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.

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.

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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DSC_0033
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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. 

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:

 https://player.vimeo.com/video/59440682

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…

The Kitten Poster Ordnance

Yes, this is my picture of two beautiful unicorns feeling pretty. Do you want to touch them? APPLICATION DENIED, FOREIGNER. YOU HAVE 30 DAYS TO LEAVE GERMANY OR FACE INTERNMENT.

Just a question, prompted by some recent visits to German government bureaucrats: Is there a law requiring the walls of minor public officials to be decorated with posters and pictures of kittens, unicorns, dolphins, and/or  chimpanzees? Die Pflichtverordnung zur umweltorienterten Büroschmuck?

German Rule of the Week: Postmortem Social Control

Serbian cemeteries feature family gravesites with the likenesses of all family members laser-etched into marble, even the ones who are still living:

Family Plot in Gracanica, Kosovo 2010
Jewish cemeteries feature the columns, books, pillars and obelisks you would expect from children of the Enlightenment:

Grave in Jewish Section of Vienna Zentralfriedhof, 2010
French and Belgian cemeteries are studded with Art Nouveau tombs that look like alien eggs. And Latin cemeteries in the swampy sections of the New World feature above-ground crypts that crumble picturesquely in the humidity:

Tombs in Lafayette Cemetery, Louisiana, 2001
And German cemeteries? Suidically dull, thanks to plodding, literal-minded regulations meant to ensure no gravestone will offend even the most tight-assed musty old Spießburger. And since Spießer-Ressentiment can be triggered by even the slightest trace of humor or originality, the list of rules must be long indeed.

Enter the Friedhofsordnung (Cemetery regulations) for the Protestant Cemetery of Falkenstein/Vogtl. It has 45 separate sections, including at least 5 dedicated to telling people exactly what their graves must look like — including a table (!) specifying the precise volume, in cubic meters, of acceptable gravestones. Cross-shaped headstones are permitted to be up to 20% wider than square ones, you'll be happy to know, as long as the cubic-meter measurement is not affected.

But that's just the beginning. Here's Section 36:

Section 36 Material, Form, and Composition

1.     For gravestones, only natural rock, wood, and cast or sculptured metal is allowed.

2.    The form of the gravestone must conform to the material and must be simple and well-proportioned.

3.     The gravestones must be formed from one piece of material.

4.    All sides of the gravestone must be equally well-worked in a manner consistent with the material.

5.     Finishes and fine engraving are permitted only as a design element in connections with letters, symbols and ornaments which, for their part, may only occupy an area in proportion to the size of the headstone.

6.    Surfaces may not be rounded.

7.     All materials, ingredients, and finishing and design elements that are not listed above are forbidden, in particular concrete, glass, plastic, pictures, engravings, plaster, porcelain, aluminum, etc.

8.    The Church Guidlines on Headstone Design from 15 September 1992 (Exhibit 1) are hereby incorporated by reference into these Cemetery Regulations.

The rules go on, and on, and on. I can't translate the rest — even the small excerpt above left me profoundly depressed. The English, it seems, are not the only ones suffering from ghastly good taste.

Funder on the Impossibility of Das Leben der Anderen

Anna Funder, author of the excellent Stasiland (which I reviewed here), writes in The Guardian that despite Das Leben der Anderen‘s appeal as a movie, the assumption it’s based on — that a Stasi spy might take pity on the subjects of his surveillance and shield them from persecution — just could not have happened:

The ex-Stasi are vociferous in their claims of being "victims of democracy". But the truth is that, by and large, they are doing much better in the new Germany than the people they oppressed. They have the educations and solid work histories they denied their victims. Many of them were snapped up by security firms and private detective agencies eager for their considerable expertise, or they went into business, skilled as they are – to perhaps an unholy degree – in "managing" people. Surprisingly often, they sold property and insurance, occupations unknown in the Soviet bloc. (I think they had a head start here – after all, they were schooled in the art of convincing people to do things against their better judgment.)

[Dr. Hubertus] Knabe [director of the Hohenschoenhausen memorial (G)] is no doubt correct about the internal surveillance of the Stasi making it physically impossible for a Stasi man to try to save people. But in my experience, the more frightening thing is that they didn’t want to. The institutional coercion made these men into true believers; it shrank their consciences and heightened their tolerance for injustice and cruelty "for the cause".

