Germany at 25: TÜV

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All photos courtesy of TÜV SÜD, used with permission

Lake Crystal, Minnesota. May 7th, 2014. A 58-year old woman was travelling home in a thunder storm after a long day in the massage business, taking care of customers located away from her office in Fairmont. She was heading westbound on a major highway connecting Mankato with Windom and was just passing Lake Crystal when the scare of her life happened! Lightning struck her SUV, a Chevy Blazer, disabling the vehicle and with it, the automatic lock system set in the lock position! As she called for help on her mobile phone, lightning struck again, setting the vehicle on fire!! She was trapped and tried frantically to set herself free! At the same time, a police officer and a driver nearby, saw the blaze and ran as quickly as possible to the burning car, with the officer breaking the window on the passenger side and both men pulling her out of the car! And just in time too, as the vehicle exploded just as they were getting to the squad car! A video of the event can be found here:

While the driver survived with only scratches and bruises, the vehicle was a total loss, but it led to some questions, which included the main one: How could this happened and could this have been avoided?

In Germany, such an incident is very rare to find, namely because of its tough regulations for all vehicles. In particular, the TÜV.  Known as the Technischer Überwachungsverein, this organization was founded in 1866 in Mannheim under the name Gesellschaft zur Ueberwachung und Versicherung von Dampfkesseln (or The Association for the Inspection and Safety of Steam Engines and Boilers) in response to the numerous steam engine explosions in  what is now Bavaria, Thuringia and the Ruhr Area in North Rhine-Westphalia. Its success in five years time in reducing the number of accidents prompted the conversion from a private organization to a state-run entity in 1871, the same year Germany was established, with several key members like Walther Kyssing overseeing the organization.  Starting with 43 TÜVs, the numbers have been reduced through consolidation to five: TÜV South, TÜV North, TÜV Thuringia, TÜV Rhineland and TÜV Saarland, with one located in Turkey, France and Austria.

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TÜV has regulations for all engines and appliances to ensure that they work properly and the consumers are not harmed by potental defaults. This also applies with automobiles as well, as federal and European laws require that all cars are inspected accordingly so that they are operating according to regulations.

“It applies to automatic locks in cars,” says Vicenzo Luca, Head of Corporate Communications at TÜV South, located in Munich. The agency is the largest in Germany, with 19,000 employees and serving Bavaria and Baden-Wurttemberg. “While automatic locks are allowed in Europe, they are inspected to ensure they function properly.”  One has to be careful with the role of TÜV for they are not the ones with the regulations outright. “The  law-giving authority is the European Commission and in Germany the Kraftfahrt-Bundesamt (KBA) in Flensburg, and not the TÜV organisiations,” Luca states in an interview with the Files.  This leads to the question of how TÜV works in today’s Germany. If asked how TÜV works, using the South organization as an example, it would be explained like this, according to the interviewee:

“TÜV SÜD is a global technical services company made up of the INDUSTRY, MOBILITY and CERTIFICATION Segments. Its service portfolio comprises the areas of testing, inspection, auditing, certification and training. TÜV SÜD brings people, technology and the environment together – ensuring lasting, sustainable results and adding value.

Founded in 1866 as a steam boiler inspection association, TÜV SÜD has evolved into a global, future-oriented enterprise. Over 22,000 staff continually improve technology, systems and expertise at over 800 locations in over 50 countries. By increasing safety and certainty, they add economic value, strengthening the competitiveness of their clients throughout the world.

In the INDUSTRY Segment, TÜV SÜD’s suite of services spans support for the safe and reliable operation of industrial plants, services for infrastructure and the real-estate industry and the testing of rolling stock, signalling systems and rail infrastructure. In the MOBILITY Segment, TÜV SÜD’s experts carry out periodict technical inspection of vehicles and emission tests and support automotive manufacturers in the design, development and international approval of new models and components. The CERTIFICATION Segment covers services aimed at ensuring the marketability of consumer, medical and industrial products and the certification of processes and management systems across all industries.”

