Germany is a bureaucratic nightmare - and it’s a system stacked purposefully against us


Both Germans and foreigners alike shudder at the thought of Germany's officialese - words and phrases used in official documents and forms, which are often difficult to understand for the untrained citizen. 

Whether you need to fill in an application to get money from the state when out of work, submit a income tax return or even fill in a voting form, the hurdle of the country's 'Beamtendeutsch' is a frustrating one. 

A recent example has compared the ballot paper of the Scottish independence referendum with that of the recent Tempelhof redevelopment referendum in Berlin, as a tweet (right) from the blogger Sascha Lobo shows.

The Scottish ballot paper consists simply of the instruction to mark an 'X', the sentence 'Should Scotland be an independent country?' and the two options.

I imagine this would horrify many officials in Germany, who would demand not only that an explanation of what 'independence' actually means, but also which legal paragraph would be in effect once the results of a vote had been determined.

Admittedly, the Tempelhof referendum was a more complex matter, but I believe the categorisations hold true - Germany prefers to have everything explained in detail, while the United Kingdom prefers to simplify wherever possible. 

There are arguments in favour of both.

Beamtendeutsch has it that every angle is covered (so filling every loophole, as not to give some an unfair advantage or disadvantage), that bureaucratic efficiency is achieved on the side of the office by having every decision pre-made and enacted by the very answers you filled in the fields of your form. Unfortunately, this method is a nightmare to deal for the average (that is, a non-official) person living in Germany. 

When dealing with anything state-run, users are faced with a mountain of complex, incomprehensible paperwork, which helpfully attempts to clarify the questions by providing references such as 'Paragraphs 67a, b, c of the Tenth Book of Social Law (SGB X)'

It would be concerning if even a person educated to an advanced level of German wouldn't be able to understand the forms, but even native Germans themselves find them impossible. 

Let me put it this way: if your options are either to study the relevant law book (for which you will need to have a good understanding of another linguistic sin - legalese), paying from your own pocket to have a professional take over the work or to simply not fill in the form and risk a large fine or jail sentence, it seems the authorities have laid a trap, hoping for mistakes in the form, the chance to gain more money via fines and prosecutions or to keep the association of tax advisors happy. 

Why are you not able to simply fill out your tax return on the back of a beer mat? That is exactly what tax expert and CDU politician Friedrich Merz suggested in 2003. 

The idea went that if you could simplify a tax return down to the back of a beer mat more people would fill it in. Either way, there have been calls for a refinement of the tax system for several years, as it is feared many people do not understand which exemptions and deductibles apply to them and are therefore are overpaying.

An example of Beamtendeutsch. Click to enlarge.

This country needs a serious, high-level 'Plain German Campaign', of which there is a successful English-language equivalent in the United Kingdom. 

A person seeking unemployment payments in Gemany has to fill out up to 21 A4-sized forms (though it would seem at least ten, depending on the circumstances) some consisting of multiple pages, as well as providing potentially dozens of pages of evidence. Many of these forms can ask for yet further information via 'extension forms'.

The detail of the information can be tedious. Take the example on form 'Extension to document KDU' - yes, you have to fill out KDU plus the extension form - wherein it asks for the total floor area of the applicant's entire building, even if he or she is only renting a single apartment within that building. 

Keep in mind that an applicant will receive no money nor state help of any kind until he or she has filled out every one of these dizzying forms correctly to the letter.

Germany's tax declaration, on the other hand, requires vintners to fill out Document Weinbau for 'non-bookkeeping wine-growing companies'. This of course is an extension to Document L, which is for those earning money by agricultural means. 

The wine-growing company may be penalised financially if they just fill out Document L, without Document Weinbau. 

 Just a small selection of Germany's tax forms.

Just a small selection of Germany's tax forms.

In 2010, Chancellor Angela Merkel said that multiculturalism had failed, at a time when more and more qualified foreigners were, and are still, needed in Germany. However, I strongly believe that something as seemingly mundane as both simplifying official documents and forms, and translating them into the most commonly-spoken languages of the talent pool, will earn Germany an uptick in qualified foreigners. Make it easy for them to get set up here. 

To summarise - the notion of a welfare state hindering access to funds for the poorest and most vulnerable by the use of a complex and tiresome bureaucratic process is absurd. Not to mention how the tax system makes it impossible to pay the Finanzamt the money you correctly owe them without hiring an expensive accountant thanks to their 'stick but no carrot' approach to form-filling.

Could it be that bureaucratic simplification is not being enacted, as it would put the over 88,000 tax accounting companies out of business, along with causing the unemployment of many of the almost 2 million public officials? I doubt there is a clear and honest answer to that question. Maybe you'll have to apply for it. And maybe you'll receive an answer... after half a score of boards, half a bushel of minutes, several sacks of official memoranda, and a vault full of ungrammatical correspondence, on the part of the German state.

In fact, we don't need a dictionary of Beamtendeutsch. Throw it in the shredder along with all the other bureaucratic documents and forms. Let's start again. Fresh, clean and simple.