An Englishwoman in 1980s Dresden

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Die Hacke'sche Höfe in Berlin, 1979.

Through her excellent Twitter feed (source of the above photo), which posts a picture from the former East Germany every day, I came across this 2014 interview with Paula Kirby, an Englishwoman who taught English in Dresden in the mid-1980s. (Yes, she had a Stasi file and has seen it, although the results were unspectacular.) I find her observations colorful and free of the tiresome polarization that this issue often provokes. They generally mesh with accounts I've heard from East Germans. A few excerpts:

[T]he GDR was full of surprises. Shall I start with the good ones? Dresden was beautiful: literally breathtakingly beautiful, or at least, the city centre was. The half-finished suburbs full of hideous tower-blocks were as ugly in Dresden as they were elsewhere in the GDR, but much of the historic old town had been lovingly rebuilt after the war, and even the modern areas, such as the Prager Strasse pedestrian zone, where my flat was, were amazingly light and spacious, with dancing fountains and flower-beds bursting with colour, and people sitting outside at the street cafés, lapping up the sunshine while drinking coffee and eating cake. This was not what I had been expecting of a city behind the Iron Curtain!

Then there was Dresden’s astonishing cultural provision – It wasn’t just that there was an abundance of cultural offerings, but that the appreciation of culture clearly had mass appeal. The famous Old and New Masters art galleries were always busy, and I don’t think I ever went to a classical concert in the enormous Kulturpalast (‘Palace of Culture’) that wasn’t absolutely packed. And not just with the kind of people you might have expected to see in the West, where such things tend to be perceived as middle-class pursuits. In the GDR there was nothing elitist about going to a classical concert or opera: it was simply something enjoyable and stimulating that was accessible to all. Tickets for the newly re-opened Semper Opera House were only on sale once a week, from Monday lunchtimes, and people would start queuing before dawn, even in the depths of winter, in order to be sure of getting them.  Cultural events were heavily subsidised so, even though the opera tickets were still fairly pricey in relation to average wages, they bore no resemblance to the obscene prices charged in the West; and other cultural events were truly affordable for all. This was something I loved, and I still think that life in the GDR was enormously enriched by it.

On a personal level, most people were friendly, curious, warm, helpful and eager to show off their home town and region. I did genuinely get the impression that most people I met broadly approved of what the GDR was trying to do, even if they were critical of some – or even most – aspects of the reality. The lack of freedom to travel was, of course, a very sore point: even Party stalwarts would privately admit to feeling resentful about this. Officialdom could be tricky, especially because the GDR was always seeking ways of getting hold of hard currency, and so there were certain things (notably hotels and international train travel) for which Westerners were required to pay in Deutschmarks. One glimpse of my British passport, and the demands for western currency would begin! All very well, but I was being paid in GDR Marks and, having only just graduated, had no western currency to spare. The university gave me an official document confirming that I was “building socialism in the GDR” and that the requirement to pay in hard currency therefore did not apply, but it didn’t always do the trick, and then the long circuit from one bureaucrat to another to another would begin all over again until I found someone who was willing to cut through the muddle for me.

There were some bad surprises too – the political propaganda I had been expecting, of course: just not that it would be quite so relentless. It was in the textbooks I was expected to teach from, it was on TV, it was in the newspapers, it was on banners draped above shops and offices, it saturated the endless staff meetings, it was even lit up in red neon letters on a block of flats near my home (“Socialism will triumph!”). The same goes for the bureaucracy: it wasn’t unexpected, but the extent of it and the frustration that went with it (and the number of times you would wait for hours to see an official, only to be curtly turned away because you didn’t have a particular form with you, or you did have the form but you hadn’t already waited two hours somewhere else to have it stamped by another official first …), these were things to which I eventually became accustomed but never reconciled.

While nearly all East Germans I got to know socially and professionally were warm and welcoming, an encounter with people in their official capacities was often stressful. Most shop assistants, waiters, post office clerks, ticket desk staff and even doctors’ receptionists often seemed to go out of their way to convey their low opinion of you and their resentment at having to engage with you. “Customer service” seemed an unknown concept, and to go shopping or to the local post office was to face an almost certain lecture on the many ways you had failed to live up to expectations. You would be scolded for not having wrapped your parcel properly, for not standing at the right place in the queue, for not stepping up to the counter quickly enough when it was your turn, for not having your ID ready to show, for not having the right change, for giving them too much small change, for speaking too quietly and, of course, for speaking too loudly. Such encounters were a constant test, it seemed: one we were all doomed to fail. In fact, of all the challenges of everyday life in the GDR, this was the one that ground me down the most.

How do you think  your status as a foreigner (and particularly, your identity as a Westerner ‘behind the iron curtain’!) impacted upon your experiences in East Germany?

