“Uncharted territory”

At a press conference held together with Barack Obama, German Chancellor Angela Merkel is quoted as having stated “the internet is uncharted territory for us all”, when asked about the internet surveillance program Prism.

While this statement was received with particular amusement in the web, it also demonstrates a certain German reservation in the face of innovation. One might even call this a resistance towards profound change when it comes to the internet.

That the German federal government is not acting to expand their communication of political content over web platforms is also apparent in their Facebook presence – their profile has only existed since late February, 2015. According to senior communications adviser Seibert: “We did not take [this step] too soon, but we did take it.”

“Teutonic Obsession“?

The British newspaper The Telegraph published an article by Jeremy Warner about the geopolitics of the European Central Bank and the Euro-Crisis. The fact that the bank had only now started the process of quantitative easing was in large part due to Germany’s previous efforts to resist this.

However, the German’s resistance against these measures taken by the ECB was not due to the German’s experiences with hyperinflation during the time of the Weimar Republic, but rather traces back to much profounder factors found deep within the German psyche: the ancient Teutonic obsession with legality and rules.

Could this also be the reason why the German response to proposals for money-saving measures, bail-outs, and troika made by the Greeks is a always the same resounding statement: “The Greeks must stick to the rules”?

But where do rules become necessary, in order to assure reliability, stability and continuity, and where must one deviate from them due to changes in circumstance? Does not every change in strategy incorporate breaking the rules of a time gone-by?

Is Jeremy Warner’s statement about a so-called ancient Teutonic obsession with legality and rules even historically accurate?

The Servant on call

The Germans says: “Only servants need be reachable at all times.” It’s a figure of speech many German managers use to signal that they cannot always respond immediately to team member questions, nor can they be reached directly. Team members are often asked – and trained – to only contact their boss if it is truly important.

A “catastrofe”?

In 1996 the Germans decided to revise their rules for spelling (orthography). In 2004 and 2006 there were further revisions. In 2007 the changes became binding in all schools. 

One of the goals was to modify (eindeutschen – germanize) those words rooted in a foreign language. Apoteke instead of Apotheke (pharmacy). Restorant instead of Restaurant. Katastrofe instead of Katastrophe. 

The pushback from the Ministries of Education in several influential German states blocked it, however. But protests were also loud among the press, in important literary circles and among academia. The high point was when the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung (FAZ) rejected the modifications and returned to the former rules of spelling. 

In 2007 the attempt was made to implement the changes in the school system. Consistency was the overall goal. Certain spelling modifications could be ignored, however, if they simply made no sense. 

Long and difficult consensus-building. Conscious ignoring of decisions made. Resistance to any kind of change. All this was at play in the German attempt to modify their rules for spelling. 

Sabine Krome, a Member of the Council for German Spelling Reform at the fifteenth anniversary of the reform: 

“The original intention of the reform was good. To bring German rules for spelling up to date, which had not been modified over the previous one hundred years. Had we known, however, how difficult the path would be to reach the results we have, it may have been better to wait another hundred years before taking on the task.”

Home is where the WIFI is

“I wonder if Germans think their WiFi-issues are a global thing”. That’s how one of my friends from the USA recently expressed his opinion towards the WIFI situation in Germany. They alluded to the impossibility to find free public WIFI in big German cities.

No wonder, since you can even find free mobile internet in the middle of the Israeli desert, in Estonian forests, on top of lonely Georgian mountains and along the highways in California. However, you won’t be able to find it in German pedestrian areas. 

One reason for this lack of WiFi access is a legal situation. The provider of the free Wlan is legally responsible for the inevitable misbehavior of the users; the so-called “Stoererhaftung” (liability for disturbance).

But there is more behind it: The term “Neuland” (unknown territory) circulated a while ago, used by Angela Merkel at a meeting with President Obama, in context with the Internet. However, she did by no means mean the invention “Internet” itself, but rather figuratively the Internet as legal terrain. 

The existing German legal status is just not sufficient to regulate the Internet, which is a contradiction in itself. Simultaneously, legislation works slowly and thus is even less able to keep up with such rapid changes. 

Therefore, the basic dilemma becomes clear: Many Germans (The German institutions, for one) appreciate changes to be clear, regulated and with obvious roles and responsibilities. And in the event of doubt with distinct legal liability. 

In general, changes are usually dealt with slowly but thoughtfully. Thus, if this attitude applies to an uncontrollable and rapidly spreading phenomena such as the Internet, conflict naturally develops. 

German reservation does not solve such conflicts until an explicit and waterproof regulation has been found. But, this manner leads to satisfactory results of the changing process most of the time because „gut Ding will Weile haben“ (“Good things are worth waiting for“).

When not to obey

„Sir, the King of Prussia has made you an officer of the Prussian Army, so that you know when not to obey an order!“ Prince Friedrich Karl to a Major in the Prussian Army (1870)

„ … in those cases, in which the junior-officer comes to the conclusion that his commander is no longer in a position to judge the situation, and where his order has been rendered inadequate by events, it is the expressed responsibility and duty of that junior-officer to either redefine or ignore the order.“ Prussian officer training manual of 1906

Deviation from mission

In the German military context, independent deviation from the Auftrag – mission – is permitted and expected, if the situation on the ground has changed, demands a rapid response, and the commanding officer cannot be reached.

The overall mission, however, may not be re-interpreted. The tactical approach is always subject to modification. This presupposes that the junior officers and their troops are fully informed of the overall strategy which the mission serves, allowing them to choose the best path to the goal.

Those considering deviation need to ask themselves: „How would I as the commanding officer react to the changes on the ground?“ Critical is acting in accordance to the spirit of the Auftrag, the mission.