In other words, no certificate is a no-go. When owning a car in Germany,  “…..German law regulates that cars have to be inspected the first time after 36 months after initial registration,”  added Luca. “The subsequent inspections are every 24 months.”  

After the first three years, the car has to be inspected- afterwards, every two years. If there is a reason behind the stereotype that Germans are obsessed with their cars, it is not only because they should look nice, it is because they should function and given the TÜV approval according to law.  But apart from locks, the TÜV inspects the following car parts:

  •     Brakes
  •     Wheels/tyres
  •     Frame/body
  •     Exhaust system
  •     Steering
  •      Lighting/electrical systems
  •      Windows/mirrors
  •      Accessories
  •      Pedals, seats, seat belts
  •      Electronic safety systems

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During the inspection, when flaws are discovered in the car, car owners are required to fix these flaws or risk losing the vehicle altogether while paying hefty fines. According to Luca, ” Flaws have to be fixed within a four-weeks-time and then the car has to be re-inspected. The fine for driving without valid inspection varies by the time the inspection is overdue. From 2 to  4 months, 40 Euro. From 4 to 8 months, 60 Euro. More than 8 months 75 Euro. If the car is a serious danger for road safety, the police can withdraw it immediately from circulation.”

If looking at the cars on America’s freeways today, looking at the appearance of them alone, three out of four would be removed from the highway, for having bumpers attached to the car via duct tape or black-colored exhaust fumes from the tail pipe are not allowed. Owners of half of the remaining 25% of the cars would be forced to fix the cars or face fines and comfiscation by the police. This leads to the question of how important it is to have the cars inspected. According to Luca, it is important to have the cars inspected through TÜV because, “The third-party-inspection adds substantial value to road-safety in Germany, as conflicts of interest are avoided. As the inspecting organisations do not draw any financial benefit from a possible reparation of a car, the owner can rely on a neutral judgement.  On the other hand garage owners can proove to critical car owners that a reparation is required.”  Yet, while regulations are universal in Europe, each state has its own set of inspections that fulfill the guidelines. “Within the EC periodical technical inspections are part of the road safety program,” says Luca. “The inspections  and the periods vary from state to state, but basically the have the same goal.”

TÜV regulations apply for all vehicles with a cubic capacity of more than 50 ccm, meaning trucks, trekkers, motorcycles and trailers, according to Luca. Yet no inspection guidelines apply for bicycles, although from the author’s point of view, it would not hurt as some of the components, including gears, bike chains and lighting should work properly if bikers commute on a daily basis, like the author does. But perhaps in a few years, a TÜV guideline will be enforced and the bike shops will profit from new customers needing their bikes inspected and fixed to fulfill guidelines. A similar guideline already exists in Switzerland, together with a vignette, insurance to protect the bikes from damage or theft.

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Bike inspections don’t belong to the TÜV but with all the daily commutes, bikers may have to consider this option

With more vehicles on the road than 10 years ago, the importance of inspections is increasing not only for the safety of the driver but of others on the road as well. And while such an inspection is costly, it will benefit the driver and the car. Especially when the driver wants to avoid an incident like it happened in Lake Crystal last year. While it is unknown who is at fault for the technical defect which almost took the life of the driver, it is almost certain that with inspections like what is being done with TÜV, chances of such a freak incident will decrease. This was the mentality that Germans had when creating the inspection organization for steam engines and boilers 140 years ago, and it is the mentality that exists today, which justifies high quality products, especially when it comes to cars, a prized good for a German household. 🙂 ❤

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The author would like to thank Vicenzo Luca for his help and photos for this article. 

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Black Friday- The Start of Christmas Shopping

Author’s Note: This is a Throwback article dating back to 2013. Black Friday is the day where Christmas shopping starts, which is the day after Thanksgiving. Yet the author has been quite critical of this tradition as you can see below. A pair of additional links that you didn’t see in the original areavices version of the article are provided at the end of the article. Enjoy! 🙂

Thanksgiving in America: A day of giving thanks. A day of spending time with family and friends. A day of feasting on turkey, stuffing and the like and watching football. A day to go shopping.

