There's a hugely popular website for baffled English-speaking residents here called Toytown Germany. One of its most active strands chronicles their struggles with German bureaucracy. Advice is offered to members on applications for employment visas and residency permits. The legality of washing a car in the street is debated alongside the rules on medicinal cannabis use. Last week one blogger asked if it's illegal to sell a used mattress here. Another is wrestling with the idea of marrying his German girlfriend in Denmark simply to avoid German red tape (one respondent -- a wiseacre named the Vicar --advised him not to get married at all. 'A man in love is incomplete until he is married,' he wrote. 'Then he's finished.').
The German obsession with order and documentation has long fascinated me. Whenever you move house, for example, you must register at city hall within a week. Wait eight days and you're fined. Similarly apartment-dwellers who buy a washing machine are required by law to take out insurance (to protect their downstairs neighbours from flooding). Half of the world's tax literature is written in German because their system is so complex. This need to put everything in its place is summed up in the maxim 'Ordnung muss sein', literally 'order must be'.
Why, in a country which embraces nudism and Bavarian finger wrestling, should Germans need to regulate and document every step of their lives? Perhaps it is the consequence of history: the Thirty Years War (which taught that survival depended upon the submission to authority), the Hohenzollern (who demanded respect for that authority), the failure of the 1848 liberal revolution and the need for stability after the traumatic years between 1914 and 1945. As a free-thinking Canadian, long-resident in England, I'm tempted to rebel against the impersonal, implied authority of Ordnung. But that's because I haven't lived through devastating war and economic meltdown. Ordnung is the consequence of a long and difficult history.
Max Weber, the German political economist and sociologist, theorised that all revolutions must end up captive to bureaucracy, and so it was in the city once home to Karl Marx and Lenin that Mrs. Cat and I joined the queue at the Bezirksamt to register our arrival. As Britain is a member of the European Union, we had it easy. We only had to submit two forms supported by a total of ten documents (our passports, European Health Insurance cards, marriage certificate, our son Maus' birth certificate, a rental contract and an official letter from the Goethe-Institut). I had anticipated the worst and, as tempting as it would be to claim the experience reduced us to tears (perhaps because our washing machine insurance policy wasn't notarised), our encounter could not have been more pleasant. The Berlin bureaucrat was civil and efficient. She helped us to tick the correct boxes. She didn't boggle us with legalese. And when she was finished, she told us, 'I won't need to see you again.'
That said, one haunting bureaucratic nightmare of a story is currently making the rounds. An English resident recently learnt that her German husband has been dutifully paying road tax on a car which he hasn't existed for a decade. Back in 1998 his VW Polo broke down and, on learning that the car would cost more to fix than it was worth, the man asked the garage to tow it away to a breaker's yard. He gave them his ownership papers as required by law. He watched the car being crushed. He wasn't given a receipt as no money changed hands.
A year later he unexpectedly received a demand for the non-existent Polo's road tax. He went to the tax office to explain and was told that in order to stop being taxed he need to prove the transfer of ownership. He went to the garage to request the paper (which they had failed to send him) but found it had gone out of business. Ditto the breakers' yard. He returned to the tax office who told him that without the correct paper he remained liable for the tax. Then they added that if he didn't pay they would prosecute him.
The husband dragged himself from office to office but to no avail. As the car's transfer and destruction had never been documented, it still existed -- officially. So to avoid prosecution, and for a quiet life, he simply resigned himself to paying the tax, forever. At least until his English wife found out about it. Last I heard, she was threatening to call the police and tell them that the car had just been stolen!
Nietzsche wrote that 'the German soul has corridors, caves, hiding-places, dungeons; the German is acquainted with the hidden paths to chaos.' Laws are an attempt to regulate life's uncertainties, offering the best insurance against chaos. This country's obsession with order ensures that the trains run on time, that the elderly are cared for and that book shelves groan under the weight of official paperwork (cross-referenced, double signed and stamped). The individual is certainly less sovereign than he or she would be in Britain or America. But as Germans surrender themselves to yet another mind-boggling form, are they really succumbing to mindless obedience? Is a failure to comply seen here as a 'Pflicht' from civic responsibility, a selfish evasion of the rules or outright criminality? Whatever the answer, and no matter how many honest citizens are paying road tax on non-existent cars, there remains some truth in the old German utopian belief that a wisely regulated society can create (almost) universal happiness.