Out of Germany: Heavy hand of the law reaches over the garden fence

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BONN - British curtains twitch. British neighbours 'tut-tut'. Britons are the masters of polite disdain. But eventually the foreigner living in Germany has to accept that when it comes to obsessions with neighbours' behaviour, Germany is in a league of its own. It is simply and astonishingly off the wall.

Bild newspaper recently reported the story of Professor Gerhard R and his neighbour Dieter D. The everyday story of German neighbours was headlined: 'Professor's wife chopped the millionaire's hosepipe'. The chopped pipe, together with super-glued locks, was the neighbour's revenge after a court case over the alleged proliferation of garden weeds.

Germany's best-known television news presenter, Ulrich Wickert, this week noted: 'The Germans are noted for their cleanliness, but not for their tolerance.' He then told the story of the woman in Kassel, in western Germany, who liked to shake out her bathmat once a week. The woman's neighbour got angry that his plants were sprinkled with dust and took the woman to court. The court came out in favour of the bathmat. A relieved Mr Wickert noted: 'A victory for cleanliness - and for tolerance, too.'

But the obsessives are everywhere. I am now used to the fact that Frau K, who cleans the hallway in our building, regularly goes for a casual walk past the house. She appears to be heading for a stroll into the nearby woods, but in reality she has more serious matters on her mind - the state of the dustbins, into which she pokes her head as she goes past. She berates the tenants in the building if rubbish has been put in the wrong bin.

The foreigner quickly learns not to wash the car at the wrong time, and not to mow the lawn on a Sunday. But, beyond those obvious things, there is a wonderful variety of subjects for the sophisticated lover of disputes to get excited about.

Picking a quarrel with the neighbours in Germany can reach heights that curtain- twitchers in Britain only dream of. According to Focus magazine, half a million Germans go to court every year because of disputes with neighbours. As Focus's headline put it: 'Your enemy, the neighbour'.

Friends living in a nearby village recently received a threatening letter from the tenants in the apartment below. The letter, which had not been preceded by face-to-face conversations, contained a long list of complaints, including straw on the garden path, playing the violin 'even after 8pm' and an empty tin that had blown off the balcony to the ground and 'might have fallen on someone's head'.

Any self-respecting German bookshop contains a clutch of books telling you how to make a legal and bureaucratic hell for your neighbours. The A-Z of Neighbourly Law is all about getting your own back on issues from 'Balls, flying', to 'Broom, knocking with the'; from 'Pigs' to 'Peacocks'. Sometimes there are cross-references, as in: 'Garden gnomes: see 'Aesthetic interferences'.' Here, I discovered that a court ruling entitles me to force my neighbour to remove ugly gnomes.

The A-Z informs me that I can prosecute a neighbour who has a bath that begins after 10pm and lasts for more than half an hour. For hundreds of such priceless nuggets, Neighbourly Law has now run into its fourth edition.

The psychologist, Volker Linneweber, who has written a study of neighbourhood quarrelling says: 'I believe we Germans are a bit predestined for it.'

Still, not all Germans have succumbed to the lure of the Neighbourhood Nasties. On the federal election campaign trail recently, I asked a man from the west German town of Duisburg how he was planning to vote.

He told me that he had decided to abandon the party for which he traditionally voted. Because? 'Their candidate is a neighbour of mine and he wants to stop children playing outside the house on Sunday mornings. Not noisily, just playing. How can you vote for a man like that?'