Out of Germany: It is my duty to tell you every Gunter is a grass

Click to follow
BONN - The man was most agitated. 'I must have your address,' he blurted. 'In case they report me.' Never having seen him before, and not knowing who 'they' were, I began to feel somewhat peculiar myself.

'I followed you all the way home,' he went on. 'It was when I had to drive in front of that other car. I may need you as a witness to say that I did not push in, but that they did not let me in.' It suddenly dawned what this was all about. On the way home from the office is a point in the road where two lanes merge. A couple of cars in front of me, someone had squeezed in sharply, prompting much flashing of headlights and gesticulating. I thought no more of it. Clearly, the pusher-in had since thought of nothing else. For suddenly seized with worry that he might be reported to the police, he followed me home, and now stood there, quaking, hoping for a witness against the wrath of some all-seeing, all-righteous fellow citizen.

Paranoid? Not entirely. For there are many in Germany who are convinced that law and order will break down unless they personally bring all miscreants to book. As a people, Germans suffer from an irresistable urge to mind one another's business - you can't park here; your baby is lying the wrong way round; have you a permit for that bonfire? Feeling charitable, you could say it is their way of being helpful.

But, notably for the English, most of whom would rather die than have to point out some apparent discrepancy to a stranger, it takes some getting used to. The problems begin with that seemingly omnipresent sub-group of Germans who cannot resist the urge to go one interfering step further, and tell tales to the police. There are moments when one feels it is almost a national pastime. And the consequences can hurt.

Take the case of a British friend. He suddenly received a summons to appear in court on charges of reckless driving. It took much scratching of the head to recall an incident several months previously when he impatiently overtook someone on the motorway on the wrong side. The charges were brought by the couple in the car overtaken. They gave a joint statement to the police and were regarded as corroborating one another.

The outcome was a 3,500 deutschmark (pounds 1,400) fine, a three-month driving ban, and the obligation to take a test in order to get his licence back. The magistrate said that because the couple were strangers to the defendant, they could have no grudge against him, and therefore the trouble taken to bring the matter to court suggested they were telling the truth.

Such an explanation ignores the gut emotions of the autobahn, where in fractions of high-speed seconds, one can explode with the raging desire to take a chainsaw to the allegedly no-grudge-bearing stranger driving in front, behind or wherever. But, with one word against another, the assumption appears to be that it is up to the accused to convince the court of his innocence.

The defending lawyer just shrugged his shoulders: 'It happens all the time. The courts are heaving with people being done because of a report to the police by some member of the public.'

It was only when I heard this tale of woe that I fully appreciated those admonitions upon my arrival in Germany immediately to take out a Rechtschutz insurance policy. In the land of the generically litigious, this is even better than a chainsaw. Roughly translatable as 'rights protection', it covers costs should any self-styled defenders of the law seek to have you pilloried for walking your dog the wrong way down a one-way street.

They are everywhere. Hiding behind the pot-plant on the second floor window-ledge; notebook and Biro cupped in hand on the passenger seat of countless cars. And then they strike, months later, out of the blue. When the police arrived at the front door of a French acquaintance, and announced to him that he had been living there for over six months but had failed to exchange his foreign number plates for German ones, he asked the perfectly reasonable question. 'How do you know?'

Without even having to consider the reply, the policeman said: 'We have information from someone inside the building.' But of course . . .