On a personal level, most people were friendly, curious, warm, helpful and eager to show off their home town and region. I did genuinely get the impression that most people I met broadly approved of what the GDR was trying to do, even if they were critical of some – or even most – aspects of the reality. The lack of freedom to travel was, of course, a very sore point: even Party stalwarts would privately admit to feeling resentful about this. Officialdom could be tricky, especially because the GDR was always seeking ways of getting hold of hard currency, and so there were certain things (notably hotels and international train travel) for which Westerners were required to pay in Deutschmarks. One glimpse of my British passport, and the demands for western currency would begin! All very well, but I was being paid in GDR Marks and, having only just graduated, had no western currency to spare. The university gave me an official document confirming that I was “building socialism in the GDR” and that the requirement to pay in hard currency therefore did not apply, but it didn’t always do the trick, and then the long circuit from one bureaucrat to another to another would begin all over again until I found someone who was willing to cut through the muddle for me.

…I think it’s unfortunate that today, so many people seem to want to deal exclusively in black and white. While there were aspects of the GDR that were, in my view, inexcusable, and I would never wish to downplay the persecution of those who dared to express thoughts and pursue goals that did not conform to the state ideology, it was not (for most people) the relentlessly grim and terrifying place of Cold War propaganda; and while there was also a great deal that I remember with fondness, nor was it the paradise on Earth that many of the Ostalgiker would have us believe. The reality was far more varied, far more complex and, above all, far more interesting. That’s what I try to convey through my tweets.

The most conspicuous kind of Ostalgie is the pure, un-nuanced version, which simply holds that everything damals (“back then”) was better. There are countless such groups on Facebook, where, if you were to believe everything you read, you would be convinced that everything damals tasted better, no one went without anything, the queues and the patchy supply situation only made shopping more interesting, the Trabant was the best car in the world, industrial pollution didn’t harm anyone, people rarely fell ill, national service in the army was the best laugh ever, and people who fell foul of the Stasi must have done something to deserve it. I have even seen a number of comments suggesting that we shouldn’t make such a fuss about people shot at the Wall, because they knew what the risks were and had only themselves to blame. Everything was for the best, in the best of all possible GDRs.

Personally, while sharing the nostalgia for some aspects of the GDR (if offered a trip in a time machine, I would set the dial firmly for Dresden 1985 and zoom back there like a shot; not because it was so wonderful, but because it was so interesting), I have little patience with those who are determined to whitewash history so completely.

However, there is also a more nuanced form of Ostalgie which I think is more defensible and represents a much more serious challenge to the reunified Germany. One of the enduring resentments felt by many in the East is that, whereas what they wanted was a genuine unification ­– a new Germany comprising the best aspects of both republics ­– what actually happened felt more like a takeover, or even a conquest. There was an assumption on the part of West Germany that everyone in the East accepted that the West was superior in all respects; and I think that assumption was largely false. There were many things about the GDR that much of the population genuinely valued: low rents, full employment, state childcare, good schools. It wasn’t that most GDR citizens despised socialism and longed to be plunged into full-on capitalism: what many of them wanted was not primarily a higher standard of living but more personal freedom. And while reunification has given them that, it has also brought with it a whole raft of problems that were unknown in the GDR, where virtually no one needed to worry about not being able to afford the basic necessities, and where there wasn’t the endless pressure to consume, consume, consume. It shouldn’t come as a surprise, therefore, that some people in the East feel alienated in the new Germany, or that Ostalgie groups regularly talk about having had their Heimat(‘Homeland’) taken away from them.

One Chart to Rule them All

Many thanks to Marek M., who pointed me to this chart based on a report provided by the German government to the Bundestag on 15 December 2016 (pdf, numbers from p. 245).

This is it — the one chart everyone needs to see before forming an opinion about immigration to Germany. The One Chart to Rule them All.

The brown line is the number of deportations from Germany in a year. The blue line is the number of illegal entries.

Illegal entries and deportations

Just let that sink in for a minute. 

Now, a few brief comments.

First, the notion that the 2015 influx is just a blip which will work itself out in the long run is false. In the mid-1990s, German policymakers suddenly decided that they would no longer try to actually deport all the people who entered Germany illegally. Starting in 2009, they essentially gave up on the idea of deporting any more than a tiny fraction of illegal immigrants. Even before the migrant influx of 2015, Germany as a whole was only managing to deport about 10% of all the people in Germany who had already been denied asylum

Second, this breakdown in law and order is a result of many thousands of individual choices by actors in every single branch of the German government.

State governments. Organizing and enforcing deportations is the responsibility of individual German states, so the overall total abdication of deportations is a reflection of policy changes in all 16 German states. Some are much more dedicated to enforcing the law than others, but overall, the trend is downward.

