10 Capital Cities That Were Changed

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A Brief History

On June 20, 1991, the German Bundestag moved the capital of the newly reunified Germany back to Berlin from Bonn.  For a variety of reasons, countries and states occasionally change their capital cities.  Here we list 10 of those incidents.  There is no significance to the order listed. 

Digging Deeper

10.  Bonn-Berlin, Germany, 1991.

When Germany was split after World War II into East and West Germany, each had their own capital, Bonn in the West and East Berlin in the East.  Upon reunification after the fall of the communist Soviet bloc, the government was moved into the traditional German capital city of Berlin.

9.  Rio de Janeiro-Brasilia, Brazil, 1960.

Rio had been the capital of Brazil in all its forms from when the Portuguese first colonized Brazil to independence in 1825.  Brazilians decided to create a new capital, centrally located in their vast country and without any of the historical baggage of an established city.  Thus, Brasilia was carved out of the wilderness and founded in 1960, a new capital city.

8.  Chillicothe-Columbus, Ohio, 1816.

Before it became a state in 1803, Ohio was known as “Ohio Country“.   In 1803, Chillicothe became the first capital of the State of Ohio, then Zanesville, then Chillicothe again before finally Columbus in 1816.  Chillicothe has the distinction of having been the capital of Ohio twice.  Columbus is the largest city in the world named after Christopher Columbus and is now the most populous city in Ohio, but only the 3rd most populous metropolitan area after Cincinnati and Cleveland.   Columbus is the third most populous state capital in the US (after Phoenix and Austin) and is the second most populous city in the Midwest (after Chicago).

7.  Calcutta-Delhi-New Delhi. India, 1912 and 1931.

India is on pace to equal or surpass China as the most populous country in the world and they have nuclear weapons.  Although still backward in much of the country, they are becoming more important industrially and economically.  New Delhi is actually a new city built within the borders of Delhi, which is more of a region or district (“capital territory”).  Calcutta had been the capital until 1911 when Britain’s King George V (also Emperor of India) decided to establish a new district within the city of Delhi as the capital.  While New Delhi can only boast a population of about a quarter million people, the metropolitan area has a whopping 26 million plus people!

6.  Paris-Vichy-Paris, France, 1940 and 1944.

When Germany conquered France in 1940 the puppet government of occupied France was moved to Vichy.  In 1944 when the Allies liberated Paris, Paris once again resumed its role as capital of France.

5.  Kingston-Montreal-(eventually) Ottawa, Canada, 1844 and 1866.

In 1857, British Queen Victoria, as a symbolic and political gesture, was presented with the responsibility of selecting a location for the permanent capital of the then Province of Canada, but in reality, Canadian Premier John A. Macdonald had assigned this selection process to the Executive Branch of the Government.  In any case, the “Queen’s choice” turned out to be the small frontier town of Ottawa, but it then took nearly a decade to convert the town into the country’s capital.  Part of the reason for moving the capital of Canada to Ottawa?  Because its location more inland was less susceptible to attack from the United States!  Over twenty years prior to Ottawa becoming Canada’s permanent capital, Kingston had only a short reign as the capital of Canada, lasting from 1841 to 1844 when Montreal was named the capital, not surprising as Montreal was the biggest city in Canada, although once again, Montreal’s reign as the capital would be short.  Montreal had that distinction from 1844 to 1849, then Toronto from 1849 to 1852, next Quebec City from 1852 to 1856, Toronto again from 1856 to 1858, Quebec City again from 1859 to 1866, and finally Ottawa from 1866 to 1867.  When Canada gained its independence in 1867, the capital remained in Ottawa, a city with a current metropolitan population of over 1.3 million.

4.  Kyoto-Tokyo, Japan, 1869.

Kyoto had been the capital of Japan for over 1000 years when the 17 year old emperor (Meiji) decided to make Edo the capital and renamed it Tokyo in 1869.  Tokyo now has a metropolitan population of about 35 million people, the largest metropolitan area by population in the world.  Cracked fact:  Kyoto was spared being a nuclear target in 1945 due to its historical significance.

3.  Moscow-St. Petersburg-Moscow, Russia, 1713 and 1918.

Czar Peter the Great moved the Imperial Russian capital from Moscow to his new city and it remained the national capital for all but 4 years until the communist takeover moved the capital of the Soviet Union back to Moscow.  In the meantime, St. Petersburg was renamed Petrograd in 1918 and then Leningrad in 1924 and back to St. Petersburg in 1991 when the Soviet Union dissolved.  St. Petersburg was the capital of Russia from 1713 to 1728, then Moscow regained its traditional status as the Russian capital, then St. Petersburg once again stole the title of capital city and reigned from 1732 to 1918, when the Russian Revolution moved the capital back to Moscow.

2.  Constantinople-Ankara, Turkey, 1923.

After World War I upon the demise of the Ottoman Empire and the founding of modern Turkey, the Turks moved the national capital to Ankara, a city that today has a metropolitan area population of about 4.5 million.  The establishment of Ankara as capital city became official in 1923.  Ankara is the second largest city in Turkey.  (Cracked fact:  The former capital, Constantinople is now known as Istanbul, a city with a metropolitan area of over 14 million people.  Prior to Constantinople the city was known as Byzantium.  Cracked fact #2: The author and all 3 of his siblings have been to Turkey, and all report the country is a wonderful place to visit.)

1.  New York-Philadelphia-Washington, D.C., USA, 1790, 1800.

From 1785 to 1789, New York served as the nation’s capital while under the Articles of Confederation, and then as the first capital under the Constitution from 1789 to 1790.  In 1790, the Residence Act established Philadelphia as a temporary capital before a permanent capital could be established.  What is now known as The District of Columbia was established in 1790 to be a home to the Federal Government, and the city of Washington, located in the District of Columbia, was founded in 1791, named of course after George Washington, our first president under the United States Constitution.  While what eventually would become Washington, D.C. was being designed and constructed over the next decade, Philadelphia served as the temporary capital until 1800, which was the first year that Congress held a session in Washington.   

Question for students (and subscribers): Can you think of other notable capital changes?  Please let us know in the comments section below this article.  (Hint: There are a lot!)

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Historical Evidence

For more information, please see…

Robert, Jean-Louis and Jay Winter.  Capital Cities at War: Paris, London, Berlin 1914-1919 (Studies in the Social and Cultural History of Modern Warfare).  Cambridge University Press, 1999.

The featured image in this article, a photograph by Cezary Piwowarski of The German Unity Flag, a national memorial to German Reunification that was raised on 3 October 1990, waving in front of the Reichstag building in Berlin, seat of the Bundestag, is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license.

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About Author

Major Dan

Major Dan is a retired veteran of the United States Marine Corps. He served during the Cold War and has traveled to many countries around the world. Prior to his military service, he graduated from Cleveland State University, having majored in sociology. Following his military service, he worked as a police officer eventually earning the rank of captain prior to his retirement.