The new German constitution says unequivocally: "The capital of Germany is Berlin." But it adds, equivocally: "The question of the seat of government will be decided after the unification of Germany." Unification comes Oct. 3, but the battle has already been going on for months between Berlin and Bonn, the little town picked by Konrad Adenauer as the temporary capital of the Federal Republic because it was across the river from his home. George Washington picked the site of the United States capital city for similar civic-minded reasons.
Most non-Germans may feel that where the Germans put their capital is up to them -- provided they don't try to put it in Poland. Nevertheless, the question makes for an interesting parlor game. Is it better for a democracy's seat of government to be in a city devoted primarily to that purpose, like Washington, Ottawa, Canberra, New Delhi, Brasilia? Or does a nation's greatest city have a natural claim to be its political capital as well, like London and Paris?
Most of the reasons given by advocates of Bonn are particular to Germany, and a bit far-fetched. Moving the government east to Berlin, they say, will wrongly suggest that a united Germany is loosening its ties with the Western bloc. A move to a large, glorious city like Berlin will give foreigners a whiff of renewed German megalomania. Bonn, its mayor told The New York Times, "would remain a capital without triumphal arches, one that would try to combine modesty and honor." (Washington may not be the best precedent for this particular argument.) Third, Berlin has too many reminders of the Third Reich. Fourth -- a more practical consideration -- moving the entire federal government to Berlin would cost $30 billion to $50 billion.
But the real case against Berlin is the same as the case against putting the United States capital in New York. Keeping the political capital separate from the cultural and financial capital prevents one city from becoming an enormous centripetal force in the nation's life, condemning the rest of the country to provincial status.
In Britain, you're truly either in London or you're out of town. There are people who say they'd rather live in Manchester or Birmingham, and some may even mean it, but they are few and not generally believed. In the United States the political capital is Washington, the business capital is New York, culture (broadly defined) is split between New York and Los Angeles. This scrambles the geographical incentives, making it possible for Chicago, Boston, Seattle and a couple dozen other cities to make credible claims on ambitious youth.
West Germany went even further in the diffusion of power and cultural influence. Frankfurt became the business center. Berlin remained the source of most cultural energy. But Bonn didn't get the whole government. The central bank went to Frankfurt. The Supreme Court is located in a small suburb of Stuttgart called Karlsruhe, where the justices socialize with the local burghers rather than with members of the Bundestag. The German equivalent of the FBI is in a town called Weisbaden. It's such a wonderfully democratic arrangement that it would be a pity to discard.
When one city is the capital of a nation for all purposes, the problem of isolation and elitism (which always exists) is worse. For all the talk of "the Beltway" as a great barricade separating Washington from the rest of the country, daily life in Washington is more like life in the rest of America than is life in New York. Simply because it is bigger and more crowded than anyplace else, New York's quotidian texture is different. Even very affluent people don't own cars. Even people of modest means don't do their own laundry. Things like that. This is not a moral judgment on New Yorkers. It's just an observation that it may be healthier for democracy when members of Congress drive to the mall on Saturdays.
On the other hand, a nation's life does lose something when all the politicians are off in a bell jar of their own. In London, the political types, cultural types and business types all mix together, talk together, drink together, sleep together, sometimes even procreate together. The result is a richer stew than any of the ingredients taken alone.
In America the people who write novels, make movies and produce television shows know nothing about how politics really works, and it shows. The politicians tend to be philistines, and that shows too. You don't find The New Republic casually reviewing a collection of parodies of famous poems, edited by the secretary of education, as did a recent issue of the London Spectator. There is no modern-day Trollope to do for Washington what Tom Wolfe did for New York in "Bonfire of the Vanities," because no one who could write "Bonfire of the Vanities" would want to live in Washington. It's a price we pay.
So there will probably never be a great Bonn novel. Members of the Bundestag won't be performing, or even drinking, in smoky Berlin cabarets. That's okay. Some of us prefer our German politicians on the boring side.