Germany's Capital Moves From Bonn to Berlin

People gather outside the Reichstag in Berlin, home of the Bundestag, the German parliament

Christian Marquardt / Getty Images

Following the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989, the two independent countries on opposite sides of the Iron Curtain⁠—East Germany and West Germany⁠—worked toward unifying after more than 40 years as separate entities. With that unification came the question, "What city should be the capital of a newly united Germany⁠—Berlin or Bonn?"

A Vote to Decide the Capital

With the raising of the German flag on October 3, 1990, the two former countries (the German Democratic Republic and the Federal Republic of Germany) merged to become one unified Germany. With that merger, a decision had to be made about what would be the new capital. The capital of pre-World War II Germany had been Berlin, and the capital of East Germany had been East Berlin. West Germany moved the capital city to Bonn following the split into two countries.

Following unification, Germany's parliament, the Bundestag, initially began meeting in Bonn. However, under the initial conditions of the Unification Treaty between the two countries, the city of Berlin was also reunified and became, at least in name, the capital of reunified Germany. 

A narrow vote of the Bundestag on June 20, 1991, of 337 votes for Berlin and 320 votes for Bonn, decided that the Bundestag and many government offices would ultimately and officially relocate from Bonn to Berlin. The vote was narrowly split, and most members of parliament voted along geographic lines.

From Berlin to Bonn, Then Bonn to Berlin

Prior to the division of Germany following World War II, Berlin was the capital of the country. With the division into East Germany and West Germany, the city of Berlin (completely surrounded by East Germany) was divided into East Berlin and West Berlin, divided by the Berlin Wall.

Since West Berlin could not serve as a practical capital city for West Germany, Bonn was chosen as an alternative. The process to build Bonn as a capital city took about eight years and more than $10 billion. 

The 370-mile (595-kilometer) move from Bonn to Berlin in the northeast was often delayed by construction problems, plan changes, and bureaucratic immobilization. More than 150 national embassies had to be constructed or developed in order to serve as the foreign representation in the new capital city. 

Finally, on April 19, 1999, the German Bundestag met in the Reichstag building in Berlin, signaling the transfer of the capital of Germany from Bonn to Berlin. Prior to 1999, the German parliament had not met in the Reichstag since the Reichstag Fire of 1933. The newly renovated Reichstag included a glass dome, symbolizing a new Germany and a new capital.

Bonn Now the Federal City

A 1994 act in Germany established that Bonn would retain the status as the second official capital of Germany and as the second official home of the Chancellor and of the President of Germany. In addition, six governmental ministries (including defense) were to maintain their headquarters in Bonn.

Bonn is called the "Federal City" for its role as the second capital of Germany. According to the New York Times, as of 2011, "Of the 18,000 officials employed in the federal bureaucracy, more than 8,000 are still in Bonn."

Bonn has a fairly small population (over 318,000) for its significance as the Federal City or second capital city of Germany, a country of more than 80 million (Berlin is home to nearly 3.4 million). Bonn has been jokingly referred to in German as Bundeshauptstadt ohne nennenswertes Nachtleben (Federal capital without noteworthy nightlife). Despite its small size, many (as evidenced by the close vote of the Bundestag) had hoped that the quaint university city of Bonn would become the modern home of reunified Germany's capital city. 

Problems With Having Two Capital Cities

Some Germans today question the inefficiencies of having more than one capital city. The cost to fly people and documents between Bonn and Berlin on an ongoing basis costs millions of euros each year.

Germany's government could become much more efficient if time and money were not wasted on transportation time, transportation costs, and redundancies due to retaining Bonn as the second capital. At least for the foreseeable future, Germany will retain Berlin as its capital and Bonn as a mini-capital city.

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Rosenberg, Matt. "Germany's Capital Moves From Bonn to Berlin." ThoughtCo, Apr. 5, 2023, Rosenberg, Matt. (2023, April 5). Germany's Capital Moves From Bonn to Berlin. Retrieved from Rosenberg, Matt. "Germany's Capital Moves From Bonn to Berlin." ThoughtCo. (accessed June 2, 2023).