Immigration bureaucrats. The individual decision-makers at immigration agencies can invoke dozens of exceptions to permit people who have already been denied asylum to stay in Germany. They can recognize a special exception for family members, or because of medical problems, or find that conditions in the immigrant's homeland are too unstable, or simply decide not to 'enforce' an existing immigration order.

By far the most common technique they apply is Duldung (toleration), in which someone who has no legal right to be in Germany is allowed to continue staying here as a matter of toleration — basically, the administrator uses his or her discretion to decide that if an illegal immigrant isn't causing a significant problem or has some argument why he should be allowed to stay, he will be permitted to stay in Germany for a temporary period, which can be renewed indefinitely.

Bureaucrats all over the world, like most people, have a noticeable preference for deciding cases in such a way as to create as little work for themselves as possible.

If Bogdan presents you with an obviously fake-looking medical certificate from a notoriously corrupt doctor, you have one of two choices. Either you continue Bogdan's 'tolerated' status, in which case he goes home happy. Or you start a tedious, time-consuming investigation into the genuineness of the certificate. Followed by the tedious, time-consuming, emotionally draining, stressful process of actually getting Bogdan deported. Bogdan has many chances to appeal a deportation order, so the process will take years. During which both Bogdan and his children will set down ever-deeper roots, making uprooting them that much more difficult.

Example: The attempt of police to pick up a rejected Afghan asylum-seeker to deport from a trade school in Nuremburg recently resulted in an all-out riot in which hundreds of the student's classmates blocked a street and threw bottles and even a bicycle(!) at the police, resulting in nine injured police officers:

 

Who wants all that aggravation?

Notice that this bureaucratic inertia results in perverse outcomes: a well-integrated illegal immigrant who admits he could be deported but argues that he should be allowed to stay simply because he's making a contribution will be at high risk of being deported. An illegal immigrant who lies to authorities and manipulates the system (like the Afghan (g) whose deportation caused the riot) will have a greater chance of being allowed to stay, since disproving his bogus arguments and denying his appeals will take so much effort. The squeaky wheel gets the grease.

The courts. The German government sometimes passes laws designed to modestly adjust immigration laws to make them somewhat more restrictive. But none of these will have much effect if courts are generous in recognizing exceptions. German courts are notoriously all over the map when it comes to handling immigration appeals; some are soft touches, while others are rigorous. But the highest German courts often hand down decisions based on the German constitution or human-rights treaties which blow massive holes in the legal framework designed to enforce deportations.

One example is the 2013 decision by the German Federal Constitutional Court (g) on paternity questions in immigration cases. German law rather unwisely provides that a father's decision to officially acknowledge paternity of a child cannot be questioned. This law immediately set up a loophole in immigration law: pregnant women could fly to Germany and request asylum. They would immediately be granted temporary asylum based on a provision of German asylum law which extends automatic recognition to all pregnant mothers.

While being cared for in Germany (at German taxpayers' expense), the human trafficker running the operation pays € 5,000 (the going rate, according to reports) to a German male, who then files an official recognition of paternity. Since the child is now the child of a German father, the child automatically becomes a German citizen when born. And the mother automatically gets a residency permit, since it would be inhumane to break up the family. The father could theoretically be required to pay child support, but the ones who participate in the racket are all on welfare anyway, so they are exempt from child-support obligations. Immigration authorities went to court to argue that they should be able to conduct official paternity tests to disprove the claim of fatherhood, but the Federal Constitutional Court rejected their appeal in 2013. Allowing the authorities to contest the fatherhood claim, the Court reasoned, would create an unacceptable risk that the child might end up stateless.

The result? There are now 700 suspected cases (g) of this form of immigration fraud in Berlin alone. According to the investigative report, many of the mothers ended up becoming prostitutes, working for the human traffickers who imported them and financed the fake fatherhood certificates. The report linked to just above profiles a particularly ironic case: the German 'fake father' who claimed he had a child with an illegal Vietnamese immigrant was actually a far-right extremist an prominent member of the extreme-right NPD party. Apparently the prospect of a quick € 5,000 was more important to this neo-Nazi welfare case than protecting the racial purity of the German Volk. Are you as shocked as I am?

The system is completely broken. Only the foolishly honest or stupid actually get deported, the cunning and the criminal get to stay. Further, everyone across the world understands this: if you somehow manage to set foot in Germany and have some reasonable understanding of German law, there is about a 90% chance you will be able to remain in Germany for the rest of your life, regardless of all the carefully-wrought provisions of German law.

UPDATE: I updated this post on 7 June to reflect that the chart itself is not actually contained in the report, and that the numbers on which the chart is based appear on p. 245 of the linked document.

Do We Still Need Arte? Or License Fees?

