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

Times Staff Writer

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."

In an effort to counter the growing mountain of laws and regulations, Chancellor Helmut Kohl's center-right coalition government has established an independent commission for simplifying judicial and administrative procedures.

"We're going at this problem more intensively than any previous government," said the commission's chairman, Horst Waffenschmidt. He listed some of the commission's initial achievements, including the abolition of mandatory police checks for driver's license applicants and a start on legislation that would drastically simplify building regulations.

But Waffenschmidt agrees that public attitudes, too, must change.

"Whenever any problem arises, people's first reaction is to call for the government to deal with it," he noted. "As politicians, we must tell them that some things they must do for themselves."

Unifying Concepts

"It's a question of family upbringing, a question of political leadership and daily political work," he added. "We have to bring the concepts of freedom and personal responsibility closer."

But reshaping German public consciousness won't be easy. Indeed, for some, there don't seem to be enough rules.

German mothers, for example, sometimes invent their own "laws" to control their children.

One young woman at a large Bonn supermarket was heard recently telling her little boy as he tried to climb out of his shopping cart seat that it was against the law for children to walk around in such places.

Another mother routinely coaxes her son from the television set each evening with the warning that it is against the law for little children to watch TV after 8 p.m.

While other countries also have numerous laws dealing with petty subjects, officials' dedication towards enforcement of the rules helps set West Germany apart.

The diligent bureaucrats of Aachen proved that recently with their dogged three-year pursuit of a petty trader suspected of violating the little-known Glass Crystal Description Act of 1971.

Not Enough Lead

According to the voluminous reports documenting the case, the trader was nabbed by two watchful city inspectors as he attempted to sell a pair of glass crystal creamers at a local flea market in 1981.

The inspectors foiled the transaction because of their suspicion that the creamers failed to contain the required 0.03% lead to warrant the description "lead crystal."

The ensuing prosecution involved the city managers of Aachen and the town of Bad Salzuflen (where the trader resided), the regional government chief executive in Cologne and, eventually, the economics minister of the state of North Rhine-Westphalia.

Finally, bureaucratic lassitude freed the hapless trader. Last August, three years after the initial citation, the state economics ministry closed its books on the case, declaring that the statute of limitations prevented further action.

Lights but No Traffic

It was apparently a similar desire to carry out the letter rather than the spirit of the law that led Bonn police officers to issue stern warnings to pedestrians who violated the "don't walk" traffic signals around the federal Parliament during the recent economic summit--even though the area had been blocked off to traffic.

"During my first weeks back here, I was amused by it all, but it is beyond a joke," said Dahrendorf. "It is the type of thing that could make the country stand at attention again if the wrong person came along."

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