AUTHORDerek Buyan Derek is a junior in the School of Foreign Service majoring in Culture and Politics with a theme of “Religion and Politics in the European Union”. He is also pursuing a certificate in Religion and Ethics in World Affairs from the Berkley Center....
November 1, 2012
December 1, 2012
The Junior Year Abroad Network (JYAN) connects Georgetown students studying abroad in a variety of cultures. Students share reflections on religion, culture, politics, and society in their host countries, commenting on topics ranging from religious freedom and interfaith dialogue to secularization, globalization, democracy, and economics.
AT THE CENTER
RELATED RESOURCES ON JEWISH
Not Just A Library Card
November 1, 2012 | 3 COMMENTS
We were discussing the process of getting settled in Germany and the accompanying slew of bureaucratic obstacles. Indeed, successfully hurdling them requires quite a bit of skill. You need to haul your wheelbarrow of paperwork to each step of every process. For example, when registering at the university you must bring a pile of documents, your passport, and receipt of payment of the student union fee in order to pickup your “Student ID” card. While at Georgetown, your GOCard (Georgetown University ID) is considered sufficient identification by any university office, in Germany it is quite normal to have to reproduce the very same paperwork, passport and receipt of payment when dealing with other departments of the university throughout the semester. If one piece of documentation is missing, they kindly invite you back to their office the next week, during the two-hour window that their office is open.
Both the size and style of Germany's bureaucracy are actually quite infamous. As a Hamburger (someone from the city of Hamburg, not the greasy American delight), my friend is quite accustomed to it. She finds the obsession with checking tickets, IDs, documents and official stamps not the least bit strange. After all, she has dealt with it her entire life.
However, I was struck by the depth and breadth of the verification I was subjected to during my first weeks here. Luckily, I arrived two full weeks before classes started; the process was cumbersome enough that I did not even finish it within that period. All in all, it took me about three weeks to get properly registered with the authorities, at the university, for classes, for a student transit pass, and secure a visa. A friend who had previously studied in Germany advised me that paperwork would be my first full-time job in Germany; indeed it was. But it left me wondering about the people who have actual full-time jobs, or children, or could not afford the better part of a month to work their way through the system.
Upon trying to use the library I discovered that even library-goers are subjected to the verification-mania. At all university libraries, as well as the library of the State of Bavaria, patrons must be prepared to rent a locker, leave their belongings, food and beverage behind, stuffing their study materials into clear plastic bags. They must show their special “Library ID” (which I had to show my Student ID, Passport, AND verification of the registration of my address with the authorities to obtain) and pass through a security checkpoint, in order to simply enter the library's collection. Even then, libraries often require patrons to request materials in advance, refusing to let them browse the stacks themselves. And the ability to checkout books? Not a guarantee.
Maybe it is the American in me, but I was certain that I felt Ben Franklin turn in his grave. Not only do I have to produce identification to buy a monthly student transit ticket or use my bank, but I must produce such verification to prove that I am authorized to use a public library – to research, to study, to learn!
Moreover, the Germans’ apparent ambivalence astounded me. With the U.S. Presidential Election taking place next week, it contrasts sharply with the debate over voter identification laws that have raged for the past two years in my home state, Wisconsin. While the voter ID debate in the United States preoccupies itself with questions of genuinely free access, equality, and prohibitive economic and social costs, every German government institution with which I have come into contact practices the type of bureaucratic controls and verification policy that impede free and open access.
Yet, millions of Germans quietly verify their identities on a daily basis in order to do complete routine tasks, including voting. In fact, it is legally required to obtain a Personal Identity Card by the age of sixteen. (Interestingly, this law originally dates from 1938, and is a Nazi-era remnant). The days of being stopped on the sidewalk and required to produce “your papers” in Germany are indeed long gone. However, when parts of the country were a police state as recently as 1989, why do Germans fail to object such pervasive identity verification?
The contrast poses the question: if millions of Americans get so impassioned about questions of verification and free and open access, from getting carded buying beer at the grocery store to needing a photo-ID to vote, why do millions of Germans fail to think twice about their ability to use a library or to vote, even when it depends on producing photo-identification?
It is old news that Americans are staunchly individualist. Conservative and liberal, young and old, black and white and purple and green – we, by and large, do not enjoy having anyone tell us what to do, or for that matter, how we should do it. However, we have never had anyone forcing us to listen. The German people cannot say the same. In its relatively short history, the German state has always played a large role in the lives of its citizens. From pioneering pensions and social insurance, to scrutinizing its citizens’ bloodlines for traces of Jewish blood, and even to managing the flood of East German refugees and reunification, German state institutions have always kept tabs on its citizens. Indeed, this process habituates the German people to routine verification to a much greater extent than similar U.S. institutions do.
