The Germans and disorder

The Germans and Disorder

Hinweisschilder; Copyright: picture-alliance / OKAPIA KG, GermanyWladimir Kaminer; Copyright: picture-alliance/ ZBThe Germans’ Achilles heel is their fear of disorder. A commentary by Wladimir Kaminer.

In his last book, his autobiography The World of Yesterday, Stefan Zweig remarked of the Germans that they could bear anything, wartime defeats, poverty and deprivation, but not disorder. It was not failure in war, but inflation that drove them to despair and caused their susceptibility to Hitler. It was financial anarchy that made them ready to throw in their lot with any devil who promised he would restore order. Many years have passed since then, and Germany has now become the FRG – a free, democratic country with three consonants: one moaning, one bellowing and one slurping. Everything runs according to plan, but the fear of disorder remains the nation’s Achilles heel.

If the plan does not work out once in a while, a train arrives late, a taxi fails to stop or a plane is delayed taking off, their perfect world immediately collapses and all the fuses blow simultaneously. Intelligent, courteous citizens trample down their children, lay about them with their suitcases and leap down onto the tracks. Evacuation plans hang on the wall in every German building, showing the escape routes to be used in case of fire. There is a good reason for this. Without a plan of this kind, the Germans would be incapable of leaving a burning building. They would rather go up in flames than do something that had not been planned thoroughly in advance.

A homemade sign warns moles off the grass; Copyright: picture-alliance / OKAPIA KG, Germany If someone is arranging a birthday party here, they first have to inform their neighbours that things might possibly be a bit louder than usual in their flat on the evening in question. After this, they can pump up the volume all night long, and no one feels in the slightest bit offended. However, if lots of noise starts coming from a flat without prior warning, the neighbours immediately go wild: they bash their heads against the wall, set fire to the building and call the police.

As soon as a baby is born, everyone starts discussing the possibility of artificial respiration in old age, as well as the levels of nursing care that may be required in future. After all, every child grows old sooner or later, i.e. provided everything goes according to plan. However, if you want to grow old in Germany, you have to fill in a very large number of forms, take out countless insurance policies and give your consent to all sorts of things. Here, as soon as a person can write and sign their name, they find themselves filling in and signing forms every day for the rest of their life, filling in and signing, filling in and signing... My daughter attends a grammar school, and each morning I send her off with a signed consent form, giving permission “for my child to become a library user, for a photograph of my child to be printed in the school magazine, for my child to attend swimming lessons…” – keep them coming: I’ll sign the lot.

Yesterday, I was in a street-corner pub and ordered a popular, down-to-earth German dish, the Strammer Max, a piece of bread topped with egg and ham. “But one slice of bread, please, not two,” I specified. “One slice not two? What do you mean? One, not two?” The waiter devoted serious thought to the matter, weighing up whether and how it would be possible to prepare a Strammer Max with one slice of bread rather than two. Despite his best efforts, it was beyond him. No, it was “a gastronomic dead end”. He seemed slightly disturbed as he stared at me. Of course, I immediately cancelled my order. It would be best for the Strammer Max to stay exactly as it was intended to be: with two slices of bread and two fried eggs on top.

Cautionary signs; Copyright: picture-alliance / OKAPIA KG, Germany“Where is the problem?” some readers may well say, “What is so bad about a love of order?” Why should everything not run according to plan? The real German drama is that practically nothing ever runs according to plan. Life is packed full of surprises, and even Mother Nature can be terribly slapdash: sometimes the wind blows from the right, sometimes from the left; sometimes the stars stand out clearly in the sky, sometimes they are a little hazy; sometimes the sun rises later or earlier than expected, despite the fact we have put our clocks forward or back. You can sweep a street twice a day, but there are always going to be a few pieces of rubbish lying about here or there. Somebody’s dog is always running around off the lead, and there are always people who sit on freshly painted benches just because they enjoy it. It’s enough to drive you mad. In order to get some peace from this chaos, Germans hide themselves away in their small allotment gardens, where they can live out their utopias of absolute order. And there they plant and prune and water, and plant.

Wladimir Kaminer
was born in 1967 in Moscow. In 1990, he moved to Berlin, where he lives with his wife and two children. Kaminer regularly publishes articles in various German newspapers and magazines, presents a weekly programme called Wladimirs Welt (Wladimir’s World) on SFB4 Radio MultiKulti, has a regular spot on ZDF’s national breakfast television show Morgenmagazin and organises events at the Kaffee Burger, such as his notorious Russendisko (Russian Disco) nights. A collection of stories also entitled Russian Disco and his novel Militärmusik (Military Music) have made him one of the most popular and sought-after young authors in Germany.

Translation: Martin Pearce
Copyright: Goethe-Institut

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October 2007

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