SHOPPING?!!  

Not quite. Thanksgiving is the the day before the start of the Christmas Shopping season, the day that is called Black Friday, because that is where many retailers provide the best deals for people to go shopping, so much that many of them would line up in front of the stores for hours until the doors open and people get what they are looking for.  But aside the fact that we finished celebrating our 150th Thanksgiving (President Abraham Lincoln declared the day a national holiday in lieu of the Gettysburg Address in 1863) plus the fact that the holiday is being shared with the Jewish holiday Haunakah this year, a first in at least two generations, this year’s Thanksgiving will go down in history as the holiday where people stood up to the retailers and said “No!” to shopping on that day.

While there had been a trend going in the last couple of years, where stores open in the evening of Thanksgiving, many of them, most notably Target and Wal-mart, plus some malls in America tried to open during the afternoon of this sacred holiday, at the dismay of many who just want to celebrate with friends and family. This trend goes away from the tradition I was used to, when growing up: where Black Friday started at 9:00am, in some cases (albeit a bit extreme), 6:00am.

Many people in other countries could not believe it. Some are of the assumption that it is typically American to consume around the clock. If that was the case, this whole world would be covered in plastic, and we would become the scapegoat. But deep down, the majority of Americans have stood up to the corporates, saying no to working or even shopping on Thanksgiving. Many of them look at us expats as examples and are envious. In Germany, despite having one Sunday open for shopping per month, all stores are closed on Sundays AND holidays, both religious as well as national. We close on the day of German Reunification (3 October), Pentecost weekend, Good Friday through Easter Monday, Epiphany and even on religious holidays in places like Bavaria, Saarland and Saxony Anhalt. This is just to name a good few. And there is a reason: we tend to use these days as the day of rest, going by the book in accordance to Genesis.  These are the days where streets like this one above are empty. It is unlikely that stores would be open on these days and the streets would be filled to the brim, because many of us want to spend time with family and friends, grilling food and feasting on what is typical for these holidays.

And that is why, despite attempts of the German government to provide exceptions to the rule, that we intend to keep our holidays and put the stores in check, forcing them to respect the wishes of the customers. This has resulted in Americans embracing the European culture in that aspect, for despite having 11 holidays where there is no work and the stores are closed (at least many), they really don’t have much time to spend except at the computer desk or on the road.  If we end up flocking into stores like the one below, only the corporates will be happy because of the profits, but not the Americans.

And this takes us back to Thanksgiving and Black Friday, with a bit request to the corporates. Despite your attempts to keep your business running and increase profits, you are actually losing your customers in the long run, because you do not listen to them. Perhaps you should take a look at the holidays and their true meaning. Look at what other countries are doing and how they have profited from them. Adapt to the needs of the customer. Sometimes just returning to the old tradition of having Black Friday beginning at 9:00am helps a great deal, instead of having stores open on Thanksgiving or any day.  Holidays are meant to be the Day of Rest. The Day of Celebration. The Day for Family and Friends. So before the next holiday comes along, why don’t you think about that and make the changes that satisfy everyone?

For those who want to know more about Thanksgiving, a link is provided here.

The origin of Black Friday, believe it or not, came from President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s plan to move up Thanksgiving in 1942. More on that here.

Another critical article from the author on Black Friday and the desparate attempt to open stores on Thanksgiving even is here.

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Genre of the Week: Engel zu Fuss

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Life is a given right. How you earn your keep in it depends on how you handle other people and things. It does not have to be individual success per se. Sometimes that is a sign of selfishness. Yet it has to do with how you contribute to the right cause. And if there is a rule of thumb, no matter how big or small, a good deed always erases a bad one.

