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Why is German bureaucracy so Kafkaesque?

In the week that the novelist John le Carré won the Olof Palme Award, named after the late Swedish prime minister and diplomat who promoted world peace, I received a letter from Rechtsanwalt Rainer Haas & Kollegen in Berlin. This solicitor’s letter was written in German and the only thing I could understand in it, despite two harrowing years of German tuition, was “€98.20”. And I knew what the fine was for.

I called up my editor and ranted. Good thing he’s understanding, and understands German, and, as he knew the saga, gave me a word for the type of pettifogging bureaucrat who decided that there are no genuine mistakes and that I hadn’t followed the rules and was, therefore, absurdly, guilty. The Germans have some mighty fine words to explain the inexplicable.

The schreibtischtäter (“desk criminal”) was the functionary during WW2 who signed the death warrants of masses of citizens with about the same amount of thought as ordering a crate of champagne. My crime? I had made a genuine mistake on a pre-Christmas trip to Deutschland.

The summary (which I have described before) goes like this. I had got off the plane in Berlin and with my friend had run to get on the bus. She had boarded while I asked the ticket collector on the pavement where I could buy a ticket. The bus, with my friend on it, then drove off to the next stop, so I ran to catch it, jumped on and tried to purchase a day pass online. As usual, I couldn’t connect immediately, and when I did, the bus pulled away, I lost the wifi connection, then the ticket collector came round.

I immediately offered him the correct fare when he told me I had to pay €60, a fine for not having a ticket, which I refused to pay, as I was quite clearly trying to buy the ticket. He marched me off the bus to wait on a street corner of a bleak Berlin suburb for 45 minutes until three police officers arrived. What a waste of German tax-payers’ money.

The officials questioned me about the heinous crime I had committed. They took my passport details and address and I thought that was the last of it. My editor knew better because his Berlin-based daughter had the same thing happen to her and was hounded back to London. Now not only did I have to pay the fine but a solicitor’s fee as well.

My schreibtischtäter could have come out of Kafka’s The Trial, in which Josef K, the protagonist, is arrested by unidentified agents from an unspecified agency for an unspecified crime. National stereotypes only go so far, but my surreal encounter with this schreibtischtäter, a functionary obsessed with their petty power and limited interpretation of the rules with no imagination, made me think of the war and the Wall.

Le Carré was in Berlin as the Wall went up in 1961 and my editor, Daniel Johnson, was there when it came down in 1989, reporting for the Daily Telegraph. Somewhere in between I went through Checkpoint Charlie as a kid with my parents, so there’s some nice symmetry. While Germany has changed over those decades, that national characteristic remains constant. My friend, who is part German and a human rights lawyer, translated my response to the rechtsanwalt (not Disney) and told me it was this kind of mentality that convinced her not to move back to Germany.

Le Carré’s fictional spy George Smiley came out of the Cold War, and on my recent trip, I visited the former Stasi prison. It was just those sorts of schreibtischtäter who ran the place.

There was no reasoning with this man, and so I have paid my fine and rise above the silly incident. Le Carré’s Olof Palme speech ends with a quote from the American poet May Sarton: “One must think like a hero to behave like a merely decent human being.” That type of person doesn’t think.