been impossibly ancient almost all his life, and is widely regarded as the father of the modern German nation.

Many Bonn residents heaved a huge sigh of relief when the Bundestag, the German parliament, voted to lift the capital off its stumps and move it to Berlin.

But Bonn itself never really wanted to be the capital. It was all too much work and noise and excitement, and many of its residents heaved a huge sigh of relief when, on the 20th of June 1991, the Bundestag, the German parliament, voted by a majority of just 338 to 320 to lift the capital off its stumps and move it to Berlin, taking all those uppity foreigners with it. Good riddance. Now there would be no one asking for a cup of coffee after the designated Kaffee und Kuchen time at three in the afternoon. No more would foreigners from God only knows where be found combing the streets at midnight like perverts, on the hunt for something called an “Espresso” and complaining about the lack of something called “customer service”.

(“Dienstleistung”, the closest that the German language comes to the English term “customer service” actually refers only to the capacity to deliver service. It does not actually refer to a customer at all. “Dienstleistung” is a term that only made its way into common parlance during the 2006 FIFA soccer world cup, and customer service is still a poorly understood concept.)

Of course the shift of the capital was a huge shock to Bonn, both financially and psychologically. Make a village the most important city in the country for a couple of decades. All the while keep the population nervous by telling it – sometimes half-heartedly and sometimes in urgency – that one day that status might be taken away. Then – when nobody believes it any more because they’ve heard it so many times – actually do it, and people are bound to develop a few complexes.

Many never fully adjusted. The loss of status and the flow of money away from the Rhine were heavy burdens for many Bonners to bear, and gave a bitter aftertaste to the initial sweetness of seeing so many foreigners leave in such a hurry.

House-hunting in Bonn can be a demoralising experience.

Real estate agents were one group that never adjusted to the change. They stubbornly refused to lower the prices on rental properties, which made the most dire apartments barely affordable and resulted in many of Bonn’s most luxurious properties remaining unoccupied for years. In my years in the Rhineland I moved more times than the average German moves in a lifetime and I developed a depressing familiarity with the complexities of Bonn’s strange, corrupt and demoralising rental market.

When Le Carré described Bonn as an island state, he was correct in more than just the political sense. The steep wooded hills of the Eifel to the west have allowed Bonn to isolate herself from her western neighbours; and she maintains her isolation from the rest of Germany with the help of the Rhein, nestling broodily behind a carefully constructed and maintained language barrier.

The local dialect cuts Rheinlanders off from the rest of Germany, and this language barrier is carefully tended from both sides.

Many of Bonn’s residents seem to be psychologically cut off from the world, caught up in an endless round of parochial backslapping and worldly ignorance. Holland is less than 100km away, Belgium even closer, and France an easy afternoon’s drive, but few Bonner Bürger have ever considered visiting those countries (other than to make the two hour drive to Luxembourg to buy cheap tobacco in ten-litre tubs and sacks of cut-price Kaffee); and very few have actually made the effort – or seen the point in it – to learn to speak or understand the languages of their neighbours.

The local dialect also cut the Rhinelanders off from the rest of Germany and for that very reason it was cultivated and trotted out at every opportunity – usually when foreigners stopped to ask for directions.

In fact the regional dialect which some older Bonners referred to as “Bönnsch” was something like a mixture of high German, Plattdeutsch, Flemish and Dutch. Not that any good Bonner Bürger would have admitted that their dialect had common Frankish roots with the lingua franca in Holland or Belgium. That would be akin to a Sicilian admitting a historic and linguistic bond with mainland Italy.

The Rheinland dialect is neither pretty, nor clever.

The Bonn consensus was that this was more than a dialect: this was a language in its own right, which had no ties to any other language. The dialect was practically identical to the “Kölsch” dialect spoken in Cologne, and indeed through a large swathe of the Rheinland, but both Bonn and Cologne claimed that it was their language originally, and that the other had stolen it or imitated it.