This is the theme in this Genre of the Week film entitled “Engel zu Fuss,” known in English as Waltraut and Kuno. Created by Jakob Schuh and produced in 2007, the plot of the film, which is six minutes long, is an angel (Waltraut) loses her wings in a free fall onto Earth. No matter how she tried to fly again- whether it was with a baloon or cannon- she ended up on the ground until she realized that the only way up is to work her way up- in a circus. And the people working there, in particular Kuno, realized that and thus integrated her into their family, working together and becoming successful until one event during a performance resulted in her earning her wings. Do you know when it happened, especially after watching the film here? 

Open for the general audience, the film made its debut in a Siebenstein TV episode in the German TV station KIKA in 2007, with the story being narrated by Henriette Heinze, who plays the main character owning a small shop and enjoys her company with Rudi the black bird and Koffer the briefcase. But even without the narration, by looking at the film, one can choose many themes that are worth thinking about, let alone sharing in class. What was mentioned at the beginning of the article, life and people and how they are treated by us, is one of them.

Another is the question of kindness. When was the last time you have done something for someone and why did you do this? If it has been a long time since you last did something good for others, have a look at this film and think about what you can do for someone who needs it. After all, the person you are concerned about, is disgruntled and poor and all that person needs is some good company and friendship. A good meal, cup of coffee and a good hug definitely makes a big difference. 🙂

Think about it, a good deed always erases a bad one, and in the end, you and the ones you are helping will benefit. 🙂 ❤

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Never Meet a Stranger in the Alps

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I am not sure how to start this column entry off as I needed some time to think about what to write about. But being a Methodist who also has a background in other religions in Christianity (mainly Lutheran and Catholic, the latter of which I was baptised at the age of 3 months) and learning some lessons from a devote Christian I met a few months ago, I figure I would start off with a quote from the Bible from the book of James.

James 4:11-12: 11 Do not speak evil against one another, brothers.[a] The one who speaks against a brother or judges his brother, speaks evil against the law and judges the law. But if you judge the law, you are not a doer of the law but a judge.12 There is only one lawgiver and judge, he who is able to save and to destroy. But who are you to judge your neighbor?

The topic I am referring to in this article: politics in social network- in particular, Facebook. And even further, the events in France and refugees. When I joined Facebook in 2010, I did it with the main intention of reconnecting with friends and colleagues whom I lost connections since leaving the United States for my adventure in Germany, while at the same time, establish new friendship with people I met while in Germany, as well as those who have similar interests as I so and those whose interesting life stories have led us to connecting.  And this in addition to connecting with family members.

Fast forwarding to the present, and despite being reconnected with people, who I would put into eleven different categories (including people from five different alma maters, two high schools, the bridgehunting community, close friends, expatriates and family), I have realized that social networking does have worms in them which can destroy connections and friendships. In particular, when it comes to politics.

A few days ago, I had put a post on my timeline expressing my opposition to the petition made by 32 US Governors to President Barack Obama to put a halt to the immigration of refugees from Syria and Iraq, despite their lands being destroyed by ISIS terrorists, and in response to the terrorists attacks in Paris and Beirut that killed ca. 200 people and injured many more. The responses to the posts were outrageous. The respondants showed disrepect towards the President, calling him a dictator even though the US Government system consists of Congress (which passes the bills), Executive (where the President signs the bill into law) and Judicial (where the Supreme Court can determine its constitutionality) Branches.  But what more alarming was a comment by one respondant saying the following to a German in this conversation, who supported the refugees living in Europe and the US: “If it hadn’t been for us Americans, you (…..) would be speaking Russian!” (I think you can fit any degrading comment depicting a German in here) 

You can imagine the author’s reaction in response to the comment, analogizing it with a scene from The Big Lebowski:

If there is a word of advice regarding posting potential controversial topics on Facebook, it would be this: Do NOT mess with a stranger in the Alps. Your enounter will determine your life’s destiny.