Von Donnersmarck spent four years researching the film, and knows as well as anyone that there is no case of a Stasi man trying to save victims. He has said: "I didn’t want to tell a true story as much as explore how someone might have behaved. The film is more of a basic expression of belief in humanity than an account of what actually happened." The terrible truth is that the Stasi provide no material for a "basic expression of belief in humanity". For expressions of conscience and courage, one would need to look to the resisters.

Brussels vs. the Tophats

So I’m waiting for a doctor’s appointment this morning paging through Spiegel and see this article (G) about chimney sweeps in Germany. Germany still has Schornsteinfeger, those quaint figures in black tophats (good-luck symbols!) who make sure your coal-burning stoves and tile-ovens are in order and clean your chimneys of all the dust, dead pigeons, urchin residue, and unexploded bombs.

But wait, nobody has basement boilers or coal-burning stoves anymore; and the number of apartments with actual working chimneys is pretty tiny. So the chimney sweep must be a thing of the past, right? Wrong! There are most definitely still chimney sweeps in Germany. They not only offer their services to you, they force their services upon you. When they come by to inspect your building, you must let them in (they can even call the police and force entry), and you must pay them a fee determined by the local board.

Http___wwwschornsteinfeger1The article profiles Joachim Datko, a 55-year-old engineer from Regensburg who tried to reject the chimney-sweeper’s services, pointing out that he had installed an ultra-modern gas heating system that didn’t produce a single particle of dust or smoke. He lost, and the chimney sweeper was permitted to barge his way into Datko’s house to conduct pointless measurements.

Who gave them these secure, life-long jobs? The Nazis, of course. In a job-creation boondoogle that’s more reminiscent of 1435 than 1935, they they divided all of Germany up into small "sweep districts," and created a tiny chimney-sweep monopoly in each one. Chimney-sweeps in training have to wait 12 years to be assigned a district. When they get one, they have to live there and volunteer for the fire department. In return, though, they have a monopoly on inspecting and cleaning chimneys and heating devices in that district. In their defense, they point out that they’re much more than chimney sweeps and are, like, totally modern now, and know how to check your home for all sorts of harmful vapors and gases. But however useful their services may be, they still have a monopoly.

Who will save us? The EU, of course. Monopolies violate EU guidelines, so Brussels is soon going to force the chimney sweepers to compete for their services. Yes, that’s right — Brussels will be intervening to reduce bureaucracy. The battle-lines are drawn. On the one side, chimney-sweeps, with their official website glorifying themselves as "experts on security, energy, and the environment" The website’s mascot is the charming young thing picture above, who can sweep my chimney anytime. [was that really necessary? — ed.]. In the other corner, Joachim Datko — yes, that Datko — who’s got his own anti-chinmey-sweep website (G)!

I don’t know where I stand on this issue. On the one hand, it does seem awfully old-fashioned to preserve a monopoly, especially a Nazi monopoly (Nazopoly?). On the other hand, they wear tophats!

Water-Mills and Boring Jobs

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.

Soda Beckstein? Nein, Danke.

Can you name your child “Moon Unit” in Germany?

The most popular male baby name in Germany is, for the second year in a row, Maximilian. Sounds vaguely ancient and dignified, plus it has a cuddly abbreviation.  But, to insert a gratuitous Seinfeld reference, what if you want to name your kid Seven or Soda?  Not so fast.

You’ve got to get past the local bureaucrat at the Standesamt (registry office).  Using the welfare of the child as her unwavering guide, she will probably send you packing.  Every district has its own regulations for baby names, and almost all of them prevent parents naming their children something which is not sufficiently "gender-specific" or which, like "Osama" or "Asshole," could expose the child to taunting. 

The town of Jork, Germany (who exactly picked that name?) helpfully advises you to "seriously consider" what you’re going to name your child and warns you:

The registry official can deny your request for a name if, in her opinion, when the name is not gender specific or when the official is convinced it is not a "name" at all. The official does not reach this decision based on "gut feeling" but rather in consultation of an official Name Lexicon.  If a "serious case" arises and the the official does not allow your name, you may contact the Society for the German Language.

Yes, it’s the nationwide Supreme Court of strange baby names.  They publish their decisions; too, right here (German).  Names from movies are, of course, always near the top: Nemo and Legolas get the nod, the first because it was actually always a name, the second because history knows many examples of names based on popular literary works coming into common use (the good people of the Institute cite Vanessa by Jonathan Swift).  "Destiny" squeaks by a reluctant panel, but only if a clearly female second name is attached.

For an interesting thought experiment, imagine how a well-armed Texan might respond to a bureacrat telling him he can’t name his kid "Chad"