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by Richard Gilbert

Moving vans pulling away from the sprawling former embassy of the United States in Bonn, Germany, in the summer of 1999 carried more heavy freight than just office furniture and the paraphernalia of a large embassy in transition. The trucks were laden as much with symbolism as with the residue of files, desks and chairs. As the vans crossed the John F. Kennedy Bridge over the Rhine and pointed north and east toward Berlin, a half century of American diplomacy in Bonn was coming to an end.

The final departure from Bonn concluded a decade of “thinking the unthinkable” by embassy managers and the State Department in Washington. At issue was nothing less than the shuttering of one of America’s largest and most important diplomatic establishments in the world, a move that carried many hundreds of employees and family members from Germany’s Rhineland to new jobs and homes in distant Berlin and Frankfurt. The task was as unexpected as the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989, but the results, at the cost of uncounted millions of dollars, were impressive: the successful return of America’s embassy in Germany to Berlin.

Today, twenty years later, after funding squabbles and a public contretemps about the Berlin site worthy of a book, the U.S. Embassy has been resurrected and has been serving the public for more than ten years at its original pre-war location in a bright, new Moore Ruble Yudell-designed building beside the Brandenburg Gate, the last “tooth” in the façade of Berlin’s joyfully restored landmark, Pariser Platz.

From the Rhine to the Spree

In 1999, the U.S. Embassy was following Germany’s government and parliament to a whole and reunited Berlin, the culmination of a years-long, inexorable process that began for both sides within weeks of the sudden collapse of the Wall and reunification. But more than a change in landscape was involved with the move to Berlin. Bilateral relations were freshly fraught. A very different German government was leaving Bonn and heading for the cacophony of resurgent Berlin’s swarming construction cranes and half-finished ministry buildings. Gone were Germany’s familiar and, for many American old-time German hands, appreciative political faces of the immediate postwar period. Their places in government and media were being taken by a new generation of “68ers”— Social Democrats and Greens rooted in the political protests and cultural wars of the late 1960s, 1970s and 1980s, a few of whom only recently admitted to wearing neckties or skirts. Significantly, their worldviews had been shaped less by an appreciation of America’s postwar generosity and firmness in the face of communism and more by shared memories of anti-NATO street protests, surging pan-Europeanism and determination to forge a “rightful” role for a newly self-confident Germany in a new century. Thus, for senior American diplomats, Berlin promised all kinds of new challenges, not least building a suitable infrastructure to house embassy operations in Berlin and to replace the quintessential “Little America” community left behind in the Rhineland. Getting the furniture to Berlin was to be only half the fun.

America came to Bonn in 1951 following the designation of this “small town in Germany” as the provisional capital of the nascent Federal Republic of Germany two years earlier. But there was a problem. Bonn was truly just a small university town, which had been seriously damaged by the war. After accommodating the demands of Germany’s new capital, there was little space available for the U.S. High Commission for Germany (HICOG), resident since the war’s end in Frankfurt. Fortunately, land was available along the river adjacent to the small baronial mansion in the village of Mehlem in Bonn’s southern suburb of Bad Godesberg where an advance party of HICOG Americans was already working. In one short month (things moved a bit faster in those days) High Commissioner John J. McCloy obtained Washington’s approval for the move and funding to enable the German government to purchase the Mehlem land from its private owners. In March 1951, using counterpart funds for construction costs, ground was broken for the new buildings.

Still, there was the small matter of housing over 2,000 American and German staff. Just north of the embassy site, in Bonn’s riverside Plittersdorf area, HICOG purchased farm plots from 60 local land owners and begin building housing, shopping and recreational facilities in an enclave which would, as the years passed, become known to neighbors as klein Amerika. By November 1, the office building and housing were complete and moving day dawned. From Frankfurt, the HICOG, in less than a month, brought hundreds of American employees and families and additional hundreds of German staff and families northwest along the Rhine in special railroad cars. Christmas 1951, during some of the darkest days of the Cold War, found HICOG, in a few years to be the U.S. Embassy in Germany, celebrating in new homes and offices in Bonn. Generations of American families would follow as the embassy population grew and exceeded 1,400 employees. Over the decades. the Plittersdorf housing compound also mushroomed, adding schools and mid-century, small-town Americana accoutrements like baseball fields, movie theater, grocery stores, sports club and restaurant, bowling alley, gas station, post office and a steepled community church.

As for me, I came late to Bonn’s American community, trailing my FSO spouse, Carol, who was assigned to USIS Germany in 1998 as Administrative Officer. We settled quickly into our apartment at 15 Martin Luther King Strasse and learned to fall asleep contentedly to the sound of barges chugging down river to Cologne. I found work handling public affairs for the embassy’s busy Office of Transition, ground zero for the already in-progress move to Berlin. By then, many housing blocs had been emptied and sold, some returned to the German government as part of the 1994 agreement on the exchange of properties in Bonn and Berlin. In the chancery, where hundreds from a dozen federal agencies had once worked, the long corridors were lined with silent offices filled only with ghosts.