This incident opened my eyes to reality in ways that were not opened before- not even during the days of George W. Bush. It went beyond the insult made on my family and friends here in Germany and into an area most sensitive to the human body, mind and soul- our freedom of expression, our freedom to state our opinion and respect the opinions of others.  We were taught the US Constitution in school and I learned about the German Basic Law while living here, both of which feature the right to free speech. Before social networking came about and became an important commodity in our lives, we would enjoy conversations in person where our opinions mattered and we learned from each other. Even when Bush ran the country to the ground during his reign, we kept ourselves civilized and respected each other and our rights.

What has happened to it? With the introduction of social network, we have been getting bombarded by information deemed biased, containing half-lies and leading us to hatred. Whenever we post our own opinions towards topics like refugees or provide questions for the forum, we are received with hate comments even from strangers. Even the information from neutral sources is played down as absurd. And instead of a good chat with a friend far away, we get thrown out of his/her network for expressing our opinions because it does not conform with his/her opinion. It is like with the Miranda Law in the US: Anything you say can and will be used against you, except in this case, we cannot state anything without causing a fight and below-the-belt comments like what I witnessed. Sadly, other people have experienced worse and have even started reconsidering plans to spend Christmas with them.

What in God’s name have we become? Have we lost our sense of reasoning and sensitivity towards others?  Has (at least this latest round of) politics really destroyed the fabric of friendship and family?  When will this hatred on social network finally stop?

The same devout Christian from Saxony once forewarned me that I was posting too much and that my political opinions will eventually cause dischord which cannot be reversed. Unfortunately, her revelations were right, but with the latest debate on refugees in the US and Europe, it has affected us all, not just myself. Several people have even reconsidered closing down their Facebook accounts because being on there is like walking through a Wal-Mart store filled with trailer trash people purging the store, destroying items in their path without even paying for them. But as I have many in my network I keep in touch with, it does not make sense. The only solution is to take a few steps back, spend less time with the social network and cease posting political comments and engaging in political discussions. And kick out those who try to start one in my timeline.

Sometimes being away from this junk can serve as a signal for people to think about their actions, to learn to respect the opinions of others and become civilized towards each other. As the statement at the beginning shows, I respect the opinions of others. I want others to respect mine too. Listening to others helps a person grow, too. A little word of advice before posting the next political comment for discussion on your timeline or that of others.

 

P.S. to that person who advised me to cut back on my posting, in case you read this, I will take that advice in hope to find a bit of peace in light of all the problems we have in the world. In other words, I owe you for this. 😉

 

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We Stand United in Peace

A while back, while visiting friends in Potsdam, I came across a piece of artwork near the city center which caught my attention. It was a sculpture featuring a circle of three friends, a girl and two boys, dancing together in the grass. The artwork dates back to the days of East Germany, but the theme holds true today: we stand united as friends, through thick and thin, through good and bad, and through rain and sun. A member of an American expatriate group in Germany asked if there was a picture that would be better than the Statue of Liberty, which can be found both in America as well as in France.  My answer: perhaps not, but in light of what happened in Paris and Beirut, this sculpture and its symbol is as strong as liberty, and freedom and justice , as shown by Lady Liberty. I don’t think anything can top that.

To show solidarity and love for our family and friends, and stand united in the face of our enemies who committed these atrocious crimes in a war that is unwinnable on both sides, here’s the picture worth mulling over. What would you title it as? And why? Think about it long and hard, and ask yourselves, who are you thankful for and who would you like to reunite, or if you harmed someone in the past, reconcile?

We stand in unity

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The Unwinnable War

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This article goes out to the people in Paris and Beirut and the families and friends of those who were killed in the terrorist attacks of 13 Noveber, 2015, showing solidarity, love and courage in the face of the unknown evil that cannot be won unless we get to the root of the problem. The attacks happened just as the article on Civil Courage was published, and despite the question of coincidence, both this and that article should be read to get a better scope of what is going on in our society today.

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There are two important variables in life where we cannot escape, even if we tried: death and taxation. We’re all are going to die, and we are all obliged to pay our taxes to the state to keep the system and government running.