It not only explains the confused frustration I found spending over two weeks dancing the bureaucratic-verification Tango, but also illustrates why the Germans around me stood patiently in line, not the least bit perturbed. Generations ago, they got used to it; perhaps voters in the United States should reconsider doing the same.
COMMENT FROM MARGARET PODA November 26, 2012
I have always found the inner-workings of bureaucracy quite entertaining to hear about, though I have found that it is less fun first hand. Since I have arrived in Russia, I too have had some lovely experiences with seemingly never ending Russian paperwork.
Of course, I needed a visa to enter the country, which not only involved sending my passport of the Embassy of the Russian Federation in Washington DC for a month, but also required me to inform the Russians of my ability to use fire arms, my family and their occupations, my experience in the armed forces, political affiliations, bank statements, etc. This information was simply for the first visa. Once in St. Petersburg, I had to apply again for another visa, requiring even more paperwork, personal information, and a two month wait this time. The joke is, of course, that now the Kremlin has a file on me hidden in a underground bunker somewhere.
The visa is important, but while I am here I also have the most official looking student card (see: booklet full of photos and stamps) that I have ever owned, as well as other official documents. One is called a spravka and it acknowledges that I am, in fact a student at St. Petersburg State University. The other is my uvedomlenie, which, well, I am not really sure what it is for. All I know is that if I loose track of it, something bad will happen. Finally, there is my migration card which keeps track of my movements in and around Russia. I have to register with the government every time I change cities or else I will be fined, prevented from getting a future visa, and maybe even deported.
Carrying around these various documents has become a second nature to me by now, and all the Russians I talk to worry little about the bureaucracy today, especially considering the fact that during Soviet times people could not even visit relatives without consulting members of the local Communist party first and obtaining permission, let alone travel outside the country.
Unlike in Germany, people (thought mostly guys) are regularly stopped on the street or in the metro stations and asked for their documents. This is not a problem, since usually the police are simply making sure someone is not a draft dodger, though sometimes they are looking for a bribe.
I really like your comparison between documentation in Germany and in the United States. It is something that I have thought about since arriving in St. Petersburg, and your article helped me consider it even more. Personally, I do not think it would be a bad idea to make documentation mandatory, since people have learned to live with (perhaps excessive) personal documentation in many countries throughout the world.
COMMENT FROM PATRICK FOGERTY December 3, 2012
While I can understand how the amount of control in Germany could be cumbersome, after spending a semester in Jordan, I am envious of the processes that you have discussed. Here in Amman, getting a visa extension is a nightmare, but for a different reason. It is the complete lack of a set process and set expectations that cause so much trouble.
Students often go to the police station, only to be redirected a number of times to multiple offices that are often not open or just redirect them elsewhere. When they finally find someone to help, they are told to return with different paperwork a week later. When they do return, papers in hand, they are usually told that that was the rules have changed and they now need different documents. It takes weeks to do something as simple as getting a visa extension because places are never open when they should or don’t know how to handle the process.
It has become a headache for everyone involved, and it is not only the processes for foreigners. For example, the government decided the night before daylight savings time was set to be enacted that the country would not do it. So the next morning, no one knew what time it was. Germany may have a large amount of bureaucracy, but at least it is an organized bureaucracy.
COMMENT FROM PROFESSOR MARILYN MCMORROW March 19, 2013
Derek, I enjoyed reading your reflection as much as I enjoyed listening to your thoughtful comments in class last Spring. In fact, I note a thread of continuity! Sometimes you would begin your wise insights in class with the preface: "In Wisconsin, where I come from, people I know care about . . . . or don't care about. . . ." I love the way you communicate your sense of how "strange" you find the endless processes of identification--and worrisome. But you are also willing to reflect on whether it is your American individualist culture that instinctively raises the hackles of your back when put in that situation over and over.
You reminded me of one of my responses/reactions when I was living in Norway. I'll admit I was stunned when I first learned that as one renting an apartment in a complex, I was expected to take my turn washing the main staircases and the lobby floor. The American individualist instinct in me had the "hey. . . I pay rent. . . a portion of that should go to cover building management. . . "
Putting the point another way, such an essential element of living in another country is the surprising new discovery of how our perceptions are already so shaped--get ready for it--if you remember our class, you know I'm going to say this--by our own fishbowls. Of course the only way to breathe is to be submerged in water. The goldfish knows this for certain.