Everyone knows Berlin, history-conscious people know Bonn – but do you know the secret, would-be capital of Germany? I went there last weekend.
The city, located quite centrally in Germany, is one of the most underestimated: Frankfurt. The largest city of the federal state of Hesse (and not even there it gained the title state capital) is known for being the financial center of Germany, it’s where the stock exchange has its home, the European Central Bank resides here and literally every bank imagineable has an office in the town by the river Main. Most people think of Frankfurt as the grey bank place I guess. It’s important to call it Frankfurt/Main because there is also Frankfurt by the river Oder which is east of Berlin, bordering Poland. Apparently, we had so many cities in Germany we ran out of names so some have to share now.
Frankfurt is also the airport of Germany. When we approached the city on the Autobahn, I caught sight of a – for Germany very unusual – skyline of modern skyscrapers to the left, the reason for Frankfurt’s nickname Mainhattan. As I looked back to the front, five planes were flying towards us at the same time. Like in a movie! The planes go down right next to the cars, it’s quite a view!
Speaking of views, I was rather surprised by the landscape on the way between Düsseldorf and Frankfurt – it’s so scenic! Rolling hills show off their green colors, every now and then a little river meanders through the land and you pass by some picturesque castles. The route, however, is much longer than I thought. For some reasons, my distance perception is really off: it takes the same time to drive to my parents or to Brussels but those places feel much farther than Frankfurt.
I was there to attend my former roommate’s housewarming party. We met back when we were both studying in Stockholm, now a long time ago. Her guests, knowledgeable about Frankfurt, recommended museums to me because my original ambition was to visit one. (Yeah, that never happened.) One gentleman phrased the difference between the Commmunications Museum and the renowed art museum Städel as, “You need to decide whether you are looking for an aha!-experience or a wow!-expierence”. This actually made me very curious so I will probably have to return. The party continued into the early morning when one of the Frankfurters saw me sitting in an armchair and said, “I can see you are feeling dapper, you are feeling Waterloo”. What sounds like a line of out some indie band’s song came to him spontaneously and I could not find out what he meant by that. It’s a matter of perspective after all: if he was French, he’d mean I feel defeated, if English, I’d be feeling victorious and if he was a Swede, he’d just mean I was having a great party in weird costumes.
St. Paul’s: German Democracy’s Birthplace
Anyway, the next day after recovering, I set out to join the Alternative Walking Tour. It lasted 2,5 hours which I found too much, especially since one hour was about drug addicts and prostitution. Apparently, Frankfurt is the German crime capital (“but that is counting the bank crimes in the skyscrapers as well”), has the most frequented central station and 18 spidermen statues hidden in the inner city. It also used to be the city with most Jewish inhabitants, Anne Frank was born here, and famous poet Goethe’s birthplace is also located here (he was not Jewish though). They have an active Freemason Lodge and “Batman begins” was filmed here because the director needed a skyscraper street and New York, Tokyo and Chicago were too expensive to close off for a movie shooting.
Frankfurt unites old architecture with the modern bank towers and some typical after-war ugliness. The market square should make any tourist’s heart miss a beat: Germany just how you imagined it! Half-timered houses, traditional apple wine and churches. Actually, it was one church I was most interested in: Saint Paul’s. This building is the birthplace of German democracy where in 1848, they formed the ‘Before-parliament’ which prepared the election for the National Assembly, the first publicly and freely-elected German legislative body. As a historian, you can’t but marvel at the church in awe-stricken silence. Spoiler alert though: after a year of working on a first constitution for Germany, the resistance of Prussia, Austria and some smaller German states put an end to the dream of democratic Germany, with the Prussian king rejecting the crown offered by the German people as “coming from the gutter”. It’s sad because imagine what Germany could have been if we had steered toward a solid democracy already then…
The market had some very interesting signs. Sorry, only funny if you know German.
But back to Frankfurt where I got lots of Southern-German vibes. Somehow it reminded me of Heidelberg with its red-ish sandstone buildings, sunny weather and cheerful dialect people. What’s with the capital stuff then, you wonder. Well, because of its central location and economic significance, Frankfurt considered itself to be the natural choice for Germany’s capital when it became clear that Berlin would be divided. Their post-war-mayor had the town rebuilt rapidly to present an intact city ready to house parliament.
But – this is how the legend goes – the first chancellor Konrad Adenauer who was from Cologne didn’t want to move and made Cologne’s neighboring town Bonn the capital. Bummer for Frankfurt! Historians would, by the way, argue that Bonn was chosen because of its temporary character, a small town not really fit to be the capital, the institutionalized “We will never give up Berlin”- statement. Some say Frankfurt still suffers from this missed opportunity, but I’d disagree: Frankfurt’s thriving!