After Paris, we now have a new constant variable: war.  We live in a war every day, whether it is a classical war or a domestic war, whether we face bullies in school, backlash for murder or terrorists who try to take away our right to live in society, whether it is a war on poverty and the environmental pollution, or war against ISIS and the Taliban and their satellites. No matter how we make peace, together with when and with whom, the next war is around the corner.

But do we care about it and do something about it? Absolutely not.

We live in a world of naivety, where we try to make the difference between good and evil, spend billions of dollars in military hardware and personnel to fight the evil that we claim to see, but in all reality we do not, bomb countries and destroy lives in an attempt to destroy the terrorists, persecute those who are fleeing their homelands beset by violence for a better place. We tried that with Afghanistan and Iraq to topple the dictatorships ruling the country and harboring the terrorists. Yet what happened? Our mission, once touted by George W. Bush as being accomplished, is anything but that. The countries we bombed are still in shambles. Their people are still suffering from poverty and repression from corruptive regimes. And lastly, the terrorist regimes are sprawling, engulfing countries in their grasps.

And what have we done about this? We’ve converted our country from a democracy to a pseudo-democracy, where Big Brother is watching us, through internet, surveillance and other forms of spying to ensure that we are believed to be living in a utopian society- or any type of topian society where what we say or do may be used against us. We shift our focus away from the universal problems affecting us- global warming and the devastating effects on many regions of the world, poverty and social inequality, the degradation of our domestic programs- and focus on problems irrelevant to today’s real problems: defaming a dentist killing a lion, watching a TV show of Cops versus Afros, debating about Steve Jobs’ last words, and listening on the radio about the debate of how long Chloe Cardashian’s boyfriend will stay with her while pregnant before he leaves her and she seeks coalesce with her sister, Kim. This is in addition to our lives being watched by machines, focusing on how big of aetheists or “Jesus freaks” we are, plus exploiting things that we are private to us.  In other words, we have become a selfish society where every man is for himself but only under the loop of Big Brother, living in a topian society that is fictitious and far away from the reality that we have turned our back on- and the people who need our help badly.

The bombings of Paris is a clear sign that we are still at war. The grim reality is this war is perpetual, never-ending, closing in on apocalyptic. Our ignorance to the people in need, their homelands no longer liveable because of the disastrous effects of global warming combined with warfare sparked by the war on terrorism, has come at a price that is exorbitant, where the next generations will never be able to pay it off. We are fighting a war that we cannot win because our policies, strategies and technologies are not enough to win it. But at the same time, the war cannot be lost because our enemies (the terrorists) are suffering from the same problems we are facing- their warfare strategies and technologies are not sufficient enough to destroy our modern society. We are at a stalemate, where no matter how many lives we lose on both sides, the war is not winnable. We can tackle the problems by sending tens of thousands of troops to the ISIS regions in Syria and Iraq to eradicate the groups once and for all,  introduce Israeli-style security measures at all public events, reinforce surveillance to match that of George Orwell’s 1984 or the film, In Time, and integrate refugees into our culture. We can take measures to reverse the effects of global warming, even. However this will not solve the problem of the war that we are in.

What can help alleviate the pain is showing solidarity to the victims and their families, reach out to those in need, offer peace to our enemies and find out what they want and compare it to what we want. In other words, we can only afford to collaborate, find universal solutions to the problems causing this constant warfare, and find a peaceful co-existence, for anything else beyond that- increased security and surveillance, exclusion of people of other backgrounds, more military action and other forms of radical thinking- we have already exhausted our resources for them, and it would be a waste of time and money to reinvent the wheel.

While we cannot return to business as usual, we cannot afford to take measures deemed radical, especially in a war that we cannot win on both sides. But solidarity and collaboration may be the first steps in the right direction. Everything else that happens afterwards depends on how both sides can profit from the talks….