Bönnsch has no written form, they write in Hochdeutsch just like everybody else in Germany. It is characterised by flattened vowel sounds and slurred consonants, and a vague sense that the speaker is about to sing a bawdy ditty, or spit, or both. It impossible to tell if the speaker is sober, or drunk, or has suffered a minor stroke. Occasionally an advertisement on a bus shelter, or a headline in the local tabloid rag will be rendered phonetically in Bönnsch, making it as unintelligible to German speakers as it is to foreigners.

In his book “Leck mich en de Täsch” (“Lick me in my pants pocket”), the locally esteemed Bonn historian and author Herbert Weffer gives a popular joke among older Bonners as a good example of the dialect.

A boy sees his father, who’s hard of hearing, coming home late in the evening. He says to him “Nah du ahle Troddel, widde en de Wiétschaff jewäes on jesoffe?”

The father answers: “Näh, du jonge Troddel, en de Stadt gewäes on e Hörjerät jekoof!”

Even some German’s would find that difficult to understand, but in English, the boy says:

So, t’auld fool, been in’t pub on’t sauce agin?”

The old man replies:

No, ye wee twit, bin in’t town to buy a ‘earin’ aid!”

Believe me, that’s sophisticated top shelf stuff when it comes to German humour.

Always room for one more Venetian at the ball. Casanova’s visit to Bonn in 1760 was not without drama.

In spite of its years in the global political limelight, Bonn features only fleetingly in popular literature. This sets it apart from cities like Berlin or Hamburg or Munich. Over the centuries it gains a few peripheral and cursory mentions in larger works. That incorrigible Venetian, Giacomo Girolamo Casanova, in his memoirs recounts an evening spent at a masked ball in the Prince Elector’s palace in 1760. He smugly describes how he arrived incognito and seduced the wife of Cologne’s mayor, and how the following day Kurfurst Clemens August gifted him a jewel-encrusted gold tobacco box. That story ended badly when, on Casanova’s return to Cologne, he was arrested on false charges of indebtedness to a mysterious baron who no-one had ever heard of. Cologne city authorities confiscated the tobacco case and the baron disappeareed without a trace.

Some 34 years later, the English author of romantic novels and travel books, Ann Radcliffe, visited amid a climate of general trepidation as Napoleon’s armies advanced from the west. As she rushed through after “three tedious days” in Cologne, Radcliffe found space in her diary to praise Bonn’s gardens and criticise its architecture.

“We were asked our names at the gate, but had no trouble about passports or baggage. A long and narrow street leads from thence to the market place, not disgusting you either with the gloom or the dirt of Cologne, though mean houses are abundantly intermixed with  the others, and the best are far from admirable.” – Ann Radcliffe, passing from the Stern Tor along Sternstraße.

In his sweep down the Rhine in the 1820s, a journey which gave birth to the first travel guide as we know them today, Karl Baedeker brushes over the place as pretty, but insignificant. I suspect he floated by on a steamship and didn’t even go ashore. One can speculate over whether this had anything to do with the fact that his brother Adolf lived in Bonn. Interestingly, on the official German tourism website Bonn is not mentioned in the list of cities worth seeing on the Rhine, even though the Baedeker publishing house nowadays devotes an entire book to the city.

Then, in the twentieth century, there are a couple of novels set in Bonn during the time that it was the capital. The famous spy novelist John Le Carré lived and worked in Bonn for years as a diplomat, yet although the Bonn which he creates in A Small Town in Germany does ring true in many ways, it is ultimately a fantasy. The mysterious and dysfunctionally brilliant German author Wolfgang Koeppen spent only a week in Bonn, but in that time managed to distill such a masterly synthesis of the place that one gets the feeling he spent years there. Koeppen’s Bonn, from his description of the streets, the houses, the office buildings, the people, the humidity, the depths of despair and the muddy turbulence of the Rhine itself, is instantly recognisable to anyone who has ever been there.

Both works, however, resonate strongly with anyone who has been kept there against their will, or stayed there against their better judgement, or simply found themselves quite inexplicably unable to leave.

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