Silence in the civilization of noise
As Quiet as a German?
Why do Germans hate noise so much, what is peace and quiet to them, and how do they enforce their right to quietude? I ask people who live in Germany about the meaning of ‘Ruhezeit’ and find out how to survive in a country that loves its peace and quiet.
By Dorota Salus
“The ear never sleeps. It filters sound even during the night,” Sieglinde Geisel explains to me. “The autonomic nervous system reacts to sudden noise with archaic patterns — the readiness for fight or flight. Even harmless sounds, can cause us great stress if heard unexpectedly in the middle of the night, as if it were a matter of life and death,” she adds.
If anybody knows about noise, it’s Sieglinde. She devoted 167 pages to it in her witty and insightful book titled Nur im Weltall ist es wirklich still. Vom Lärm und der Sehnsucht nach Stille (Only in Space Is It Truly Quiet. Noise and the Longing for Silence), in which she studies the relationship between humans and the sounds that have surrounded them for the past 2,000 years.
“Germans are sensitive to noise,” she declares. There is even a special word in German for insufferable noises, a very dramatic one — ‘Lärm.’ It is derived from the word ‘alarm,’ borrowed from the Italian battle cry ‘all’arme’ — ‘to arms!’ Based on media reports, some treat it literally. “Annoyed by noise, a 52-year-old man beat his 69-year-old neighbor to death. Then, he dismembered the body and hid the remains in the woods,” reads a passage from a press article that Sieglinde quotes in her book.
And even though such tragedies are rare, the staff of the German Ordnungsamt service, which enforces public order, cannot complain about a lack of drama. Each day, they receive dozens of notifications from citizens oppressed by noise. For instance, a lady who had her house built next to an equestrian center with her bedroom window overlooking the stables now complains about the sounds made by the horses, which keep her awake. At night, she jots down what time a horse snorts or stomps a hoof. She ends up going to sleep in her trailer sometimes. Or another lady — she complained that the upstairs neighbor had sex 24 hours a day, seven days a week. Next, the owner of a house in a village on the outskirts of Berlin who used to complain about fireworks to no avail now wants rescue helicopters to stop flying over his house.
“The officials are obliged to respond to every complaint. Yet, some people can’t differentiate between reason and delusion. Even the authorities are powerless in the face of imaginary noise,” Geisel comments.
She lives in Berlin and argues that noise tolerance is much higher in major cities.
Berlin | Photo: Pexels
A CONFLICT OF INTERESTThe noise level in residential areas in Germany may not exceed 55 decibels during the daytime and 40 decibels at night.
“Street noise is usually accepted as something inevitable,” says Jens-Holger Kirchner, former city councilor in the Berlin-Pankow borough. “Most complaints from residents concern loud sounds coming from their neighbors or caused by nightlife,” he adds.
This is why cultural districts with vibrant nightlife are both a blessing and a liability for city authorities.
One example is the Kulturbrauerei complex, created in the early 1990s in old brewery buildings in the popular East Berlin district of Prenzlauer Berg, where pre-war houses are now filled with the hubbub of modern restaurants, boutiques, and nightclubs.
“On the one hand, people are glad that the historic industrial buildings, renovated for 3.5 million Marks, are serving as cultural and entertainment venues with a movie theater, catering establishments, and events, but on the other hand, such places put a considerable strain on the residents because of the noise,” Geisel explains.
Event organizers are obliged to make sure the noise does not exceed permitted levels and to let people living in the neighborhood have some rest at night. Otherwise, they can face penalties that — if incidents of noise pollution persist — may amount to as much as 50,000 euros. That is why the issue of noise is taken seriously at Kulturbrauerei. Event attendees dance or listen to concerts in sound-proof rooms, and local residents are notified in advance of any situations that may involve sounds exceeding the prescribed levels, so that they can leave their homes for that time. Sieglinde Geisel reports in her book on noise and the longing for silence that some organizers even offered guests a paid overnight stay in a hotel.
SILENCE IS NOBLE“At the beginning of the 20th century, it was fashionable in Germany to have a library, an estate, and an allergy to noise,” Sieglinde Geisel tells me.
‘Quietude’ was appreciated in the first decade of the previous century by members of the bourgeoisie. The love for quiet became a trend in reaction to the increasingly noisy world of machines and the progress of industrialization. “The population in Berlin and Frankfurt tripled within a few decades. In 1871, one out of 20 inhabitants of the newly established German Empire lived in a city, but by 1910, the number had jumped to one in five,” Geisel cites in her book.