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As a way of showing solidarity and the need for a peaceful co-existence in the time of crisis and war, the Flensburg Files and its sister column The Bridgehunter’s Chronicles will each present their logos representing the colors of France. This will remain in effect for the rest of 2015. The Files features the French flag as a replacement of its famous sailboat avatar with a green background representing the need for peace and solutions to the universal problems that we can no longer afford to ignore. While the battle against the terrorists is one of these problems, larger ones, such as rebuilding the regions torn by war and beset by terrorists, tackling global warming and the impacts on all aspects, and evening out the gap between rich and poor have yet to be tackled from all aspects of society.

Germany at 25: Civil Courage

The German Order of Merit Cross (Bundesverdienstkreuz) awarded to Vaclav Havel in 2007. Photo taken by the Národní museum in Prague. Link: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:German_order_merit_with_special_sash.jpg

Civil Courage: derived from the Latin word civilis and the French word courage and meaning the courage of the people to do something what is deemed right. In German, it is known as Zivilcourage and has been one of the most talked about topics in the past two decades. Politicians, civic leaders and organizations in civil society have called upon Germans to show civil courage and help others when help is needed. But why is that when civil courage is a natural trait you see in other countries, including the US?

Especially when it comes to the problem with right-winged extremists has civil courage been heavily discussed for reasons of fear: fear that the laws in the books may be used against them, but also fear of retaliation on the part of people involved wanting to help them. It also presents a conflict of interest between instinct- knowing that there is someone there to help- and the protection of privacy and one’s own private sphere, as mentioned by Prof. Veronika  Brandstätter of the University of Zurich in an interview with the German newspaper Der Spiegel. According to the professor of psychology, specializing in motivation psychology, Civil Courage is a question of value in terms of democracy and humanity, examining the issues of solidarity, tolerance and the readiness to help.  In other words, how far can you go to help someone? What resources are at your disposal and whether additional help is necessary in some cases. While he points out rescuing someone trapped on thin ice as one of the obvious signs where one stops his activities immediately to help, the issue involving right-wing extremism has been an ongoing theme since 1990, which seems to have climbed to the top three in terms of problems Germany is facing at present- refugees and the widening of social classes are the other two, with the Volkswagon scandal not far behind.

Examining the situation 25 years ago, especially in the eastern half of Germany, there were only very few traces of solidarity towards those in need for two reasons:

1. The traumatic effects of National Socialism in the 1930s and 40s, counting the devastation Germany faced in World War II, combined with Germany being a battlefield during the Cold War as Communism and Capitalism locked horns along the East-West borders including Berlin.  Here, we had two major poles: those who still believed in the German race and those who were afraid of being arrested by one of the two Superpowers. For the former, a classic example of how right-winged nationalism was strong was the riots in Rostock in 1992, where residents and neo-Nazis attacked apartments occupied by Vietnamese immigrants, setting them on fire and chasing the occupants away. The Police were poorly equipped to handle the protests. Further attacks on foreigners followed where bystanders stepped aside to avoid any confrontation by the extremists who dubbed them as helpers.

For the latter, it had to do with the sphere of influence the two superpowers had on the divided Germany: the US for the western half and the Soviet Union for the eastern half. Both were of the opinion that Germany should be rebuilt and grow but on a controlled basis, for fearing of another rise in power. This resulted in the post-war generations growing up being influenced by two different powers that reshaped their way of thinking. It did not mean that the country of free-thinkers was a puppet. It meant that in order for the country to achieve its independence, the Germans had to abide by the regulations from the outside, which disappeared bit by bit as the country bought itself back its independence, only to have that achieved with German Reunification in 1990. And even then, the people growing up during the Cold War era had the extra caution mentality, where help is only given when it is deemed safe to do so.

