Small Towns in Germany: How the Cold War transformed the Rhineland

The very choice of Bonn as the waiting house for Berlin has long been an anomaly; it is now an abuse. Perhaps only the Germans, having elected a Chancellor, would have brought their capital city to his door.

In ‘A Small Town in Germany’, John Le Carré’s late 1960’s ode to the ugly realities of the Allied presence within West Germany, Bad Godesburg, a Bonn suburb and the then seat of political power and international missions in the Federal Republic, is described in particularly unflattering terms. An ‘unnatural capital village’ lacking in both ‘political identity and social hinterland’, Le Carré’s town is ‘permanently connected to impermanence’, a wasteland of ‘giant buildings, still unfinished’ rising ‘glumly out of untilled fields’.

This image of the temporary seat of West German politics highlights a transformation in the importance of a provincial town and area that is perhaps unique in the history of Europe. The rapidity of its installation and the almost complete dominance of foreign interests in its design made Bonn and the surrounding Rhine hinterlands one of the most strategically important areas in the world. The elevation of the historically significant, yet divided Rhineland to this position was arguably one of the most influential geographic effects of the Cold War, and one that even today, with the restoration of Berlin as capital of a unified Germany, remains evident, at least in economic terms. Bonn remains Germany’s official Federalstadt, with almost half the employees of the Federal Republic working within its urban area.

The political context of the plot of Le Carré’s novel, a future resurgence of the far right in the Federal Republic as a consequence of the political unrest of 1968, proved to be far from the truth of continued West German prosperity and eventually successful reunification decades later, but his description of the perpetual impermanence of the Bonn Republic proved to remain applicable for almost 40 years.


Situated the heart of Western Europe, The Rhineland has always been a place of cultural, political and symbolic power. The width and navigability of the Rhine itself, effectively cleaving the European continent in two from the North Sea to the Swiss Alps, has combined the attractions of great commercial traffic and economic wealth with strategic benefits that have remained just as attractive from the Roman period to the atomic age. With the defeat of Nazi Germany in 1945 and the coming of the Cold War, the area retained its key and highly prized qualities and symbolism. However, this new era arguably transformed the Rhineland for the first time into an axis of national and international political concentration unique in the history of Europe. With the division of the now defeated and significantly reduced German heartland into successor states of competing political ideology and authority, the historically divided and somewhat conservative catholic Rhine hinterlands could become the nexus of the West German Federal Republic, and with it forge a distinctly Rhenish path to the future reunified nation of the present day.

The Rhineland of the pre-war years was dominated by political separatism, and a resurgent nationalism stoked by ever-present Franco-German mistrust. De-militarised under the Treaty of Versailles, occupied until 1925 and markedly reduced by the French absorption of the Alsatian area to the west of the upper Rhine, the German speaking Rhine area was home to the short lived Aachen based Rhenish Republic of 1923-1924 and broadly mistrustful of the Berlin governments of the Weimar Republic and even to some extent their Nazi successors. Despite the strong catholic population in the area, and traditional distrust of the Prussian dominated north and East, the Rhine’s symbolic significance in German national culture (Siegfried reputedly slayed his dragon in the hills around Bonn and several of Wagner’s operas owed much to the mythical qualities of the Rhine as German Heimat) and its location on the border of the Reich made it a rallying point for German nationalism, whatever that may be. With the capitulation of Nazism in 1945, akin with the rest of the former Reich, much of the area lay in ruins. The centres of Cologne, Dusseldorf and Mainz were all but destroyed by bombing and the commercial infrastructure of the region was weakened by fierce fighting along the Rhine itself. Yet, as the westernmost and most populated area of divided Germany, the region was almost immediately the focus of attempts to make a new republic. The long standing pre-1933 major of Cologne, Konrad Adenauer, campaigned successfully for Bonn, until then a historic and prosperous yet otherwise provincial small city south of Cologne, to be made the capital of the new republic, although, as with many aspects of the Rhineland’s Cold War reorganisation, this was never meant as a permanent move.


The elevation of the Rhineland in particular to political significance by Cold War politics was perhaps in hindsight, almost inevitable. Even before the Second World War, the area’s urban population and economy dominated German national culture to an extent only matched perhaps by the far larger Prussian heartlands to the east, and with the gradual but complete destruction of Prussia as a regional identity and the considerable shrinking of Germany’s borders post 1945, it was only rivalled by the far smaller districts around major cities such as Frankfurt, Hamburg and Munich, not to mention the now divided and occupied Berlin. However, this political significance was no accident, and a very specific product of the meeting of Allied policies of Denazification and the removal of any German resurgence and the distrust of the early Cold War. The structure of the Federal Republic, which was designed to discourage and prevent the political putsches and paramilitary activity that destroyed the Weimar Republic of the recent past, relied on geographic distribution as much as democratic principles. The placement of the national courts in Karlsruhe and the German National bank in Frankfurt necessitated the need for a national capital elsewhere, to combat the risk of a military coup, something that with its relative obscurity, Bonn easily provided.

Finally, yet not unimportantly, situated to the very west of the newly founded Federal Republic, which directly bordered on the German Democratic Republic and with it, the Warsaw Pact to the East, it is not hard to see the attractiveness of the Rhineland as the political centre of the new Germany. Despite the economic and political advantages of the Rhineland it’s military significance, once fixed on the proximity to France, now looked eastward, and the military and civilian elites in Bonn knew this as much as NATO planners over the border in the low countries. If there was ever to be an armed confrontation between East and West in Europe, it would likely have been decided on the fields to the immediate east of the Rhineland.

As a political and geographic entity, the Rhineland has never been insignificant, yet its importance was transformed by the specific conditions of the early Cold War just as much as Berlin was divided by it. The want of reunification, the still very recent processes of de-Nazification and the need to mould the Federal Republic into an obedient protectorate state combined with the threat of Soviet military power just over the border to elevate the area into an attractive proposition for Allied planners and German elites. Bonn may be once more a small city in Germany, yet its legacy lives on.


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