Rereading German History: From Unification to Reunification, 1800-1996

By Richard J. Evans | Go to book overview

6

POLICE AND SOCIETY FROM ABSOLUTISM TO DICTATORSHIP 1

I

‘The German policeman’, complained the English humorist Jerome K. Jerome in 1900, ‘does not understand a joke.’ Perhaps, he went on, this was just as well, ‘for I believe there is a heavy fine for joking with any German uniform; they call it “treating an official with contumely”’. Like many other foreign visitors to Germany both before and since, Jerome was struck by the omnipresence and omnipotence of the German police. ‘To any young Englishman yearning to get himself into a scrape, and finding himself hampered in his own country’, Jerome continued ironically, ‘I would advise a single ticket to Germany… In the Police Guide of the Fatherland he will find set forth a list of the things the doing of which will bring to him interest and excitement.’ Unlike in Britain, the police in Germany had independent powers of fining and punishing misdemeanours, and used them according to a fixed scale published in advance. Thus, Jerome advised his readers,

You know exactly what your fun is going to cost you, You can spread out your money on the table, open your Police Guide, and plan out your holiday to a fifty pfennig piece. For a really cheap evening, I would recommend walking on the wrong side of the pavement after being cautioned not to do so. I calculate that by choosing your district and keeping to the quiet side-streets you could walk for a whole evening on the wrong side of the pavement at a cost of little over three marks. 2

Other foreign visitors agreed. The American Ray Stannard Baker, visiting Germany the next year, found the constant police presence on the streets suffocating. 3 His compatriot the social investigator Raymond B. Fosdick, writing in 1914, was struck by ‘the army of Verboten signs’ and the fact that ‘on every side and at every turn, the German citizen is confronted by newly adopted police regulations’. 4

Anglo-American observers of the German scene were not wholly mistaken when they noticed major differences between the traditions of

-65-

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