Holger Kreitling in Die Welt has an amusing article (g) on Arte, the joint French-German public television channel. Arte is conceived as highbrow television, broadcasting classical concerts, operas, political debates, and documentaries on everything from Claude Sautet to Heidegger to the Thirty Years' war to Bolivian street artists to (as Kreitling puts it) obscure Slovenian bread-making techniques. It is financed by compulsory TV fees (administered by a company called the GEZ in German), yet never attracts more than a tiny fraction of highbrow viewers. As Kreitling notes, a member of the German or French urban haute bourgeoisie is required to announce his social position by declaring either that he has no television, or if he does, that all he watches is Arte. But even for all its failings and occasional pretentiousness, Kreitling still likes it.

And so do I. The only problem is the political programming, which is tiresomely left-wing. There's nothing more superfluous than holding a "theme evening" on Trump's first 100 days on Arte. Every person watching Arte already despises Trump, so all of the Trump-critical documentaries and interviews will have no effect. That's true of all the debate and political programming as well. I am not happy to pay mandatory licensing fees to sponsor the same old debates by the same aging hippies about "the future of ecological Europe" or what have you ("Red Danny" seems to be on every second time I switch to Arte), but I think there's a good case to be made for challenging music and arts programming. I don't have kids but I'm happy to pay taxes for schools because that's part of a healthy and thriving society. People who find classical music and museums boring should still pay taxes to keep them going for the same reason.

But the money should come from general taxes, not the outdated TV licensing fees that so many countries, including Germany, still use as a funding model. There is already a growing revolt against these fees (currently € 17.50 a month), which even includes prison martyrs (g) — people who refuse to pay the fees on principle and who are eventually sent to jail to serve time as a result. Technically, you don't have to pay the fee if you don't own a TV or radio or any comparable device, but the regulations on this point are baffling to most mortals.

There is endless online debate (g) about how far the government can go to determine whether you are receiving any form of broadcast programming which would trigger the fees. If Agents of GEZ™ knock at your door, which they are wont to do, do you have to let them in? The GEZ itself is a massive and expensive government bureaucracy as are all the myriad public television stations which it finances. This is the point where GEZ-defenders will step in and say "but it's not technically a government agency!" They're right, the GEZ is more of a Quango, but nobody really cares about this distinction. The bottom line is if they determine you have to pay the fees, and they don't, they will sic a team of lawyers on you, and you might well end up in prison.

All this money and bureaucracy might be OK if you got a BBC from it, but Germans definitely don't. The quality of the public television programming in Germany is the target of near-universal scorn. Everyone hates something about public TV: The urban haute bourgeoisie hates the folk-music and Schlager festivals and the exploitative shows made to compete with private-TV soap operas and scandal-fests. Conservatives hate what they see as the stifling one-sided political correctness of news coverage and talk shows. Everyone (including me) considers the vast bulk of German TV drama or comedy shows unwatchable.

It should come as no surprise 70% of Germans oppose the TV license fees (g). Seventy percent. That's a pretty high number in a democracy. Granted, when entrenched bureaucratic and governmental interests favor a policy — and they most certain favor a continuation of fee-based public TV — that policy can go on forever in Germany. Just think of the Euro, which was introduced over the opposition of 3/4 of the German population. Currently only the right-wing AfD party has staked out a clear position (g) in favor of abolishing the TV fee. Once again, the German "opinion cartel" funnels voters to the right wing: If you are one of the 70 percent of Germans who opposes the TV fee, the AfD is the only party which openly shares your view.

Fee TV is a zombie policy. You can either wait until it falls apart, or you can drive a stake through it now. Knowing Germany, they'll probably opt for the former. It'll be a pretty ugly process.

In Which I Admire Millions of Tiny German Lawsuits And Annihilate Several Canards About the Law

The U.S. is famous in Germany for its 'runaway' juries which hand down zillion-dollar lawsuits against poor defenseless companies. Yet, as I told my dumbfounded students, Germany is a far more litigious society than the USA. In fact, according to a book-length 1998 study, Germany is the most lawsuit-happy country on earth:

Country Cases per 1,000 Population

• Germany 123.2
• Sweden 111.2
• Israel 96.8
• Austria 95.9
• U.S.A. 74.5
• UK/England & Wales 64.4
• Denmark 62.5
• Hungary 52.4
• Portugal 40.7
• France 40.3

My German students were dumbfounded by this fact. Most of them got their image of the world from the mainstream press. And, as usual, German journalists tended to obsess over the real or imagined failings of other countries, while remaining ignorant of what was going on in their backyard.

