BERLIN, AUG. 11 -- The intense, emotional battle over the capital of the new Germany is really a reprise of decades of argument about German history.

Old rivalries and prejudices emerge daily as Germans -- from leading politicians to academics to customers at corner bars -- debate whether the government of the reunited country should be in Bonn, "provisional" capital of West Germany since 1949, or in Berlin, capital of East Germany and of all Germany from the country's first unification in 1871 until the defeat of the Nazis in 1945.

Should the symbol and center of the new Germany be Bonn, the city closest to the home village of the first postwar chancellor, Konrad Adenauer? Or Berlin, city of the Kaisers, Marlene Dietrich, Bertolt Brecht, Albert Einstein, Adolf Hitler and Erich Honecker, the communist leader ousted last year?

Opinion polls show an overwhelming majority of Germans say Berlin -- no contest. Nearly every prominent figure in the country agrees.

West German President Richard von Weizsaecker, a patrician, moderate and enormously respected figure, seemed to seal Bonn's fate when he delivered a strong endorsement of Berlin last month.

Berlin is taking no chances. The city is sponsoring a massive advertising campaign quoting Berlin bon mots by politicians, artists, writers, and even the late American President John F. Kennedy ("Ich bin ein Berliner").

The Berlin forces have even dug out a quotation from Bonn Mayor Hans Daniels, who only last summer said, "We Bonners are certain that our city took on the role of capital only as Berlin's deputy until reunification in peace and freedom is possible."

Daniels seems to have had a change of heart. He now heads a rearguard effort to defend his town through a campaign consisting mostly of little "Yes to Bonn" stickers that are seen, it must be said, almost exclusively in Bonn.

Bonn supporters usually concede that their town is neither exciting nor interesting. But it is charming and pretty, they say. More important, it was not the capital of Nazi Germany, and it has been associated for four decades with the most successful, stable democracy Germany has known.

They say choosing Bonn -- a two-to three-hour drive from Belgium, France and the Netherlands -- would send a message that the new Germany is committed to remaining part of the West.

Some Bonn supporters genuinely like the idea of a small town as capital, a place where there are no demonstrations, none of the rowdiness for which Berlin is known. Other Bonn backers just hate Berlin, in much the same way that some Middle Americans hate New York. The premier of Bavaria recently lashed out at Berlin, saying he would have no part of a German capital in Kreuzberg, a mostly Turkish neighborhood of Berlin known for ethnic strife, demonstrations by anarchists and apartment-squatting by disaffected left-wingers.

Berlin fans find their argument easy to make. Just look at Bonn, if you can find it, they say.

Bonn, a Rhine River town of 290,000 people, has precious few restaurants, no airport of its own, not even an exit on one of the main highways that passes right by the city. There are no ethnic neighborhoods, no major museums, no large parks. The city's newspapers are thin and provincial; the radio stations are based in larger nearby cities.

A cultural vacuum, Bonn is less bustling than Albany, and considerably less cosmopolitan.

Berlin, in contrast, has major stores, movie palaces, a history rich in the arts, science, politics -- and imperialism and genocide.

The city's defenders are quick to point out that Berliners never supported the Nazis to the extent that the rest of the country did. Berlin was a communist and socialist stronghold and in July 1932, when Hitler's Nazi party won 37.4 percent of the German vote, the party drew 28.7 percent in Berlin.

But Berlin was the site of Gestapo headquarters and the Wannsee Villa, where top officers planned the Final Solution, the extermination of all European Jews. Nazi works are still to be seen around the city, from the frightening Olympic Stadium to the eerie underground bunker Hitler had built for himself behind the Reichstag.

The capital question remains open, although a compromise seems to be emerging in which Berlin would become capital but Bonn would remain the seat of government. That would save the reunited country the enormous cost of moving the entire government -- which could cost $30 billion. It would also save Bonn from becoming a ghost town.

Revealingly, the proposed compromise is quite acceptable to many Bonn supporters, and completely insufficient for Berlin backers. The issue is so polarizing that even the question of when to make a final decision has spawned a huge controversy.

"It will be the last question decided" in the reunification talks between the two Germanys, said Bonn government spokesman Dieter Vogel.