The second reason behind the lack of solidarity is the mentality of letting the people “swim in cold water” and fend for themselves. This meant that there was an expectation that people coming to Germany (or at least a region in Germany) were to have learned the language, customs and way of life, and there was no need to assist them, even if asked. Even the idea of saying “Schönen Tag wünsche ich Ihnen/Dir!” (Have a nice day) 15 years ago seemed preposterous in the eyes of many who prefer to concentrate on their own affairs and not that of others. Again, this applies to the older generations who may had never dealt with situations with refugees and foreign residents as we are working with today. When first arriving in 1999, the first negative impression per se was the customer service in many stores and offices, where the atmosphere was either monotonous, unfriendly or both. The exception was at the university and offices that deal with foreign students.

Let’s fast forward to the present, and how Germany has cleaned its image a great deal. The meaning of civil courage has become a household name in the country for three major reasons:

1. People and organizations are being recognized for their services of helping those in need, regardless of circumstances and what background they have. Every year the Bundesverdienstkreuz (Cross of Merit) is given out to outstanding people for their extraordinary service, regardless of which level (local, state or national). First introduced in 1951 by German President Theodor Heuss, there are eight different classes awarded pending on the degree of service. Even cities have introduced their own awards to people for their service to the community. While this had gone almost unnoticed before 1990, it has taken center stage since then, especially as politicians have strongly encouraged people to show solidarity and help the people who are in need, including the current German president Joachim Gaucke in his televised speeches.

The second reason behind the importance of civil courage is the rise of the next generations (those born from 1970 onwards) and their awareness of problems on the global front. These people usually have university degrees, speak at least two foreign languages, have travelled to foreign countries, encountered people from different cultures and are more aware of the problems Germany is facing in comparison with other countries in the world than the baby boomers, many of whom fought for their rights on their own soil and not in a foreign country. The more experiences they gathered and the more aware of the situation they are, the more likely they will help others out, especially those wanting to settle down in Germany for an uncertain period of time.

And finally, the people in Germany have become more aware of the problems facing them as far as domestic issues and immigration are concerned. This is caused in part due to the information they receive in the news as well as the experience they have gathered and shared with others. Even if certain stereotypes of those in need (especially the refugees and immigrants) are held by some based on rumors, having experienced it on hand or through others sometimes helps them reshape the way of thinking and reconsider their actions towards others in a positive manner.

It still does not mean that the country is perfect. There are still attacks on foreigners, especially in light of the large influx of refugees from Syria, and parts of Africa. Refugees and immigrants are looking for new homes and a new life. The gap between rich and poor is widening, especially when it comes to children who live in poverty. And we still have problems with pollution and other environmental issues. But we are seeing the gravity of the situation, and we have more people ready and willing to help, regardless of what the consequences are and how they are recognized in the end for their work. In the 15+ years living here, one can find this variable that is recognizable and much appreciated: openness and kindness. There was not much there at first when I came, but one will find it often nowadays, no matter where a person goes. And this is something that does not go unnoticed while traveling through or living in Germany.

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To finish this article, here is an exercise designed to test your knowledge about how civil courage should be implemented. Look at the situations below and ask yourself what you would do in a situation. Remember, what you do for action may be different for others and can lead to a discussion.

  1. You drive on the motorway and see a person seeking a ride to the nearest petrol station. This is just after passing a car with a flat.
  2. There is a family of refugees entering your community with nothing except what they wear, no money and little knowledge of the language. They are looking for a place to live and work.
  3. A friend prepares a party for another friend visiting from another country but is overwhelmed and needs some help.
  4. Two people fight over how they should work together on a project with one wanting to work alone and another wanting to work together.
  5. You see a group of neo-Nazis harassing someone from Africa, spitting on them and pushing them around, while riding a tram.
  6. You’re at a dance with some friends only to find someone sitting in the corner, all alone.
  7. While jogging, you encounter a dog who has lost his owner and follows you around. The animal carries a tag.
  8. A woman at work receives unwanted attention by someone with interest and does not seem to leave her alone.
  9. You break off contact with a colleague because of a fallout only to meet the person again in a different work setting months later.
  10. You witness an accident involving a car and a bike while biking to a party.

Note: Feel free to comment to any of the situations above by placing your comments below or in the Fles’ facebook pages.  🙂

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