But aside from the good clean fun of this tu quoque response, it's interesting to think about why Germany is so litigious. I think there are 4 main reasons:

  • Legal insurance (Rechtschutzversicherung). Millions of Germans have legal insurance policies that pay for lawyers both to file claims and defend against them. This insurance is affordable because litigation costs in Germany are low. Legal insurance is actually an excellent idea, every country in the world could benefit from widespread legal insurance. What it means in Germany, though, is that if you have a policy, you don't have to think twice about filing a lawsuit. Granted, the lawyer is not supposed to file if you don't have a claim, but many do anyway. Legal insurance also provides a lifeline for many small-time lawyers — they can patch together a decent livelihood by having a constant docket of 40-50 small time cases going on at any time. None of these cases will generate a huge verdict, but a steady stream of small payments is enough.
  • Lawsuits are a fact of life. Nobody really takes them seriously. If your landlord hikes your rent, you use your legal-insurance lawyer to fight it. The landlord uses their legal-insurance lawyer to defend. After all, if you don't sue, you'll certainly have to pay the extra 10% in rent. If you do sue, you might end up with a discount. The landlord would probably do the same thing in your position, and knows this.
  • Close neighbors make bad blood. Germany is a small country packed with people. Everything you do in public is going to have some effect on your neighbors. If a potted plant falls off your city balcony, it's going to hit someone or something below. If your cat likes to relieve themselves on your neighbor's lawn, they're going to notice. And might just take lethal action. Your barbecue smoke is going to trigger someone's asthma 5 houses down. The list goes on and on. Every German state has a long, complex "neighbor law" (here's the one (g) for my state), and many lawyers do nothing else. And once again, these petty squabbles are going to end up in court because it's so easy to go to court because of legal insurance. 

And finally, no lawsuit is too tiny. As Wagner once said, a German is someone who will always do something for its own sake. Which means Germans will file a suit over anything. Why, here's a story (g) from the excellent criminal-defense blog lawblog. Two retirees went fishing for deposit bottles in Munich, a favorite pastime of poor Germans, or just ones who need some way to fill their days in the fresh air.*

They approached a large man-sized glass-recycling container, whipped out their grabbers, and started fishing around inside the container. Recycling containers are supposed to be reserved for bottles which don't have a deposit on them, like wine bottles. But many people don't care or don't know how to tell a deposit from a non-deposit bottle, and just toss everything in.

Sure enough, our two hunters found 15 deposit bottles with a total value of € 1.44. Two other Germans, who were certainly feeling very German that day, called the police and reported the bottle-fishers for theft. Wait, what? Two people minding their own business, helping recycle glass, augmenting their puny incomes, harming nobody, and their fellow Germans report them to the cops? Welcome to Deutschland, my friends.

Now German prosecutors are obliged to investigate every credible accusation of crime that comes to their attention, the famous "Principle of Legality"**. This they did. The first thing they had to determine was what the value of the theft was. Technically, this was a theft — once you throw a glass bottle into a recycling bin, it becomes the property of the recycling company. So you might think that the amount of the theft was the deposit value of the bottles. But no! It turns out that the recycling company does not separate out deposit bottles from other ones. Scandalous, I know. So all the bottles just get melted down. The prosecutor asked the recycling firm how much value the bottles would have as recycling material, and the firm said: basically, it's too small to even put a number on.

At this time, the prosecutor chose to halt the proceedings (einstellen) based on the idea that there was no public interest in prosecuting the offenders. The writer at lawblog thinks this was the wrong reason to stop the prosecution — he thinks a better theory is to deny the people had any attempt to commit theft, because they had no intent to take possession of the bottles — their ultimate goal was simply to transfer them to a different owner. 

Be that as it may, the main thing to notice here is that several different government employees spent hours of their time and used considerable resources to investigate an accusation of a crime which, at the very most, involved the lordly sum of € 1.44. It's probably only a slight exaggeration to say that the German state spent 1000 times more money investigating the theft than it was actually worth in the first place.

Now, am I going to snigger about this? Of course I am, and so are you. But at the same time, I'm not going to go too far. The most important thing to keep in mind about high numbers of lawsuits is that they are an important sign of social health. In the vast majority of societies, lawsuits are prohibitively expensive and courts are woefully underfunded and corrupt, so nobody trusts them. Germans and Americans trust courts to usually resolve legal disputes in a fair and equitable manner, otherwise they wouldn't seek them out so often. They're right to do so; both the USA and Germany have exceptionally fair and efficient legal systems, despite their imperfections. A fair, professional, and generally non-corrupt legal system is one of humanity's most important achievements, full stop. Most countries don't yet have one. If you happen to live in a country which does, take a moment and thank your lucky stars. 

* You'd be surprised how many Germans decide they just don't fancy showing up to work anymore and having someone boss them around and tell them to do things. So they develop something hard to pin down, such as a bad back or burnout stress, hire a good employment lawyer, and presto! They're still technically employed in a certain sense, but they don't actually have to, you know, do anything. Everybody wins: their former employers are free of someone who wasn't really contributing, the employee has all the free time he wants, and most importantly, the government doesn't have to formally add this person to the unemployment rolls. Northern European welfare states are notorious worldwide for using a million different tricks to lower their official unemployment rate, and this is just one.

