Living in Berlin

Why I Love German Inefficiency: The Post Office, The Airport, and the Final Solution

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Am I the only one delighted by German inefficiency?

One of my least favourite passages in a book by a very good historian uses broadly painted cultural generalisations to explain why Germans sent so many more Jews to the camps than the Italians. In All or Nothing: The Axis and the Holocaust (1990), Jonathan Steinberg proposes a “matrix of vice and virtue”. In Italy, peacetime vices (“disorder, disobedience… slyness… corruption”) became wartime virtues. This civil disobedience explains, argues Steinberg, why more Jews survived in Italy than in any other Axis power or occupied land save Denmark. In Germany, the opposite was the case: peacetime virtues like “cleanliness, punctuality, efficiency, dedication, honesty, sense of duty and responsibility” were, in wartime, the basis for the coldly obedient behaviour that sent human cargo to the gas.

Just off the top of my head, the problems with this too-neat explanation are multiple. The matrix does not pay sufficient attention to the higher prevalence of anti-Semitism in Central Europe. War on Germany’s Eastern Front between Hitler and Stalin, where the camps were located, facilitated violence, while peer pressure and comradeship in the German armed forces encouraged conformity. Nor does it account for why other rebellious Southern European cultures (Greece, Yugoslavia) sent their Jews in numbers (over 80%) to the camps. Regional variations are also not accounted for in the very culturally divided nations of Germany and Italy. No matter: “culture played a part in making Germans behave predictably as Germans” (177).

Now it’s my turn to describe all Germans, trans-historically, in a single stroke by referring to my recent experiences with Deutsche Post. Steinberg, describing Italy’s peacetime vices, says: “No sane person, who has ridden a German bus or used a German post office, would voluntarily choose to use the Italian equivalents”. I know I’m not alone in thinking the German post office is one of the worst in Europe and a shining, and heartening, comforting, example of German inefficiency. And, therefore, following the argument’s logic, all Germans’ inefficiency.

My problems with Deutsche Post are longstanding. Try receiving a package at a German address. Not so straightforward. The privatised post office’s partner in crime, DHL, is unable to mount the stairs of my apartment to drop off packages, or able to write out the requisite yellow pick-up slip for my postbox. Retrieving packages, that haven’t arrived, despite the electronic notice “successfully delivered”, involves lots of calling to the sender, and to DHL, to identify the Packstation, or neighbour, or post office located four kilometres away, where the objects either wait or have been sent back. I must add that most of my packages sent from overseas to Germany take months and months to arrive, but this could also be the fault of the second-worst postal service of the first world, that of Canada.

The following perplexing itinerary of a package recently sent to us from Vancouver is just one illustration:


Fri, 17.01.2014 11:18 h Canada The shipment has arrived at the parcel center of origin
Tue, 04.02.2014 07:55 h Canada The shipment will be transported to the destination country and, from there, handed over to the delivery organization.
Wed, 05.03.2014 13:26 h Hamburg, Germany The international shipment has arrived at the import parcel center
Thu, 06.03.2014 01:34 h Rüdersdorf, Germany The shipment has been processed in the destination parcel center
Thu, 06.03.2014 08:53 h Berlin-Tempelhof, Germany The shipment has been loaded onto the delivery vehicle
Thu, 06.03.2014 14:59 h Germany The shipment has been successfully delivered
Fri, 11.04.2014 10:08 h Germany The shipment has been posted by the sender at the retail outlet
Fri, 11.04.2014 15:18 h Germany The shipment has been picked up
Fri, 11.04.2014 20:21 h Rüdersdorf, Germany The shipment has been processed in the destination parcel center
Sat, 12.04.2014 08:19 h Berlin-Tempelhof, Germany The shipment has been loaded onto the delivery vehicle
Sat, 12.04.2014 10:19 h Germany The shipment has been successfully delivered


You need to have a very loose definition of success if “successfully delivered” in early March means the same as “successfully delivered” to the correct recipient  three months after the package was sent. I am grateful to the “sender” who reposted the package to us. Five weeks before the package, properly and clearly addressed, made it to our door it was at Berlin Tempelhof, right around the corner. I wish I could say that it came to us at a “snail’s pace” across Berlin, but, compared to 0.007 km/hour, a snail is actually 7x faster. You probably have an example even more ludicrous than the one used above.

