The young man who is going from house to house ringing doorbells in Hamburg's elegant Harvestehude area is not selling anything. He is a student in search of a place to live during his studies.
"I had been warned that it would be difficult to find a place to live in Hamburg, but I had not expected it to be quite as bad as this," Peter Stroeckle, a freshman in mathematics, explained after a week of futile searching. "I don't know if it is any consolation to know that many other students are in the same boat," he smiled wryly.
Hamburg University accepted 4,500 new students for the fall semester, which began on Oct. 20. There are only 3,000 graduates, and many do not vacate their rooms, either because they stay on for graduate work or they have found jobs in Hamburg and prefer staying on where they are.
"The housing situation in hamburg is desperate," said Manfred Klee, dean of students in Hamburg.
But Hamburg is no exception. Each fall, student housing problems hit the headlines in Germany's big and small newspapers. This year, however, the situation appears to be worse than ever. The University of Bochum has pitched several tents on the campus to keep the students dry, if not warm and comfortable. The College of Engineering in Aachen has rented seven sleeping cars from the Federal German Railroad to tide the students over. In Aachen, some 1,500 freshmen may still be looking for a place to stay.
In Heidelberg, the university has set up two containers as makeshift housing. Other cities have "requisitioned" any available space -- empty school buildings, wings of hospitals, youth hostels to cope with the problem.
Heidelbeg is considering mooring a pleasure boat on the Neckar River to give students a place to sleep.
There are few student dormitories in West German university towns. Stefan Dingerfus, chairman of the Organization of Christian Democratic students, estimates that fewer than 10 percent of West Germany's 1 million university students live in dormitories. In Hamburg there are 3,900 accommodations in dormitories. But students number some 42,000.
Dormitories are not part of German university tradition. Students have always rented a Bude,m or room -- often the spare room or rooms that widows let to make ends meet. Privacy and a quiet place to study were the things students wanted, not luxury living.
Today, fewer widows find themselves in such financially precarious positions that they must rent the spare rooms. Fewer also live in the large apartments that were the rule at the turn of the century and in the early years of this century.
In addition, many people refuse to rent spare rooms to students any more. "They ruined their reputation during the student revolts in the 1960s," said Mrs. Emmy Harms, who has had generations of students stay in her guest room. Boisterous behavior, inconsiderateness, drinking sprees, and the like made many Germans decide that they would rather do without the extra income than have a student stay with them.
The students today are well aware of their cracked image. In Heidelberg they have mounted a campaign to convince private citizens that today's students are different, wholesome, willing to study instead of demonstrate. Posters advertising this new generation of "good" students have gone up everywhere in this best-known of German university cities.
The churches in Heidelberg and vicinity have been asked to help promote this new image in the hope of getting people to make their spare rooms available once again.
The university administrations have appealed to the state and federal governments to provide funds for the construction of student dormitories -- but that is a long-range solution.
Perhaps hardest hit of all are many of the foreign students in Germany. They arrive with no idea of the housing problem, frequently do not know how to go about looking for a place to live. The language barrier adds to their problem, and university officials are in no position to give these students much help beyond advising them what to do and what not to do when room hunting.