One Embassy, Two Locations

Actually, America’s embassy in Berlin had opened quasi-officially in 1998, the year before the ultimate exit from Bonn when, with the turn of a screw, Ambassador John Kornblum mounted a shiny brass plaque bearing the words “Embassy of the United States of America” on a refurbished 19th century stone building (photo right) in Berlin’s Mitte district, a building which had housed our embassy in East Germany since 1955. (Most embassy sections remained scattered over four locations in the city.) Thus began the year of the famous “One Embassy, Two Locations” innovation, whereby the embassy would seek to operate as a single, coordinated entity from two cities, Bonn and Berlin, in an attempt to integrate day-to-day operations and two distinct embassy communities. For all its imperfections and difficulties, the former effort functioned fairly smoothly, thanks to the commitment of senior staff, a “beltway” of flights between the two cities, and the miracle of early video-conferencing. The latter assimilation was more problematic. In some cozy corners of the former U.S. Mission in West Berlin, officer morale plummeted as notions of a Bonn “take-over” festered (e.g. Berlin-only staff meetings were verboten). A replica of the recently combined embassy weekly newsletter, Quadriga, was circulated by anonymous disgruntled Berlin staffers with misplaced and misjudged satire, adding nothing and offending many.

The stress of the upheaval had another enormous human dimension. Throughout the last decade of the 20th century, down-sizing and shifts at Mission Germany’s six consulates and the transfer of personnel from Bonn to Berlin and Frankfurt impacted most heavily on the Foreign Service National staff. Position descriptions were everywhere being rewritten, and some jobs were being lost as notions of a “leaner, tighter ship” took hold, only partially mitigated by the protections of German labor law. By the end of 1998, most regional support facilities and scores of staff had departed Bonn with their families for the new Regional Support Center in Frankfurt. For many Bonn FSNs, however, moving to Berlin was not a simple matter of changing locations to chase a job. An entire shift of culture, custom and history was involved, from the Catholic Rhineland to Prussian Berlin, with family ties, familiar haunts and life-long friendships left behind. In that respect, in reverse, it was as if the capital of the United States had been moved from Washington to Tulsa (no offense).

Back in Bonn, as 1999 dawned, I was wearing my public information hat and pouring out editions of Mission Germany 2000, a monthly four-pager that I created to assist remaining Bonn offices and employees and insert some needed transparency into the approaching final move. Sadly, for me, the effort was often lost on my Transition Office colleagues, most of whom were crusty retired Facility Managers and FBO types, for whom public information was an intrusive concept and troublesome practice apt to get in the way of what they wanted to do. Meanwhile, the news media, local and American, came along barking up the wrong tree in search of a date-specific when the embassy “would move.” Alas, unlike the coverage they anticipated, there were no long lines of photo-worthy packed moving vans pulling away from the Bonn embassy or organized caravans evacuating scores of American families from “Little America.” Instead, most positions were transferred to Berlin and Frankfurt over many months, with incumbents departing Bonn and replacements trickling gradually and seamlessly into a new location. In many cases, office furniture and equipment had been pre-positioned, eliminating the need for a visible large-scale moving operation. The small loads of files and working papers, which were transferred weekly, traveled in a few non-descript embassy trucks with little public notice. Judging from outside the Bonn embassy building, all appeared to be pretty much the same, unless one counted the ever-increasing number of empty parking spaces in the vast lot behind the former Chancery.

Finally, at the end of summer 1999, with most property sold or transferred and the last boxes packed, the job was done. Only a small military office to liaise with the Ministry of Defense in Bonn and a few admin taskers remained in the building. The American leave-taking was a class act. President and Mrs. Clinton dropped by on the margins of the G8 Summit in Cologne and, in a moving and touching ceremony, presented keys to Stimson Memorial Chapel, the Plittersdorf American community church, to Bonn’s Mayor. After a heroic accomplishment by a team of staff and spouses, smartly led by ambassadorial aide Christine Elder, a glossy, dignified coffee table book of historic photos and memoirs by American and German employees entitled A Vision Fulfilled: 50 Years of Americans on the Rhine was published. Earlier, on July 4, 1999, the remaining American community, diplomats and Bonn residents had celebrated a last and very poignant Independence Day reception on the ambassador’s grassy lawn overlooking the river. Then, a few weeks later, a few more truckloads, and the Americans were gone, leaving behind a remarkable and honorable 50-year chapter in U.S. diplomatic history written from Bonn over the face of Europe.

“For half a century, the histories of the United States and Germany have been intertwined here on the banks of the Rhine. These years, which brought forth the best in both of our countries, will live on.     We arrived in the new capital of a divided country and go on to Berlin, the proud capital of a united Germany. We came as victors and vanquished and move on to Berlin as partners and friends.

“. . . Soon, it will be time to pack boxes, embrace old friends and say our fond farewells to Bonn. But this beautiful city on the Rhine will remain in our hearts forever, and we hope to leave a bit of ourselves here.

