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Maze of Laws, Rules : W. Germans Do It All by the Book

June 05, 1985|TYLER MARSHALL | Times Staff Writer

BONN — As citizens of a country that prides itself on the rule of law, West Germany's butchers are in a quandary.

Do they comply with health regulations that demand floors with a smooth surface to prevent bacterial buildup? Or do they adhere to work safety laws that stipulate rough brick flooring to prevent accidents?

Their dilemma stems from the maze of intricate, often petty regulations and laws that envelop nearly every West German.

"We're trying to eliminate these contradictions, but it's slow work," noted Peter Runkel, a federal construction official who directs efforts to simplify building regulations.

Conflict Is Inevitable

In a country which has traditionally armed its formidable bureaucracy with laws reaching deep into the most personal aspects of life, such conflict is inevitable.

The level of official involvement is one of the constants running through Germany's vastly different political systems over the past century. It is something that sets modern West Germany apart from other Western democracies.

Today, federal West German law regulates when a homeowner can cut his lawn, the angle of the staircase inside his home and the number of wall plugs allowed in his bedroom.

The mountain of rules governing housing construction has become legendary, with 660 separate regulations spanning about 8,000 pages of detailed, turgid German bureaucratese governing just the interior construction.

Stores Must Close

An infamous shop-closing law creates nightmares for working people by requiring all stores in the country to close no later than 6:30 p.m., except, of course, on most Saturdays, when stores have to close at 2 p.m., and Sundays, when they are not permitted to open at all.

"German bureaucracy stifles individual initiative," charged Ralf Dahrendorf, a prominent political figure here in the early 1970s, who recently returned to West Germany after 10 years as head of the London School of Economics.

Even in the most personal family matters, such as the name for a new baby, government regulations define the limits. Woe to nonconformist German parents intrepid enough to grace their baby with a bureaucratically unacceptable name.

A Frankfurt couple who wanted to name their child after the Peanuts character, Schroeder, went to court after city officials refused to register the baby's name.

The family lost.

A superior court judge backed the bureaucrats' assessment that Schroeder was a last name and therefore not permitted under West German regulations as a first name.

A couple in the Ruhr city of Moenchengladbach last November were prevented by a similar court ruling from naming their son Hemingway.

"You have to understand that there are certain rules here," the director of the Bonn city Registry Office, Rudolf Buechner, explained to a foreign visitor.

"Names help create a certain order," he added. "If a name is on a list and nobody knows if it's a man or a woman, then difficulties can arise."

Those parts of life's routine neglected by federal lawmakers fall to the purview of local governments and, predictably, few waste the opportunity to impose even more regulations.

Afternoon Quiet

A 1970 ordinance in the nation's capital bans the use of loud motorized equipment between 1 p.m. and 3 p.m.. Similar laws exist in other German cities, part of a long tradition of legally enforced midday quiet.

Beating carpets and mattresses within the capital's boundaries is permitted only between 8 a.m. and 12 noon, except on Fridays, when afternoon beating is allowed between 3 p.m. and 6 p.m.

In the southern town of Constance, residents are obliged by law to have the sidewalk in front of their homes free of any overnight snowfall by 8 a.m. However, another ordinance, protecting the early morning quiet of the town's residents, prevents the start of any shoveling prior to 7 a.m.

"Someday, they'll have it down to 15 minutes, and the whole town will be out there shoveling at the same time," declared Dahrendorf, now a professor at a university in Constance.

Some blame the proliferation of laws dealing with such routine matters of daily life on the dearth of informal neighborhood contact that keeps neighbors strangers, often for years.

"The pioneer tradition of helping your neighbor and doorstep meetings isn't strong here," noted Social Democrat legislator Dietrich Sperling. "People tend to keep to themselves, so if I want to cut my lawn at midday, it's possible I don't even realize the man next door is working a night shift."

Deep Cultural Roots

Many believe the West German penchant for over-regulation has deep cultural roots.

"It is a very old story here, a Prussian tradition," said Dahrendorf, recalling that even Germany's industrial revolution was organized from the top by the government and large banks, not by free-wheeling entrepreneurs as in Britain and the United States.

"There is a long tradition here of not relying on the individual," he added. "When anything happens, there is a tendency to invent a new law to regulate it."

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