Some West Germans' hackles are raised by census-taking

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

The powers that be now know that my 105-square-meter apartment is centrally heated, that I am a foreign journalist with an M.A. who walks to work, and that my religion is ``other'' (than Roman Catholic, Evangelical, Jewish, or Islamic). As they didn't ask, they don't know my salary. Since the local police and tax officials already have this information, it isn't clear how far the community's sociological knowledge has been advanced by my and my neighbors' reiteration of our personal data.

But for bureaucrats who want to make reliable forecasts about pensions, transportation, and the economy, there is an obvious need for a census after 17 years - the longest hiatus since modern Germans began counting themselves in 1871.

For census opponents, though, there is an obvious need to reject what they see as coercion by the state.

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Bonn is convinced that the census will show it if the population really is 61 million and shrinking, as everyone assumes, as well as how many new apartments are needed where, and how many of the schools built during the baby-boom years are now superfluous.

It will, that is, if less that 5 percent of the population turns out to have been convinced by opponents to spill coffee on the questionnaires or otherwise invalidate them. For with Germanic thoroughness, a righteous battle has been raging over the census. Each side has accused the other of fascism and proclaimed its own position as (in the government's pro-campaign) a ``matter of honor,'' or (in the boycotters' anti-campaign) a matter of ``only sheep get counted.''

As census questionnaires were returned this week, the authorities thought their public-relations campaign - with movies, TV spots, and flyers and brochures by the millions - had gotten the balkers down to 2 percent, low enough not to skew the statistics. But the resisters claimed some moral victory in anti-state consciousness-raising.

Clearly there is more than just policy skirmishing here. In what various politicians have called ``exaggerated'' or ``hysterical'' quarrels, the two sides have not only branded their adversaries as fascists, but have also cast themselves as the defenders of democracy. In a nation that is relatively new to democracy and has seen such excessive emphasis on collective over individual interests in past regimes, there is not always common agreement on just what self-government should mean when it comes to mediating between personal rights and social needs.

Thus, Jutta Ditfurth, one of the national spokesmen of the countercultural Greens, told a recent party gathering in southwest Germany, ``The supporters of the census are the same ones who are for building atomic energy, stoking an arms buildup, and treating the revival of fascism as harmless.'' She found it ominous that Jews were again asked to identify themselves and warned, ``The censuses of the Nazi time were the basis for the later mass extermination.''

In this issue, as in demonstrations against nuclear power and against extension of airport runways, Green ``fundamentalists'' like Ditfurth deem it a self-evident virtue to oppose the state. They argue that, because Germans lacked the civil courage to resist the state under Hitler, today's Germans have a compensatory duty to resist the state whenever they think it is acting improperly. And they think the state has acted improperly in letting people sometimes fill out questionnaires for neighbors and in assigning policemen to make surveys in the earlier stage of the census.

Officials argue, on the contrary, that it is turning democracy on its head to set each citizen up as judge of what is right or wrong. They contend that in a democracy there are representative institutions such as the legislature and courts to make those decisions. They say that once the census was approved by a majority in Parliament - and once the questionnaire was rewritten to meet the norms of data protection set by the Constitutional (supreme) Court in 1983 - it was no longer democratic to interfere with the census. In particular, conservatives charge the Greens with stimulating physical assaults these past weeks on some two dozen of the half million census takers.

To enforce their point of view, the federal and various state governments mounted police raids on census boycotters and on some offices of the Greens - and also fined the Green members of Parliament for unfurling a banner outside the Bundestag calling for a boycott.

They also set a daunting fine of 10,000 marks ($5,555) for anyone boycotting the census or giving false information. How the authorities expect to identify the givers of false information is not clear, however, since according to the law, the outer envelope bearing names and addresses must be destroyed before the machine-readable questionnaire inside is fed to the computer.

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