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Germans and their love or order

Peter Zudeick, JPNovember 19, 2012

We Germans are famous for our love of order. But it's not as if we invented it. We just realized that it makes life a whole lot easier. In his first column, Peter Zudeick explains why there must be order.

Akte, Aktenordner, Büro, Büromaterial Copyright: Olaf Wandruschka - Fotolia.com #38468187
Image: Olaf Wandruschka - Fotolia.com

Contrary to popular belief, we Germans didn't invent the concept of order. And, just for the record, we're not the only ones who are fond of it. Back in prehistoric times, our forefathers were actually a pretty chaotic, crazy bunch. It was the Romans who came along and brought order into our lives. They had a legal system, a coinage system, and a political system; and, of course, they also introduced military order. The Romans were standing in rank and file when the Teutons and other Germanic peoples were still running around like headless chickens. However, our unruly tribes managed to score a few victories nonetheless, so the Romans decided to introduce sweeping military reforms - and conquered most of Europe as a result.

We Germans also learnt a few lessons from them. Ever since we stopped behaving like the Germanic hordes and became the good Germans we know (or think we know) today, order has prevailed. And we love it!

But what exactly is order? It's what helps us keep any situation under control, and properly organized. Being organized is half the battle, as Germans like to say. As for the other half of the battle - well, someone else can fight that. The Romans, perhaps; the ones in today's Italian capital, that is. (They also happen to be the most notoriously disorganized people in Europe - or at least they were, until the Greeks knocked them off the top spot.

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There must be order - or as they say in Germany: Ordnung muß seinImage: picture-alliance/dpa

Everything in order?

Ordnung muss sein, which roughly translates as "there must be order," is an expression the whole world will immediately identify as one of the key elements of the German identity. In fact, the German language is teeming with phrases about Ordnung, from the basic Alles in Ordnung? - "Everything in order?", or "All right?" - to Ordnung hat Gott lieb, which translates as something like: "Orderliness is next to Godliness." This is a favourite German concept: the idea that there's a higher power behind what Germans perceive to be a good thing, whether that power is God, or a king, a pastor or a chancellor.

To Germans, order is not just a desirable state of affairs, it's also a personality trait. If you approve of someone, you describe them as being in Ordnung, or "all right." And if you want to praise something, nothing beats the adjective ordentlich, which doesn't just mean "tidy," but also "well done." Order prevails in all aspects of life. Even insolvency is ordered. Only losers go bankrupt; proper Germans undergo "orderly defaults."

Order permeates every corner of life in Germany. If you live in an apartment block, you have to follow the Hausordnung; in stations you need to abide by the Bahnhofsordnung; at public swimming pools it's the Badeordnung. You can't even escape it on the high seas, where you'd better pay attention to the Seeschifffahrtsstraßenordnung if you don't want to collide with a tanker.

Even garden gnomes have to behave in an orderly fashion

But beware. If you know where to look, you will still find pockets of rebellion. The rebels' latest hideout is that well-known bastion of Ordnung, the allotment garden. The allotment is its German owner's pride and joy. and more often than not a showcase of all that is orderly - manicured lawns, neat paths, tidy fences and carefully trimmed hedges. After all, nature can't just be left to its devices, can it? Imagine the consequences! Nature's untidiness must be nipped in the bud.

An allotment with a German flag Foto: Bernd Thissen dpa/lnw pixel
The allotment is its German owner's pride and joyImage: picture-alliance/dpa

But Teutonic chaos has been known to raise its ugly head even here, in these fortresses of virtue.

According to a tacit understanding amongst allotment owners, which could be described as the Gartenzwergordnung, a garden gnome may not exceed a height of 69 centimeters. He must have a beard, a red cap, a leather apron, a spade over his shoulder and a pickaxe, and either a lantern or a wheelbarrow.

However, times have changed. Some allotment owners have been shrugging off the chains of orderliness and inviting all sorts of disreputables into their gardens. Female gnomes, for example. Or ones with naked behinds. Some gnomes have even been spotted making rude gestures.

But fear not - wherever there is a breach of order, German law ensures it remains a minor aberration. According to a ruling reached by a court in Grünstadt in 1994, these diminutive revolutionaries are not, technically speaking, garden gnomes. No - they are an affront to integrity, and disturbers of the peace, which accordingly have no place in an allotment garden. The average German breathes a sigh of relief. Everything is in order again. As they say in Germany: "Ordnung muss sein".

Garden Gnoms dpa: 22811322
Garden gnomes must have a beard, a red cap and apronImage: picture-alliance/Arco Images GmbH