Dead People, Dead Birds, and the Responsibility Silo

Image result for bird fossil

The New York Times has gotten rather scoldy about Germany lately. Judging by New York Times coverage, Germany is not doing enough to combat racism, anti-semitism, and right-wing violence. Nor has it fully confronted its Nazi past.

I’m not sure what the reason is for this critical undertone. Generally, American liberals find much to praise about Germany: free college tuition, universal healthcare, a deep aversion to war, generous social-welfare benefits. My theory is that the Times’ German aversion may something to do with the Times’ gradual conversion to full-scale wokeness. The Times now identifies with identity politics and American-style ethnic particularism. To a fully-woke American, Germany must seem backward indeed: after all, one of the highest-circulation German dailies just published a frontal attack on identity politics (g), something that no longer appears in major American newspapers.

Anyhow, enough speculation. The main point of this post is this article on Niels Högel, the German nurse who is accused of killing up to 300 hospital patients over a period of five years. The article singles out a certain aspect of German culture for criticism:

The number of killings and the amount of time it took for suspicions surrounding his actions to come to light have raised uncomfortable questions for Germany, including whether the same deference to hierarchy and predilection for procedure that once facilitated Nazi-era crimes allowed Mr. Högel to kill uninterrupted for so long.

According to Frank Lauxtermann, the only former colleague who testified openly about working alongside Mr. Högel, “A culture of looking away and keeping your head down” ultimately shielded the suspect….

She said Mr. Högel’s colleagues in Oldenburg had talked about him, but did not go to their superiors or lodge a complaint out of fear of being reprimanded or because they didn’t see it as their business in a country where citizens closely guard their privacy.

When another nurse in Delmenhorst told her superior she was suspicious of Mr. Högel, no action was taken and she never followed up….

“The course of events that took place on June 24 are symbolic of the failure of those responsible for their completely erroneous assessment of actual facts and the tragic results that ensued for the patients,” Mr. Schmidt said, announcing the results of his investigation in 2017.

That investigation came about only after years of pressure by family members, and led to the current trial.

Two former prosecutors from Oldenburg were investigated for failing to sufficiently investigate Mr. Högel in 2005, but neither faced charges. One is now a judge in Oldenburg.

I think the Times, for all its gimlet-eyed coverage of matters German, has a point here: There is a cluster of German cultural traits — many of them admirable — which often works against institutional accountability.

First is the German respect for privacy. You don’t pry into your co-workers’ personal affairs. You also don’t pry into their job performance, unless it directly affects you, and perhaps not even then. It’s the bosses’ job to evaluate job performance, not the co-worker’s. Complaining to the bosses about a co-worker’s performance comes dangerously close to informing on them, which immediately raises loud historical alarm bells. In both Nazi Germany and in East Germany, anonymous denunciations were often used to derail competitors’ careers. These historical memories metastasized into the corners of the German national character: complaining legitimately about a colleague’s serious mistakes on the job is, of course, not as sinister or serious as denouncing them to the secret police. But it’s the same overall genre of activity, the same kind of behavior. And thus it has Sinister Historical Overtones, and should be avoided.

Another factor is institutional. Germany’s public healthcare system is stretched to the limit; under-funding and under-staffing are the norm. A December 2018 EU report (pdf) concluded:

Understaffing in hospitals and residential homes is widespread, and the number of graduates completing vocational training falls far short of those leaving the job (due to retirement or dissatisfaction) and those which are additionally needed (due to the rising number of people in need of care). At the same time, working conditions for carers are poor, particularly in LTC: wages are low, the work is demanding and working hours are unattractive.

Accountability for medical malpractice is still limited in Germany. In the United States, a hospital can be sued for millions for negligently hiring or negligently retaining a worker who causes a serious accident. If you prove that the hospital knew, or should have known, about an incompetent employee, the hospital must pay. The German system creates less accountability, principally because (1) hospitals aren’t always liable for their employees’ on-duty mistakes; (2) malpractice judgments are notoriously hard to win; and (3) judgments are generally for modest amounts. German healthcare is still very good on average, but there are growing gaps in quality which Högel was obviously able to exploit.

And finally, there’s the “that’s not in my job description” effect. This is not solely a German phenomenon, but it’s very strong here. My job is to take care of my patients, not to make sure everyone else is. I have my tasks and my duty area, and I’m going to do my tasks within my duty area, then go home and forget about work. North Americans, in particular, notice this strong silo mentality. In a restaurant or a start-up, you do whatever is required to keep the customer happy and the business afloat. In a bureaucratic institution such as a hospital or university, the average Joe or Jane will normally do their jobs reasonably well, but feel no need to show any extra initiative.

Here’s a story. At the university where I used to work, a dead pigeon lay in front of one of the buildings. A friend of mine, also from the New World speculated on how long it would lay there. Hundreds of people walked past it every day, noticing it with disgust. But nobody did anything. Professors would never stoop to touch a dead thing. Nor would secretaries. Students reasoned that the university paid for cleaning crews, and it was their job to pick up the dead bird. But the cleaning crews were paid only to clean inside the buildings. Day after day, the cleaners wheeled their carts right by the rotting pigeon, ignoring it. The pigeon, you see, lay on an exterior brick walkway, and nobody had been clearly assigned the task of keeping that specific walkway clean.

The pigeon lay there for over ten days.

Not for nothing did Georg Christoph Lichtenberg once ask (g): “Tell me, is there any country but Germany in which people are more likely to learn to wrinkle their noses in disgust than learn to clean?”

One thought on “Dead People, Dead Birds, and the Responsibility Silo

  1. Nothing could prepare me for the implied inherited guilt trip of Germany displayed by a young Hamburg visitor to Munich when I was there recently. He leaned over to my wife and I, and in a voice that fully expected that we wouldn’t, said “Do you like us Germans?”.
    Setting the scene….a bierkeller in the centre of a lovely city with steins full of beer and pork knuckle. And this decent young fellow needs to know whether his German identity is a barrier to my liking him. Why would I not like him? Because I suspected him to be a closet Nazi? Because I might dislike the EU as a gigantic German scam?
    This was possibly the most objectionable thought I have ever experienced.

    Like

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