“Whenever someone crosses over the majestic Rhine on the Kennedy Bridge, bikes past the McCloy Ufer on a beautiful sunny afternoon or worships at the Stimson Chapel with believers of many faiths, a little of our American presence will linger. And we will return to these places and remember fondly all that was accomplished here . . . .”

“A Vision Fulfilled: 50 Years of Americans on the Rhine”

. . . from the Afterword


Bonn 2019

For pessimists, the decision in 1991 to transfer the German government and parliament from Bonn to Berlin, with foreign diplomatic missions following, was a cataclysm in the making for this small city on the Rhine. Pessimists, however, failed to reckon with the far-sightedness of good government in Germany and the determination of Bonn citizens. In 1994, parliament passed the Bonn/Berlin Act, a ten-year agreement designating Bonn as “the federal city” (Berlin became “the federal capital”) and laid out firm divisions between which governmental institutions would move and which would remain (six of 14 federal ministries retained their principal seats in Bonn and 20 other federal agencies moved into the city). In addition, the Act allocated nearly $2 billion to Bonn and the surrounding region to compensate for “structural change.”

Today, twenty years after the move, Bonn is a reinvented and thriving place. Both population and employment have increased, and the city has designated itself Germany’s “United Nations City,” with close to 20 UN organizations and 150 NGOs having Bonn offices. The city’s former Federal Quarter has become the UN Campus and World Conference Center, home to new buildings for the growing Climate Secretariat of the United Nations and associated organs. Equally important for the job market, Bonn is today headquarters to several large German companies, including Deutsche Telekom and Deutsche Post, and has become an IT center for Germany, employing over 10,000 people. In all, more than 90 new companies and institutions, including Deutsche Welle, Germany’s international broadcaster, have settled in Bonn since 1991.

Plittersdorf and “Little America” Today

 In mid-1998, half of the former American housing community in Bonn-Plittersdorf, 217 apartments and the Marine House, reverted to its new owners, Vereinigte Bonner Wohnungsbau A.G. (VERBOWAG), a for-profit company owned almost entirely by the city. Other parts of “Little America,” including the increasingly decrepit shopping area, followed until, by 2001, the turnover was complete. Today, on the VERBOWAG website, one finds a bright marketing advertisement for rental apartments at “The American Residential Estate” and the teaser:

“Delve into your American dream and make it come true! In the American Residential Estate we create perspectives and meet upscale demands as to modern living: spacious, comfortable, and flooded with light in a park-like environment – just as you imagine your rental flat. In total, the American Residential Estate consists of almost 400 flats that meet the most diverse requirements.”

In the hands of VERBOWAG, the entire development, last renovated by the U.S. in the 1980s, was gutted and modernized in stages. “Initially, the American Residential Estate has been built to give home to the staff of the American Embassy as a park-like real estate, with spacious plot areas and broad walks between the buildings. The layout of the flats corresponds with the spacious building concept. The precept is individuality: whether on one level or as a maisonette – two, three, or more rooms – different types of flats enable relaxed living conditions with a great potential for free development. . . .” New renters arrived almost immediately. Available floor plans now carry the names of American cities and states. Nearby, the old American shopping center has been razed and a new shopping center with medical offices and food shops opened. Once again, the riverside community is flourishing, but its American roots are well remembered.

Further south along the Rhine, the former United States Embassy Chancery (photo right) is also transformed. The main buildings belong to the Federal Office for Agriculture and Food. From here, where hundreds of Americans once managed the bilateral relationship with Germany, other hundreds now liaise with German states and oversee a variety of critical tasks in the areas of agriculture, food, nutrition, rural areas, forestry, fisheries and consumer protection. A diverse group of German companies and organizations works in the other buildings on the compound, adding a full and varied workday population to the site.

Flashback to late August 1999: Carol and I sit on the riverside veranda of the Königswinter hotel, just across the Rhine from the now former embassy compound. Among the last Americans to depart, we are finally en route to our posting in Berlin, via a long road detour to explore the former East Germany. As we raise a glass to Bonn and our too-brief stay there, we are very conscious that we have participated in something important, the conclusion of a grand era in the history of our nation in Europe. We stand at the end of a proud half-century, and we feel truly honored to have come this way. With a last glance over the river and a hug, we get into our car and point ourselves north and east to Berlin, Germany’s new capital, a city just becoming.End.

This is a revised and up-dated version of “Bonn Voyage: Bumps Along the Autobahn,” originally published in the Foreign Service Journal in March 2000. A similar article, “Bonn to Berlin: One Embassy—Two Locations” appeared in State Magazine (May 1999).  


Richard Gilbert is a retired USIA foreign service officer. In addition to Washington assignments, he served in Thailand, Romania, Finland, Liberia and the USSR. Since retiring, he has accompanied his spouse to posts in Germany, Spain, Switzerland and Chile.


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