I subscribe to a German-language mailing list for the humanities called H-Soz-U-Kult. It sounds ugly but is harmless. It delivers to my inbox conference reports, calls for papers, book reviews, and announcements of upcoming conferences. That’s how I became aware of this upcoming important conference (G): "Symposium on Water-Power Use in the Cologne/Bonn Region." Among the presentations: "Historical Development of So-called Industrial Mills"; "Mills and Hammers as Formative Elements of the Cultural Landscape."
However, I’m sure the presentation that will provoke the most controversy — even more controversy than the explanation of why "Industrial Mills" should really be thought of as "So-called Industrial Mills" — will occur at 3:20, when the Director of the Rhine-Erft Mill Society presents her "Conceptual Outline for a Documentation Center Concerning Rhenish Mill Culture."
What kind of person would even try to capture the juicy majesty of watermills in a dry, bloodless "outline"? I’m tempted to engage in the favorite pastime of a many marginally-employed Germans. That is, travel to a conference, sit impatiently in the audience until questions are allowed, run up to the microphone, and deliver a 5-minute long, rambling, question-free tirade in which I accuse the speaker of unconscionably ignoring the ‘philosophical aspects’ or ‘social consequences’ of the question under discussion.
I admit it, I’m making fun of this conference, just as I previously made fun of a treatise on hail insurance. I know it’s rude, but it’s irresistible. I can’t help myself. But now I’d like to get all serious, and praise boredom.
Germany is packed with people who do boring jobs. (Yes, many of these people are also boring, but not all.) But it’s important to realize that Germany is as safe, pleasant, clean, and prosperous as it is because it has so many people who (1) are content to spend their entire lives doing boring jobs; and (2) take these jobs very, very seriously. In many areas of Germany and especially Austria, men had their job title engraved on their tombstone: "Here Lies Karl-Friedrich Hitzlgraber; Assistant to the Traveling Secretary in the Currency Transfer Department of the Royal and Imperial Customs Service of the Kingdom of Austria and Hungary. Sept. 4, 1865 — Jan. 22, 1928."
Very few German civil servants still engrave their jobs on their tombstones, but working for the civil service is still prestigious. A person I know just became the supervisor of the legal department of a small airport near where I live. Actually, not the whole legal department — only the employees of the customs service who work at the airport. This job is well-paid and very hard to get — you had to have multiple university degrees and pass an Orwellian series of psychological tests to even be considered for it. You think Italy, Botswana, or Bhutan can afford to detail a state-paid lawyer to oversee the operation of customs at every single chickenshit airport in every single province of their respective countries?
"Actually," you may be saying to yourself, "I bet there are lots of government jobs like that in these countries." True enough, but in Germany, the head of the customs department legal service at the small regional airport is (1) not chosen on the basis of his family connection to the Transport Minister; (2) has recognizable tasks to perform; and (3) actually shows up to work every day and performs them. Except during his 28 days of paid vacation per year. Same thing with park wardens, street cleaners, insurance employees, and the countless other jobs that keep Germany functioning so smoothly.
So, to bring this post back to the original departure point, I may gently mock the Rhenish Mill Society, but I am also glad they exist. I take leisurely bicycle tours through the nearby countryside, and I see these mills. They’re charming and well-preserved. Thanks to a complex network of government subsidies, you can actually still buy the bread they produce, and it tastes delicious. All this historical preservation doesn’t just happen, it’s expensive and complex and requires the input of dozens of experts, who occasionally get together and share their ideas. I hope the conference is a smashing success.