** Some German lawyers, or wanna-be lawyers, believe a lot of adorably misguided things about the principle of legality. If you begin talking about the American legal system, they will get up on their hind legs and begin intoning something like this: "Well, you see, in America most criminal cases are resolved by plea-bargains, where the defendant admits a crime — quite possibly not the one he actually committed — in return for a lighter sentence. This shows the irresponsible, frivolous gamesmanship of the system, where the objective truth of what happened can be bargained away as if justice were nothing more than a poker game. Here in Germany (string music starts swelling in the background), we believe in the principle of legality, which means the prosecutor must investigate all crimes and must prosecute based on the objective facts of what the defendant actually did."

It's at this point that I usually interject to point out that this speech is, not to put too fine a point on it, a crock of shit. First, German prosecutors are absolutely not obliged to bring every case to prosecution. As with all German legal principles, the principle of legality has a pragmatic loophole so big you could fit Saturn through it. A prosecutor is always permitted to "suspend" (einstellen) a prosecution if it is deemed a petty offence (§ 153, Criminal Procedure Code). Suspend is yet another German euphemism, it means the case is dropped. Although there may be a tiny theoretical chance of it being re-started, this basically never happens.

There are many other sections of the Code that permit the prosecution to suspend the investigation or to not bring charges on a variety of different grounds, the most frequently used being the prosecution's belief that bringing charges is "not in the public interest" for some reason. As you might guess, there are hundreds of stories of prosecutors suspending prosecution of high-powered or well-connected people for vague reasons. In fact, there's a whole book (g) ("Prosecution Unwanted!") about this, although it's not very convincing overall.

Also, if you believe plea bargains don't exist in Germany, I've got a bridge in Moscow I'd like to sell you. Even before plea bargains were legally allowed in Germany, it was common knowledge that prosecutors used their huge discretion to plea-bargain all the time. Like American prosecutors, German prosecutors are hopelessly understaffed, and the entire justice system would collapse if cases couldn't be resolved informally.

The practice became so notorious that eventually the federal legislature decided to stop pretending and legalize it. In 2009, it passed a law which, for the first time, legally recognized plea-bargaining in Germany. The law was full of procedural safeguards meant to ensure that the defendants' rights were respected and the principle of legality was not undermined. Would the law pass constitutional muster? The German Federal Constitutional Court held that it did, in 2013:

The Audits Suck, But The Food’s Tasty

Here's a screenshot of the Google entry for the Düsseldorf-South tax headquarters:

Order your tax office

The tax bureaucrats get only 2.3 stars? Sounds like a certain ungrateful city on the Rhine could use a lot more tax audits to boost morale.

But what's more surprising: At the bottom there's a link to the meal-delivery service lieferando! Click on it (g), and you find that Düsseldorf's tax bureaucrats will be happy to whip up some vegan sweet potato curry, chia pudding with chocolate, or a Japanese teriyaki plate.

The Sweariest Case Against Dubbing You’ll Ever Hear

Living in Germany as an English-speaking expat is probably easier than living in France. France may be more charmante, but in Germany, stuff works. Having stuff work is a type of charm in itself. The kind that's important when you have to actually live there.

Paul Taylor, an English ginger and comedian who lives in the Hexagon has an amusing YouTube series called "What the Fuck, France?" which explore some of the peculiarities of French life. As you might expect from the title, they're extremely sweary. Why? Because English people are extremely fucking sweary, you fucking knob. Yes, I know that's a fucking cultural stereotype, you condescending prick, but stereotypes exist for a fucking reason.

Here Taylor takes on dubbing, the bane of every expat's existence: 

I will say, in Germany's defense, that German dubbing is extremely good. They've had decades of practice, and they're German. As I said, stuff works here.

The odd thing is I was just in Paris over the weekend, and I can't help noticing that France is rapidly catching up to Germany in the having-stuff-that-works department. The metros and buses run on time and have clear signs, the system of tickets is a hell of a lot simpler than in any German city, and everything's quite clean and orderly, even in the shabbier parts of town. There is still more dogshit on Paris streets, though.

Yet one day, sooner than you think, we are going to reach the Continental Singularity. As Germany gets more random and disorderly and France improves, there will come a time in which the orderlines efficiency of France's infrastructure, bureaucracy, and daily life are all as efficient as Germany's, a condition last seen only in 1788. 

Everything You Ever Wanted to Know about Sex but Were Afraid to Ask the German Government

Out of pure chivalry, I'm putting this mildly NSFW post below the fold.

 

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This is a screenshot from zanzu ('My Body in Words and Pictures'), a sex-education website started on February 25th by the German Federal Health Information Ministry to educate migrants about sex.

It's all there: sex positions, 'How to Masturbate' (!), contraceptives, pregnancy, counseling for victims of abuse, etc. It features information in 14 languages, and has a text-to-speech function for the hundreds of thousands of illiterates who streamed into Germany in 2015. The idea is to provide basic information for people who come from backwaters where sex is taboo, and education about it is unknown. It also has a section – much needed, alas — explaining that beating and raping people is wrong.

