A damp September morning in Bonn. Michael Vorländer locks the door to a Gründerzeit house in the Südstadt neighbourhood, where he rents a tiny alcove flat. He rolls a trolley bag with five days’ dirty laundry through a sudden downpour towards the Stadtbahn metro.
Twenty minutes and 3km later, the 40-year-old former prosecutor approaches a complex dominated by two cross-shaped brutalist towers home to Germany’s Federal Ministry of Education and Research (bmbf) and a number of other agencies. Here, Vorländer heads the ministry’s eight-person EU Research Policy unit.
Past two security windows, a white-washed exterior gives way to naked cement walls, orange-tile floors and coiling stairways connecting to colour-coded wings. The lift stops on the third floor and Vorländer angles left as he enters Green Wing and a standard-issue office: desk, computer, stacks of files, round table and chairs, a few framed photos. A view across the placid Rhine spreads back to the fairytale-like hills of the Siebengebirge range in the distance. A sedate, sedentary job? A tranquil German town? Not quite.
In 1949, Bonn was a sleepy university town best known as Beethoven’s birthplace. That year, chancellor Konrad Adenauer, another local, succeeded in getting Bonn chosen over Frankfurt to become home to the government of the new Federal Republic of Germany (West Germany) the nation and its capital having been split in two, the latter by the Berlin Wall. Berlin remained West Germany’s capital on the books but Bonn became the de facto “provisional” one. Over the next 40 years the latter swelled with office buildings, museums, embassies, homes and everything else a new seat of consciously muted power could need. But then the Wall crumbled.
At the time the Wall came down, Susanne Burger, a senior bmbf official who now supervises Vorländer’s unit, was putting down roots in the Rhineland. She and her husband had just built a house in Bonn and she had three years under her belt at the ministry. Burger and her colleagues were “completely thrilled” about the fall of the Wall and nobody really worried about Bonn’s fate for over a year. She remembers a feeling of puzzlement when rumours of change started circulating; she was thinking, “Is this really necessary?”
On 20 June 1991, after 10 hours of heated debate, lawmakers voted 338 to 320 in favour of moving the Parliament, the Chancellery and other core parts of the government back to Berlin – the old Prussian capital – despite its historical baggage. Like a spurned spouse, Bonn scraped and clawed as much as it could. The Berlin-Bonn Act of 1994 stipulated that the 14 federal ministries would have complexes in both cities but the “main seats” of six ministries and the “major proportion” of total ministry jobs were supposed to stay in the newly christened “federal city” of Bonn. To maintain the right balance, 22 federal agencies have set up shop in Bonn over the years. A separate compensation agreement served as a financial life-insurance policy to stave off sudden decline. For example, its €1.43bn cash injection was used to attract jobs to the city and fund infrastructure upgrades such as a bullet train connection to Frankfurt Airport.
For many outside Germany, Bonn’s story ended in 1999 when a seemingly endless series of trains finally started rolling east for the big move. Bonn: exit stage left. Thanks for filling in, mate. Yet a quarter of a century after the Wall came down, Germany might be reunited but its federal government isn’t. Whether out of preference or obligation, by plane, train or car, hundreds of civil servants continue to shuttle between Bonn and Berlin on a weekly basis.
Vorländer was born in Beirut to theology professors. His interest in politics can be traced back to nights of sleeping in the same room as his twin brother far back from the windows as civil war ravaged the former “Paris of the Middle East”.
His first experience of Bonn came as a 15-year-old on a field trip from Munich. He still recalls the buzz he felt touring the government quarter, walking in the footsteps of Adenauer, Helmut Kohl and the other political giants of post-war Germany.
Twenty-five years later, Vorländer admits the excitement is gone. Yes, Bonn has less urban pizzazz, less proximity to power than its sibling-city capital. “But don’t underestimate how much a less hectic, less pressurised environment can foster thinking space and good work,” he says.
With all of its landmark buildings, Bonn sometimes has a frozen-in-time feeling. But if you look past the old you meet the futuristic. On weekday mornings, thousands stream into the city to work at tech companies and research centres, the colossal headquarters of Deutsche Telekom and Deutsche Post dhl, 18 UN secretariats and hundreds of ngos, plus the lobbying outfits and support firms that such institutions attract. Instead of stagnating, Bonn has flourished – and it has the confidence to match. “We don’t feel like we’re in the provinces,” says Burger.
At last count, around 7,000 of the 18,000 federal civil servants in Germany were still in Bonn. The question of which city to take a job in is different for everybody. A declining but still decent share of the civil servants in Bonn are holdovers who opted to stay put when the capitals’ role was split. The Federal Civil Service Act specifies that civil servants are obliged to go where the job takes them but in practice they change positions, not lose their jobs, if they don’t want to move. “Advancement or specific postings often require you to compromise and be flexible,” says Vorländer. But civil servants “trust that the administration will find a good solution”, adds Burger.
The arguments over whether to schlep the rest of the government to Berlin are frequent. What is more convenient: having everything in one place or having parts closer to Brussels and the country’s industrial heartland? What is more expensive: paying for almost 19,000 work-related flights between Bonn and Berlin this year or hauling everything east? What would be more German: having the entire government in one place or spreading things out in a nod to the country’s federalist structure and its strong regional identities?
The coalition agreement that Angela Merkel’s conservative cdu party, its csu sister party and the Social Democrats (SDP) signed in 2013 stipulates that the government will stand by the provisions of the Berlin-Bonn Act. But political heavyweights sometimes churn up speculation by dropping hints that this arrangement won’t last forever. In any case, changes – even if subtle and gradual – are afoot. Last year saw some 500 positions slide to Berlin. In October 2014, 250 Berlin-based employees of Vorländer’s ministry moved into a new home, a massive glass-and-concrete structure just across the Spree River from the Bundestag and Chancellery. The fact that the building has room for all of the ministry’s roughly 1,000 civil servants sparks new worries that there might be more erosion of Bonn’s federal jobs. Just like during the Cold War, Bonn’s status remains “provisional.”
At 17.30, Vorländer grabs his bags and hurries down to a waiting government sedan. After mercifully light traffic and a quick check-in, he heads to gate D7 of Köln Bonn Airport. A red-and-white Airbus A320 waits outside for Air Berlin flight 6510. On Thursday and Friday evenings, the seats are packed with commuting civil servants who, like their employer, have one foot in Bonn and another in Berlin.
Vorländer is among them on 99 per cent of Fridays. Part of his job requires him to be in Berlin. Plus, he and his wife Steffi bought a house there in 2008 and she and their sons, 6 and 8 years old, have opted to stay there for family reasons.
At 19.16 the flight takes off. After 44 minutes and 466km the plane touches down at Tegel Airport. Crowded bus to baggage claim, long taxi lines in a drizzle. Twenty-two minutes and 24km later, the cab crawls up a narrow, cobbled street in the Zehlendorf neighbourhood and stops in front of a modest house – Vorländer’s “little paradise”. The lights are still on.
Earlier in the week, Vorländer had already logged almost 1,000km on one flight and one speed train, making the first two legs of the well-worn triple-B circuit (Berlin-Brussels-Bonn). In 2014 alone, the former paratrooper will fly more than 10,000km and touchdown in numerous cities across Europe.
But his days on the capital carousel are numbered. In a few weeks he’ll pack up his things in Bonn and start a new assignment based in Berlin. Though he’ll miss his current team, he looks forward to having more time to spend with Steffi and the boys in addition to the current daily FaceTime chats over breakfast.
But he’s not there yet. Early Monday, he’ll be back at Tegel for another flight back west.