On May 7, 1945, Nazi Germany surrendered unconditionally to the allied forces. As the war in Europe ended, Germany was divided into four spheres of control, each region “belonging” to one of the allied powers: the US, the USSR, Britain, and France. Berlin was divided into quarters, although it was surrounded by the Soviet region. Much of the pre-war German territory in the east was given to Poland.
Postwar German history is a fascinating tale. While today Germany is again a united power, for more than four decades, it was a country divided into two. Here in Bonn, that period played out more centrally than elsewhere; Bonn was to become the capital of the country of West Germany. To learn about the history, I take a visit to the House of the History of the Federal Republic of Germany.
The museum is large, with entrances both from the street and from the underground light rail station. It is free to enter, and there is an online audio guide, though it is slow and choppy while I am there, so much that I give up on it after only two exhibits. The museum traces German history beginning in 1945 with the war’s aftermath, and continuing to the 21st century. I am here, however, to learn about West Germany.
(Note: the museum traces the simultaneous histories of both East Germany (DDR) and West Germany. However, I will be visiting the DDR history museum in Berlin and will be discussing that segment of German history from there in a separate article.)
The most important concern of the allies was to prevent another fascist takeover of Germany. Immediately, in 1945, states were created (called Lands in German), mostly based along the lines of early German feudal regions. The purpose was to decentralize power. Elections were first held in 1946, although true power was held by the allied powers. The Deutschmark was created in 1948, the start of a German currency that would last until the euro. (Prior to this, from 1945 to 1948, the most consistent “currency” in occupied Germany was ami cigarettes, American cigarette brands, that were the commodity of trade on the black market.)
The museum does a spectacular job of alternating informative signage with artifacts and visual displays. While main signage has English translations, descriptions of the items in the collection do not, so some of it is a bit vague to me. I am, however, incredibly pleased with the overall appearance of exhibits, which are organized roughly chronologically, and am able to make sense of most of it.
On June 24, 1948, Soviet forces imposed a blockade on Berlin, hoping to force the western powers to abandon West Berlin. While it ultimately failed thanks to a truly remarkable campaign of aerial supply (it was actually one of the first uses of ground based radar to guide planes in for landing in inclement weather, and is a fascinating story in and of itself), this marked the beginning of a divided Germany, and of a divided Berlin. On May 23, 1949, the state of West Germany was declared in Bonn, and on October 7, East Germany was established.
So why Bonn? To begin, Berlin was out of the question, as it was a divided city squarely in the middle of the Soviet zone. (Passage was allowed by auto from West Germany to Berlin along a few highways, but detours were not allowed.) Many wanted the capital to be in Frankfurt. However, others argued that having the West German capital in an important city like that would deter a move back to Berlin upon reunification, a goal that was part of every governmental policy from the get go. Hence, Bonn, a relatively small city on the Rhine.
In 1949, Konrad Adenauer became West Germany’s first Chancellor. His CDU political party would favor close ties with western powers, economic growth based on a liberal market economy paired with expanded social services, and the formation of a strong military to counter a growing threat from the Warsaw Pact. They would stay in power until 1969.
The German economic “miracle” was fairly rapid. With so much destruction from allied bombing, housing was in short supply. Adenauer and his economic minister, Ludwig Erhard (who would become Chancellor next), saw construction as a primary means to make the economy move. And it worked. Through the 1970s, West Germany had consistent economic growth, and by reunification in 1990 had the fourth largest economy in the world. As such, West Germany became a destination for immigration of those seeking better lives and incomes, helping to diversify the population, which at war’s end was almost entirely homogenous.
The museum traces the result of every election from 1949 on, and uses these to mark the passage of time in other exhibits. Photos of each government sit alongside graphs of vote shares, both before and after West Germany establish a 5% minimum threshold to have seats in the Bundestag.
It is a remarkably efficient way to journey through time in the museum, as I wind my way through exhibits on cultural revolutions like women entering the workforce and social upheaval like the call for more – and free – higher education. I learn about the collapse of the German steel market, the rise of the German environmental movement, and even West German television shows.
In 1955, the Adenauer government joined NATO, and the allied high commissioners officially became ambassadors, thereby ending their de facto rule over the country. (Oddly, though, treaties required allied sign-off on German reunification.) At the same time, the Wehrmacht, the West German armed forces, was established, and Germany became the front line of the Cold War. While West Germany decided against pursuing a nuclear arms program, delivery systems were developed, and hundreds of thousands of American troops remained in the country.
Since the end of the war, millions of Germans had made their way from east to west, fleeing Soviet atrocities committed in the war’s immediate aftermath, and then the dictatorial East German regime. Since the establishment of the two nations, an estimated 150,000 East Germans fled to the west each year, mostly through Berlin (where it was a simple matter of escaping to one of the western zones). In 1961, East Germany constructed the infamous Berlin Wall, thereby largely ending that migration, and becoming the symbol of the Cold War. The museum includes some segments of the wall, which wouldn’t come down for decades.
In 1963, the Franco-German Friendship Treaty was signed, marking the official end of what had been roughly 150 years of war between the neighbors. While we take this for granted now, it paved the way for expansion of the 1957 European Economic Commission, and the creation of a united Europe with France and Germany at its center.
My exploration of the House of the History of the Federal Republic of Germany ends on October 3, 1990, with the reunification of the nation. While I can’t tell from the signage if they are original or copies, I look in awe at the treaty officially ending two countries and forming a single one.
In 1991, the Capital City Resolution officially names Berlin the capital of Germany, and over the next thirteen years, the majority of the governmental offices here in Bonn would be moved. The building housing the Bundestag is now part of the World Conference Center. Many government offices form the campus of a large United Nations presence here.
However, remnants can still be seen all over the southern portion of Bonn. I take photos of the Chancellor’s residence when it was here (mostly just of the gate), and of the West German seal on several edifices. Some ministries still have offices here, but Bonn is now a ghost town in the governmental sense, buildings simply reminders of their past.
Today, Bonn is back to being a small town along the Rhine, but one with a rather important history. This was the capital of West Germany from 1949 to 1990, and whether via museum or simply a pleasant stroll, that storied past is a fascinating one to experience.
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