The groundbreaking moment for German noise was the year 1907. Philosopher Theodor Lessing founded the country’s first ‘Antilärmverein’ — an anti-noise society — in Hanover. The members of the Antilärmverein convened to discuss how the sounds of modernity — from those made by factories and cars to those emitted by trains and even guns — affected the intellectual and cultural world.
Their list of demands was impressive: to muffle, and preferably eliminate, any unnecessary racket caused by cars and trams, sweepers and deliveries, as well as animals (barking dogs). They proposed a prohibition on making noise in public — that is beating carpets, playing music with the windows open, or using gramophones. The Antilärmverein opposed plumbing in housing complexes because it disturbed the peace, considered legal action against nighttime singing and clamor, and supported complaints against the aforementioned nuisances.
Members of the Antilärmverein called for limiting disturbances such as barking dogs. | Photo: Pexels The society published information on the noise levels of different neighborhoods and recommended peaceful spots in their journal Der Anti-Rüpel (The Anti-Churl). “Silence is noble,” read buttons distributed on the streets of Hanover by members of the Antilärmverein. Meanwhile in the Berlin neighborhood of Schöneberg, pharmacist Max Negwer was working on the first modern anti-noise earplugs. He called them ‘Ohropax,’ from the German ‘Ohr’ for ear and the Latin ‘pax’ for peace.
SOUND-PROOFLong before Lessing and his society formed the Antilärmverein, the great German writers and philosophers were known enthusiasts of peace and quiet. Dreaming about sound-proof studies to work in, they filled pages in their diaries and letters with complaints about insufferable sounds. “Talent develops in quiet places,” Goethe wrote. In his dissertation on noise, Schopenhauer claimed that it was the murderer of all thought. Kafka, in turn, who was known for his sensitivity to noise and who required absolute silence when writing, allegedly could not imagine a life without earplugs.
Although Lessing’s society failed (as opposed to Ohropax wax earplugs, which were exported to as many as 42 countries after World War I), the echoes of the principles upheld by the early 20th-century noise vanquishers still reverberate in modern Germany. This is visible across country during ‘Ruhezeit’ (‘resting time’), particularly on Sundays when business ceases, no trucks are allowed on the roads, and mowing the lawn with electric tools is strictly prohibited. The same goes for playgrounds, which are extraordinarily quiet when compared with those in other countries. There are also the sound-proof screens around parks and motorways. And there’s the categorical anti-noise legislation from over 40 years ago. For example, the German act against environment pollution of 1974 was introduced with the intention of reducing transportation noise in what was then West Germany.
Given that Germany is among the top 20 most densely populated countries in the world, the eagerness to contain the ubiquitous noise is hardly surprising. In Germany, 83.16 million people live within just 137,981 square miles, according to data by Eurostat. For comparison, 330.66 million people live within 3,796,742 square miles in the U.S., according to the U.S. Census Bureau. Apart from federal legislation, each state has its own laws and regulations on how to ensure quietude in public places. Several months ago during the pandemic, the public transport authority in Mannheim in the German state of Baden-Württemberg asked passengers to abstain from making phone calls while on a bus or a streetcar. In Hessen, setting off fireworks is prohibited on Sundays and state holidays, although it is permitted in private gardens or on balconies. In Bavaria, a permit is required just to set off fireworks on one’s own property.
Still, anti-noise provisions do not prevent the quiet-loving Germans from complaining. Even before the pandemic broke out, hundreds of people would gather every Monday (for eight years!) in Terminal 1 of Frankfurt Airport to protest against the roar of the airplane engines and the expansion of the airport. Similar demonstrations were held in the Rhine Valley, which is crossed by noisy (according to the Germans) freight trains and trucks bound for Italy.
Hundreds gather in Terminal 1 at the airport in Frankfurt to protest. | Photo: Pexels The “noise makers” protest, too. Let’s move on to Sasbachwalden, a resort town with rows of centuries-old timbered houses. Last year, the German Bundesrat, a house of the German parliament, proposed prohibiting motorcycles on Sundays and holidays at the request of the local community, which complained about the wild roar coming from a popular motorcycle route nearby. The idea brought thousands of outraged bikers to the streets. Sasbachwalden mayor Sonja Schuchter announced that what she was striving for was not a complete prohibition but merely respect for peaceful Sundays legitimized by the state.
A GRIEVANCE AGAINST PORK CUTLETSBavaria is said to be the worst — at least in terms of anti-noise restrictions.
Before telling me what it is like to live on the second floor of an apartment block in a small town near Regensburg, Danuta, who works at a REWE supermarket, first shows me the building rules and regulations she was handed when she moved in 18 years ago.
“There was no tenant vetting process back then yet,” she says.
