Tuesday, June 14, 2005


They look just like one of us!

The new German authoritarianism?

Germans are legendary for their authoritarian culture, aren't they? The stereotype is an extremely rule-following people and stern-faced officials gruffly ordering you around and saying things like: "Your identity papers! Schnell, schnell!"

From the moment we set foot in Berlin, B, an inveterate jaywalker, agreed with me that we would not, under any circumstances, run afoul of the German authorities by any potentially scofflaw behavior like jaywalking. We would go as far as a couple of blocks looking for marked crosswalks. (Strangely, we found very few.)

Berlin's delightful and well-functioning public transportation system, consisting of two trains (the wider-guaged, elevated S-Bahn and the narrow-guaged, sometimes underground, sometimes elevated U-Bahn), electric streetcars and buses has a ticketing system that is confusing at first but ultimately easy to use. And rather than putting in a costly electronic turnstyle system popular in U.S. cities and elsewhere, you buy your ticket and just board the vehicle.

But it's not quite an honor system. Undercover transit employees ride around on the trains and buses to spot-check valid tickets. Apparently, if you don't have a proper ticket and are caught, you're escorted off the conveyance and fined to the tune of €40-60. A friend who lives in Berlin assured us that announcements are made in the train stations (in German -- so I missed them) saying something like: "Don't ride without a valid ticket. We're on the train, and we look just like one of you!"

So to a guy like myself, who grew up on a steady diet of World War II movies and history books about the Nazi regime, this should be creepishly redolent of Gestapo tactics, right?

After riding several days without incident, it happened twice in two days. All of a sudden, a very plain looking, middle aged guy in very casual plain clothes is holding a small S-Bahn photo-ID badge cupped in his palm, flashing it in a circle around him and saying "tickets please!" And everybody fishes in pockets, etc. for their ticket.

Here's the second guy. He was fiendishly clever -- he flashed out his badge as soon as the doors closed and the train started moving.

u-bahn guy1

Sure, it's easy for you to pick him out of the crowd now, especially with the bright red arrows pointing at him. But I was totally surprised.

But the weird thing is, it didn't feel Gestapo to me at all. Actually, it was sort of cool. And both of the ticket narcs were friendly and smiley. This one could be your Dutch uncle -- let's take another look:

u-bahn guy2
Sorry about the blurry, cockeyed photo quality -- still working on the
clandestine photography skills.

You get the feeling that if you were caught without a ticket, he'd fine you and then join you to laugh about it over a beer.

I'm here to tell you that the whole German authoritarianism thing has not been my experience at all. Police officers have nodded and smiled. Train conductors -- who in former days, and in other countries (including the U.S. I might add) characteristically take their military-style uniforms as a license to strike ludicrous tyrannical attitudes -- in Germany have been light-hearted and genial.

And jaywalking? According to my U of Boogie host, a professor of criminal law, there's no such thing as illegal jaywalking in Germany. You can cross the street wherever you want.


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