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Feature Story:

Bonn to Berlin: One Embassy--Two Locations


By Richard Gilbert
The author is a retired Foreign Service officer in the Transition Office at the U.S. Embassy in Bonn.

In September 1998, not far from where an ugly wall once divided lives and life in a great European city, Ambassador John C. Kornblum mounted a shiny brass plaque bearing the words "Embassy of the United States of America" on a refurbished 19th century building in Berlin's historic center.

With those few turns of a screw, the U.S. Embassy, after an absence of 57 years, returned to a united and free Berlin, now capital of a whole and democratic Germany.

Affixing the plaque brought to a close the years of long-range U.S. planning that began with the fall of the Berlin Wall, the reunification of Germany and the 1991 German decision to transfer the government and Parliament from Bonn to Berlin in 1999. For the embassy, it marked the beginning of a new phase--managing the final move from Bonn and making a permanent home in Berlin for the diplomatic staff.

In the months since last September, U.S. officials in Bonn and Berlin have operated as one embassy in two locations. Weekly country team meetings are held in both cities on an alternating basis. Some of the embassy's senior officers reside in Berlin, others in Bonn. There's a single housing board, a united Community Liaison Office and a common embassy newsletter. The one-hour flight between Bonn and Berlin has become a sort of beltway. Videoconferencing is as familiar as a phone call.

This has been the U.S. Mission's transition year, the period before the last moving trucks depart Bonn and the United States' diplomatic enclave on the Rhine is closed down. U.S. diplomats have been guests in Bonn for nearly a half century, since John J. McCloy moved the offices of the U.S. High Commissioner for Germany from Frankfurt in 1951. Present plans call for the Depart-ment's presence in Bonn to terminate by the end of 1999, leaving behind only a small military liaison office to work with the German Ministry of Defense and other military elements that will remain in Bonn for a little while longer.

As staff members look forward to uniting the U.S. Embassy in Berlin and to the many diplomatic challenges that the new millennium holds, they also glance back with nostalgia and pride to the history and accomplishments of the Bonn years. To ensure that the manner of America's leave-taking is distinguished and memorable for the city and the people of Bonn, special events are being scheduled throughout the year.

For the foreseeable future, U.S. offices will be housed in four widely scattered locations in Berlin. The current chancery is the former East German Embassy building, now fully renovated, in Berlin's Mitte district. The Mitte location is just beyond the Brandenburg Gate and only a few blocks from the reborn Reichstag with its Norman Foster dome, home to Germany's Parliament beginning this year. The Clay Building, some 45 minutes away in Berlin's southwestern Dahlem district, was formerly part of the headquarters of the U.S. Commander in Berlin. Soon it will house the consulate and several other embassy sections. Meanwhile, the America House, which houses the exchanges and programs section of the U.S. Information Service, is in a historic building in the city's commercial center, and general services maintains offices, repair shops and a warehouse at a compound 10 minutes from Clay.

Plans to construct a prize-winning new U.S. Embassy office building
at Pariser Platz beside the Brandenburg Gate--the exact site where the embassy stood before its wartime destruction--must now be reviewed with an eye to security concerns. The staff is working closely with Berlin's mayor and the city's governing legislature to address those concerns so the project may proceed. While final plans are still being decided, it is clear, in light of the bombings in East Africa last August, that the future Berlin embassy must fully meet all requirements necessary to protect embassy employees, neighbors and clients.

The move to Berlin is not only a physical transition, but an intellectual and managerial change as well. The occasion is being used to reinvent the way the mission does business. In nearly 10 years, the staff has moved from a time of separate embassies in the two parts of a divided Germany--a mission in West Berlin, six consulates general and more than 2,000 employees--to its present, much leaner configuration of one embassy, five consulates, a new regional support center in Frankfurt and fewer than 1,400 employees. The decade-long transition has been marked by detours, side steps and reversals, and occasionally efforts have generated heat in the bureaucracy. Not surprisingly, there are still issues to be resolved, but there is satisfaction in the years of management innovation, imagination and accomplishment.

The new Regional Support Center-Frankfurt, for example, is now fully operational with the move of the last regional service elements from Bonn to a newly purchased three-story office building near the Frankfurt Consulate General. Meanwhile, approximately $55 million in sales of excess property have been generated in Germany, with the expectation that additional sales will raise $20 million more to help cover the construction costs of a new embassy in Berlin. Among the sales was the remaining portion of the embassy's historic Plittersdorf housing compound along the Rhine, where generations of Foreign Service families have lived since 1951. The compound will be turned over to the new owners in stages during the coming two years.

A new staffing pattern has been designed for the mission. In addition, the Foreign Service National staff for Berlin has been identified through a lengthy, complex process that took into account German labor law, Department regulations, past service, fair practices and the requirement for transparency. The past year has also seen a sharp acceleration in the transfer of U.S. positions from Bonn to Berlin. Since last summer, several embassy elements have completed moves to Berlin and Frankfurt, along with dozens of FSNs who took advantage of the embassy's relocation benefits.

The major portion of the final move from Bonn will get under way following the G-8 Summit in Cologne in June. The embassy's Transition Office, responsible for coordinating the move to Berlin, has worked with the Regional Procurement and Support Office in Bonn and Frankfurt to forge a contract to move embassy furniture, equipment and files to Berlin. The first moving trucks will arrive in July. At the same time, more than 50 families will leave Bonn for Berlin while others head off for reassignments worldwide. By Sept. 1, the Bonn Embassy chancery, so important to bilateral and multilateral diplomacy for nearly half a century, will have fallen mostly silent as administrative staff members handling final close-out duties prepare for the facilities' return to the German government. By the end of the year, the U.S. Embassy presence will be gone from Bonn.

There's still much to do in Berlin before completing the process of reshaping the mission that began so unexpectedly on that November night in 1989 when eager Berliners breached the wall. Resolving outstanding property issues and finding funding to revitalize Berlin's housing inventory are among these tasks. Together, with Berlin city officials and the German government, answers are needed to proceed with the construction of a new embassy office building that meets needs and security standards. There's also the need to join together in Berlin to build a new sense of community and style of embassy life to replace what was known and valued in Bonn.

There's been much press speculation about the deeper meaning for Germany of the move from Bonn back to Berlin. Certainly, as the years of the new century pass, the accomplishments of "the Bonn Republic" will pass into history and the events of "the Berlin Republic" will shape the daily headlines. U.S. diplomats will always remember their Bonn years and the enormous record of American achievement written there in the post-war world.

Those years may turn out to be, after all, only prologue. Mounting the brass plaque at the new U.S. Embassy in Berlin was only one more beginning in a story of U.S. diplomacy in Germany still being written.


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