Census divides (and adds) West Germans

Never mind missiles, unemployment, and acid rain. The election campaign is over, and the real fight can now begin in West Germany - over the 1983 census. The lines are drawn, and more are being drawn with every passing day. The Hamburg senate (city government) has just appealed for a two-year postponement of the population tally. More than 300 grass-roots groups are urging noncompliance.

In its first policy statement to Parliament after its election, the counterculture Green party has called for a boycott of the April 27 census. And at the other end of the political spectrum, Bavarian Christian Social Union leader Franz Josef Strauss has also expressed his reservations about the whole idea.

The 32 questions to be answered by each resident and mailed in (penalty for failure to do so up to 10,000 deutsche marks, or about $4,150) have raised both civil-rights and financial hackles. (To be sure, those delays reflected disagreement about how the states and federal government should split the costs rather than issues of principle. But the effect was the same.)

So wildly has the dispute raged, in fact, that the census was finally scheduled for this spring only after several previous postponements.

Censuses are no strangers to controversy, of course. The Biblical children of Israel were bidden not to number the people. Farther east, the Han Dynasty had its troubles with ''cooked books'' (inflated statistics to enhance various mandarins' power, deflated ones to minimize the gentry's taxes). And farther north, Stalin avoided a head count in all his latter years because it would have shown too many heads missing.

Those earlier disputes are understandable. But a full-blown fight over a census in this day and age? In an industrial, consumer state that clearly needs accurate population figures to administer electoral reapportionment, social-welfare payments, and public-transportation distribution?

Yes, indeed. Ombudsman-like data-protection guardians are assuring respondents that their rents and religious affiliations will never be revealed to inquisitive tax or police officials. But privacy watchdogs are far from convinced and warn that West Germans run the risk of being turned into ''glass men'' that everyone can see through.

Some critics are leery of the permitted cross-checking of data that might reveal, say, that a certain draft-age young man isn't really living in conscription-exempt West Berlin. Others decry the kind of spying on neighbors that may be encouraged to ensure that no illegal alien goes unrecorded.

The result is that ever since the last population count in 1970, social scientists and railroad managers alike have been guessing that West Germany still has 61 million - but no one is really sure. Some analysts are suggesting that 60 million might be more accurate today. Other observers find such a disparity not credible, given the thorough, compulsory registration of all residents at the community level.

West Germany's newly reelected conservative government finds the whole to-be-or-not-to-be debate rather ridiculous. In its first post-election session the Cabinet decided March 9 to proceed with the census.

In theory that should end the argument. In practice it won't.

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