The website has attracted a lot of attention, and not a little mockery. That's a bit unfair. Given that Germany has already made the fateful decision to invite hundreds of thousands of non-refugees from the most backward segments of many Middle and Near Eastern countries, something like this is probably necessary. The ignorance, taboos, and superstitions about sex that prevail in such places is well-documented.

If it were up to me, I wouldn't have imported the kind of people who need simple-minded remedial education about sex. They're very unlikely to succeed in a place like Germany.

But that train, alas, has already left the station.

However, a little voice in the back of my head wonders how our young male newcomers are going to interpret illustrations like the ones below. Given that they sometimes proposition German women by showing them porno films (g) on mobile telephones (and then attempting to rape them when they decline to follow suit), I can't help thinking that some people will interpret these as invitation, not instruction. Let's just wait for the first sex attack in which precisely these illustrations play a role.

086_missionaris_zanzu

086_missionaris_zanzu

Small German Leather Postal Bag from 1952

For funky charm, there's nothing like a German flea market. One of the finest is just a short bike ride away, in a street called Im Dahlacker (g). It's a covered indoor market open every Wednesday and Saturday. There, you can find anything from commemorative egg spoons to used letters to Richard Clayderman CDs. A large selection of eerie dolls. A pamphlet on how to make your own clown figurines. A painting featuring a black-painted banana being slit with a knife, with red paint oozing out.

And this square black leather case for a postman:

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Hard to tell exactly what it was for: I presume that even in the dire post-war year of 1952, the average German postman had more mail than would fit into this wine-bottle-sized square case. Maybe it was for a flashlight? Who can say? At any rate, based on the liberal use of stamps on the inside of the cover, I bet there are dozens of bureaucratic entries tracing the entire history of this piece of West German government property. In fact, I'm not even sure it was legal for me to buy it under the Government Property Registration and Transfer Act of 1973. I suppose I'll find out soon enough. 

27.6% of Bulgarians Living in Germany are on Welfare

According to what I like to call the Magic Pixie Dust™ theory of mass immigration, Germany's booming economy is generating so many jobs that companies are searching desperately for qualified workers.* Therefore we should allow in large numbers of foreign migrants who are not refugees but simply looking for a better life. What could be simpler? Win-win! Anyone who disagrees must be a crytpo-fascist or worse.

So, let's see how this is working out. Since 2014 Bulgarians have been allowed to move to Germany and compete on an equal footing in the German job market. As it happens, I know a number of Bulgarians living in Germany who are hard-working, highly intelligent people with excellent language and job skills. But here's a surprising twist: it turns out that like all societies, Bulgaria has different social classes! According to this report (g) from the head of the Agency for Work, which administers welfare in Germany, 27.6% of the 203,000 Bulgarians in Germany are receiving subsistence welfare, and the proportion of unemployed Bulgarians is increasing.

Now that number doesn't paint the full picture, since some Bulgarians on welfare may have part-time employment, and not all Bulgarians are eligible for welfare. But still, this means a large number of recent Bulgarian immigrants are not finding jobs, even in booming Germany. The head of the agency lists the reasons: they have no language skills and left school before their education was complete. As anyone with access to Google knows, many of the people in this last category are Roma. He advises that local government will need lots of assistance in helping these people learn German, finish their educations, learn some kind of job skill, and fit into the job market. This is apparently Germany's responsibility. This assumes, of course, that the people currently receiving welfare actually want to do these things. I'm sure most of them do, but I'm equally sure many of them don't.

Which raises a few questions: Why should Germany spend millions of Euros providing social welfare, social services, and remedial education to citizens of another EU member state? Is the transfer of tens of thousands of unemployable welfare cases from one EU country to another what the framers of the EU had in mind when they created the policy of free movement? Is this state of affairs likely to increase trust in EU policy?

* Whenever you read articles about business who are desperate to find new workers, it's always useful to ask: 'have they tried increasing wages?' and 'are they just trying to get their hands on immigrants who will accept lower wages'?

The Unknown Fate of the Düsseldorf Artists’ Bunker

Now for the less-appealing side of Wersten. While innocently bicycling down the Kölner Landstrasse, I was confronted with perhaps the ugliest goddamn building I have ever seen. Not intentionally ugly, as in Brutalism, but unintentionally ugly, as in whoever designed it despised humans and wanted to actively make them suffer.

Which is true, since the building was originally a bunker (g) built by the National Socialists.