Today, a landlord would ask her where she worked and how much she made before agreeing to rent an apartment to her. Then, they would call her previous landlord and ask for a reference to make sure she was not receiving unemployment benefits.
“Noisiness is an undesirable trait when you’re looking for a place to rent. Similar to having small children. It’s harder to rent an apartment when you have them. It’s obvious — noise and damage,” she explains.
The thing with children is simple.
“Each resident needs to keep in mind that an apartment is not a playground. And even in a playground, too much noise is unwelcome. Even if you’re polite and pay your rent on time, you might soon get a notice if you can’t keep your kids from making noise,” Danuta says.
One of the clauses in the regulations mentions ‘Mittagsruhe,’ midday resting time, between 11 a.m. and 2 p.m.
“During this time, you can’t do laundry, vacuum, drill, or beat rugs. For the residents who don’t work, Mittagsruhe is the time to enjoy lunch and rest,” she explains.
Each resident should remember that the apartment is not a playground. And even in a playground, too much noise is unwelcome. | Photo: Pexels Next thing: the balconies. There are rules for those, too. Danuta’s neighbor learned that the hard way, when he sublet his apartment to his friends for six months.
“When he was at work, they would turn the balcony into a barbecue site, which is strictly prohibited under the house rules. The same goes for having loud conversations, throwing cigarette butts over the guardrail, and playing music during the resting time. They received a court order to leave the apartment for causing a nuisance, and they were gone before the six months had passed. Even the main tenant got kicked out,” Danuta remembers.
When she was throwing a birthday party, she put up a notice on the stairs, asking the neighbors for understanding.
“Paper is paper. Should the police call, at least you have proof that the neighbors were notified. Otherwise, if you make noise during the quiet hours — between 10 p.m. and 6 a.m. — your guests have ten minutes to leave the premises and you get fined,” she explains.
Despite the numerous rules — or perhaps because of them — she finds life in Bavaria peaceful. The neighbors are very friendly.
“The main thing is not to bother others and to rest and not to make noise on Sundays,” Danuta says. “When my upstairs neighbor used to pound pork cutlets, all my furniture would shake. I couldn’t sleep past 7 a.m. on the weekend because she made such a racket. And the clatter of silverware shaking on the table! ‘Woman, put a towel under the cutting board or put it on your lap to muffle the noise,’” Danuta advised her.
It didn’t help, though. The neighbors complained, and the cutlet lady received a written grievance from the housing association.
And how does Danuta avoid making noise?
“I don’t run the water in the bathtub after 10 p.m. because the noise is out of this world. The whole block can hear it. I don’t want to wake the kids in the apartments on the first floor. The toilet? Oh no, flushing the toilet is OK,” she concludes.
SMOKE IN THE NEIGHBORS’ EYESThe subject of noisy neighbors is a sensitive matter in Germany. As I find out for myself while perusing numerous groups, threads, and comments on online forums. Most comments come from foreigners who have found out about the German rule of Ruhezeit and their love for quietude only just now. They often learn it the hard way.
Jose from Spain had lived in the city of Wetzlar in Hessen for seven years before he surrendered in a yearslong feud with his neighbor who couldn’t stand the sound of a sofa bed being unfolded after 10 p.m. Finally, Jose moved to the smaller town of Asslar. Today, he knows that if he is renting a house with his friends and wants to have a barbecue, the crucial thing is to make sure that the smell of the smoke does not disturb the neighbors and that the gathering is not too loud.
“I wouldn’t have cared before. But after a total of ten years in Germany, I notify my neighbors when I have a fire, so that they can close their windows in advance,” he says.
Jose from Spain had lived in the city of Wetzlar in Hessen for seven years before he surrendered in a yearslong feud with his neighbor, who couldn’t stand the sound of a sofa bed being unfolded after 10 p.m. Finally, Jose moved to the smaller town of Asslar. | Photo: Pexels When I tell him about a court ruling in Cologne, which decided that a German dog may only bark for 30 minutes a day at intervals of no more than 10 minutes (or it will be sent to mandatory training at the owner’s expense), and that a parrot may screech for no more than two hours (or else its owner will have to pay damages to the neighbor), the Spaniard is not surprised.
“German courts examine thousands of disputes between neighbors every year. Some of them sound like a joke. For example, there was a complaint about frogs croaking in a neighbor’s pond,” Jose says. “You can choose your friends but not your neighbors. It’s a lottery. One grumpy guy next door is enough to make your whole life difficult. That’s why you need to be friendly, easygoing, and as quiet as possible to survive in Germany.”
This article belongs to a series titled „Oto Niemcy“ (“This is Germany”) that the Goethe-Institut published together with Magazin Weekend.gazeta.pl .