If you think receiving post is a problem in Germany, try sending it. Deutsche Post recently lost my passport. Let me explain how. I applied for a visa at foreign consulate, and chose to send my passport by registered letter. Registered letter is suppose to be foolproof: am I the fool now? It’s only going across the city, after all. One month passes, and I do not receive my visa. I am about to try the consulate, but soon realise that my passport didn’t make it farther than the bowels of the Deutsche Post “Logikzentrum”, a place of mystifying logic. Yes, a registered, tracked, passport was lost by Deutsche Post, and cannot be tracked by them.

So much for the German post office.

An afternoon at the police station follows the loss of my passport, and the jolly officer––just the kindly, long-winded, local poliziotto you might imagine in a small town in the Italian South––after typing in my details into a computer using only one finger, explains at great length how the details of lost passports enjoy spectacular and bewildering lives in a very complicated and inefficient computer system. That same computer system is actually out of order at a number of the other police stations in Berlin, he explains to me, meaning that witnesses can no longer identify images of culprits. This has not prevented the police from issuing hundreds of letters asking those witnesses to show up to use the broken computers in any case.

So much for the German police.

On the U-Bahn on the way to my consulate, with my Verlustanzeige, or police statement of loss, I read news on the Berliner Fenster about what’s happening these days at the Berlin Brandenburg Airport, which will open at least 5 years after its expected début in 2010. The fire alarm system was improperly installed, as you probably know. It is buried deep inside the building, and new figures show that it would have been cheaper to rebuild the airport from scratch than to pay for all the mistakes along the way. It’s now 3.5 billion euros over budget, bringing the total cost to 6 billion. The most recent big news is that the airport needs more a more-than one billion bailout.

So much for German engineering.

We didn’t even get to Deutsche Bahn, which is more expensive, more frequently subject to delays, and much slower (with many fewer high-speed lines) than its Italian counterpart.

Now, it’s my Italian passport that has been lost by the post office. I arrive at the Italian consulate, and the ticket number system that indicates the wait order is broken. This should be an archetypal chaotic Italian moment: and it looks like it from the outside. A German man arrives and stares with horror at the loud people standing around the room, chatting (he think screaming), and not standing in lines. “What is the system?” he demands with a look of terror. “Look closer”, I tell him, and explain that everyone knows who is next: when they arrive they simply ask who was the last person in line.  I doze off and my neighbour tells me it’s my turn. The application is only one short form. It takes 2 minutes to apply and pay. I pick the new document up in a week.

So much for Italian bureaucracy.

I of course notice large cultural differences between Italy and Germany. Life in Italy is much more of a casino (literally “whore house”, as the Italians would say when describing the chaos) than life in Germany. But I think the differences between individuals inside those large groups are significant enough to prevent us from drawing very deterministic conclusions. Certainly I don’t think this is possible when explaining the conduct of military personnel in two rather different theatres of war during the horrors of the Final Solution. Speaking of Heine’s meditation on the “brutal German lust for battle”, Steinberg writes: “we cannot say what caused what and with what force. I cannot prove it; I can only feel Heine was right”. Maybe I’m a stickler, but if such connections cannot be proved, and only felt, then they are conjecture.

But I admit that when I am faced with bureaucrats in Berlin that follow the letter of the law, rather than its spirit, when I meet petty rule-enforcers, and those who put institutions above compassion, then I think: “people like you followed orders to send your neighbours to the transport”. In the frenzy of war, the banal and bureaucratic became an essential component of mass murder. And yes, I come across such rule following all the time in Germany. But I have also experienced the same in many other countries. I check myself not to extrapolate that Germans, dutifully waiting at the crosswalk when it’s red, are mass murderers.

In this way, every example of German disorganisation is, for me, further proof of how little we can rely on stereotyping cultural explanations in history. And indeed, I rejoice in every one of these counterexamples that debunk the myth of German efficiency.

Every billion of those euros spend on the white elephant airport has been worth it.

Joseph Pearson

Joseph Pearson (1975) is writer and historian based in Berlin. Born in Canada, he was educated at Cambridge University, UK, where he received his doctorate in history in 2001. Since 2008, he has written The Needle, which has become one of Berlin's most popular blogs. His portrait of the German capital, Berlin, for Reaktion Press was published in 2017. His second book, My Grandfather's Knife, was published by HarperCollins and the History Press in 2022. He is also the essayist and blogger of the Schaubühne Theatre, one of Berlin's best known state-funded institutions. His writing has appeared widely in the press, literary and academic journals, and has been translated into Italian, German, French, and Arabic. Having taught at Columbia University in New York City, he lectures in Berlin at New York University Berlin (since 2012) and the Barenboim-Said Academy.

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