What we're dealing with is a two-story L-shaped building, probably about 3 stories tall, with a sheer stone facade with almost no windows. There is a copper roof with dormer windows set in irregular intervals, and strange barred windows, surrounded by bays of dark stone, placed seemingly at random. The entrance is, for some reason, painted a lively orange and white:

Entrance to Bunker Building Kölner Landstrasse
Entrance to Bunker Building Kölner Landstrasse
Entrance to Bunker Building Kölner Landstrasse
Entrance to Bunker Building Kölner Landstrasse
Entrance to Bunker Building Kölner Landstrasse
Entrance to Bunker Building Kölner Landstrasse

I suspected at first this might be a bunker. Like most German cities, Düsseldorf has many bunkers left over from World War II. They're 3 stories tall and made out of solid concrete. In many cases, it's extremely expensive or impossible to get rid of them, because the explosive force needed to blow through meters of solid concrete would irreparably damage other buildings nearby. Some can be dismantled, but it's painstaking work and usually creates major disruptions in the neighborhood and many complaints by nearby homeowners. The city or state sometimes tries to get rid of the bunkers but local neighborhood opposition gets in the way. So the bunker in my neighborhood, Bilk, still stands, with its annoying mural. One Düsseldorf bunker has even been turned into a church.

This bunker, like so many others, has a fascinating history. According to this article (g), a pair of German artists moved into the bunker in the mid-1980s, which is pretty common. Bunkers make good studios. The city of Düsseldorf granted the artists a lease. This is what Germans call Kulturpolitik: official state support for independent creative artists. The two artists created their studio inside the bunker, and presumably had cultural events there as well. Robbe has invested 70,000 Euro in renovations.Apparently, the bunker at some time officially became the property of the Bima, the Federal Ministry for Real Estate. 

This video from August 2012 gives you an idea of what the place looked like. Six artists had studios there at that time:

 

Then, nearly 30 years later, the Bima announced it had enough. It ordered the city of Düsseldorf to cancel the lease to the two artists by 30 September 2012. The Bima wants to build 'high-quality condos' on the spot. (Wersten is a working-class neighborhood where 50% of the children are on welfare). The artists fought the eviction notice in court. While that was ongoing, a construction firm began ripping the roof off the place, allowing rain and bird-droppings to flood the studio (g). The spokesman for the Bima is annoyed. The artists were supposed to have moved out by September 2012, they didn't, now somebody wants to buy the property. The artists obtained an injunction to stop this work. Apparently the parties were trying to work out a settlement as of early 2013.

I can't find any more recent news about this contretempts since that time. But from the look of the photographs, nothing much is happening in the former artists' bunker…

Berlin-Brandenburg Airport Makes its International Debut

Until now, I've only seen brief mentions of the Berlin-Brandenburg Airport fiasco in the English-language press. But now, Bloomberg brings all the gory details into the Interwebs, in all their goriness:

“Professor, let me understand this,” Loge said. “You are talking about having 800 people wearing orange vests, sitting on camping stools, holding thermoses filled with coffee, and shouting into their cell phones, ‘Open the fire door’?” Loge refused the airport an operating license. Schwarz stood up and walked out without another word.

The next day, in a hall packed with government officials and journalists, Schwarz sat grimly behind a table with four other officials, including Mayor Wowereit, and announced the unthinkable: The airport wouldn’t open as scheduled. The inaugural bash and overnight move from Tegel were scuttled.

It was merely a prelude to a debacle that is still unfolding. Three years later, Berlin Brandenburg has wrecked careers and joined two other bloated projects—Stuttgart 21, a years-late railway station €2 billion over budget, and an €865 million concert hall in Hamburg—in tarnishing Germany’s reputation for order, efficiency, and engineering mastery.

At the very moment Merkel and her allies are hectoring the Greeks about their profligacy, the airport’s cost, borne by taxpayers, has tripled to €5.4 billion. Two airport company directors (including Schwarz), three technical chiefs, the architects, and dozens if not hundreds of others have been fired or forced to quit, or have left in disgust. The government spends €16 million per month just to prevent the huge facility from falling into disrepair. According to the most optimistic scenarios, it won’t check in its first passengers until 2017, and sunny pronouncements have long since given way to “catastrophe,” “farce,” and “the building site of horror.” There is a noted German word for the delight some took in the mess, too. 

Germany: Do not Ban the Paternoster!

Germany is restricting use (g) of the paternoster elevator:

Animated scheme of a paternoster

It gets its name from the tendency of terrified newcomers to recite the pater noster when boarding and disembarking. There are hundreds (g) of these thrilling contraptions all over Germany. Leftists consider them the most 'socialist' of elevators. I have personally enjoyed several of them in the IG Farben building in Frankfurt. They're good clean fun! Elevator goes up, elevator goes down!

So far, the German government is just trying to restrict their use, but I can just imagine there are a bunch of moist-palped, sightless Eurocrats with translucent skin working deep underground in Brussels, cooking up plans to ban them entirely.

Will you join my crusade to keep the Elevators of Death?