Power city: Berlin’s political nerve centre
What happens in the German capital affects us more than the goings-on inside the Washington Beltway or even Whitehall’s square mile. Ahead of Germany’s federal election tomorrow, it’s a good time to stroll through the heart of the Berliner Republik
Corridors of power: seven key spots in the city. Illustration: John Cassidy
After half a century in Bonn, Germany’s federal government packed its bags and, on September 6th, 1999, raised the curtain on the Berliner Republik.
An emotional debate eight years earlier ended when German MPs voted, by just 18 votes, to uproot the parliament from the Rhine and reopen for business in the old Reichstag.
One camp saw the move as healing a historical rupture; others eyed Berlin with distrust as the cradle of Prussian militarism and Nazi fascism that had triggered two calamitous world wars. How would the new, old capital alter the cosy, politics of modesty practised in the West German capital, Bonn, and immortalised as John Le Carré’s “small town in Germany”?
“I think Berlin has catalysed changes that were already happening in German politics, particularly in the more questioning view of Europe, ” says Noel Fahey, who was the Irish ambassador during the Bonn-Berlin move. For him Bonn represented cosy Rhineland-style politics, while Berlin politics is influenced by the historic Prussian style: more distant, cool and correct. “Rhinelanders are good at compromises,” he says. “Prussians are not.”
For years after the government move, Berlin was like a political field of dreams: a new, sprawling government quarter where nothing happened. Then the financial and euro crises propelled Germany into the spotlight – and, with it, Berlin. From no direct flights from Dublin in 1999 to two daily flights today, Berlin is on Irish – and European – radars like never before. What happens in Germany, and in Berlin, affects us more than the goings-on inside the Washington Beltway or even within Whitehall’s square mile. Ahead of tomorrow’s federal election, it’s a good time to take a stroll through the heart of the Berliner Republik.
The nerve centre of German politics is the chancellery, commissioned by Helmut Kohl and first occupied by Gerhard Schröder in 2001. Designed by the architect Axel Schulte, its exterior concrete walls are stained by the elements. Inside, a chilly atmosphere prevails thanks to white plastered walls and to carpets, doors and banisters all in mint green. In the long winter months, the cool green and watery sunlight give the place the surreal air of an expensive aquarium.
Angela Merkel’s office is on the seventh floor, and she forgoes her enormous desk to work at the corner of a meeting table with a cup of peppermint tea. Dinners for visitors are held in a white dining room on the sixth floor with a Picasso on the wall. Press conferences are held on the first floor, and foreign dignitaries are welcomed in a paved courtyard out front.
A boxy hulking structure, dubbed the “washing machine” by locals, the chancellery is an enormous place, about eight times the size of the White House. It takes so long to walk around it that staff have dubbed the trek to the canteen the “hunger mile”.
Directly opposite the chancellery is Paul-Löbe-Haus, a monumental structure 200m long by 100m wide that is named after the last democratic Reichstag president, who was ousted by Herman Göring in 1932. The building is quite a sight at night: through the front windows, staircases zig-zag up seven storeys on either side of MPs’ offices and the illuminated curves of the circular committee rooms.