Germany in transistion: the tale of a ticket

Any foreigner who can't understand why West Germans protested their national census this spring as an invasion of privacy (and in fact got the courts to postpone it) might well ponder the saga of Elizabeth Sherwood at the Ebenhausen train station.

And any foreigner who thinks that Germans are only overobedient clerks might ponder the role of Clemens von Rappard in this saga.

The cast of characters includes:

Ms. Sherwood: American Oxford PhD candidate and soon-to-be American diplomat. Flew to West Germany evening before saga. Speaks not quite enough German.

Herr von Rappard: Young owner of the newspaper and grocery stand at the station and seller of tickets. Speaks some English.

Three plainclothes train-ticket inspectors: One young woman inspector (henceforth, Woman Inspector), one leather-jacketed railroad senior secretary (Leather Jacket), and one trench-coat-wearing railroad supervisor (Trench Coat).


Ms. Sherwood and Leather Jacket get off the suburban Munich train that has just arrived in this Bavarian town. Ms. Sherwood had understood (incorrectly) that she could buy a ticket on the train. The inspector, having found her without a ticket on an honor-system line that requires ticket prepurchase from a slot machine, wants to fine her the standard 40 deutsche marks ($17). Ms. Sherwood explains her misunderstanding. Herr von Rappard proposes that she simply buy the 4-deutsche mark ($1.67) ticket for the ride she has just taken, and Leather Jacket seems inclined to accept this solution as fair. Woman Inspector and Trench Coat join group, however, and insist that Ms. Sherwood pay the fine instead. Woman Inspector takes Ms. Sherwood's passport to write down identity, then refuses (illegally) to give back the passport until Ms. Sherwood pays up.

Stray American reporter overhears her explanation and recalls her own experience on arrival in Germany, when an inspector insisted on a fine because the reporter's ticket, while punched the correct number of times, was stamped on Lines 1, 3, and 5 instead of the mandatory 2, 4, and 6. (At the time, German friends' reactions ranged from ''now you understand the mentality of Hitler's block wardens'' to accusations that the reporter was anti-German for getting upset.)

The Reporter intervenes on Ms. Sherwood's side, telling inspectors, in German , what she has said in English. Approximately the following conversation ensues:

Leather Jacket (to Reporter): This is none of your business.

Reporter (to Leather Jacket): But it's absurd to fine her. It's her first day in West Germany. She doesn't understand German. She thought she could buy the ticket on the train.

L.J.: You don't have anything to do with this case. You stay out of it.

R. (suddenly remembering that she had inadvertently bought a double ticket coming out from Munich half an hour earlier. To Woman Inspector): Look, here's my ticket. You inspected it, and you explained to me that I had paid double. So I have paid for her too.

W.I.: That won't do. You were on a different train.

L.J. (to Reporter): You keep out of this.

In the meantime, von Rappard has called the Ebenhausen Foundation for Science and Politics, where Ms. Sherwood is due for a conference, for help. The inspectors have called the police.

W.I. (to Sherwood): How much money do you have?

Sherwood: Why should I tell you how much money I have? Why won't you give me my passport back?

Von Rappard (to inspectors): She didn't do it intentionally. She wanted to buy the ticket. The most sensible thing is just to let her buy it.

L.J.: That's no excuse.

The Reporter has mixed feelings. She admires the superb German public transport on the one hand, and realizes that quite a few young Germans deliberately ''ride black'' and then plead innocence when caught. On the other hand, she wonders idly whether it might be considered entrapment of unsuspecting foreigners to have so complicated a ticket system that even out-of-town Germans often can't decipher it.

R. (suddenly feeling very German, she identifies herself as a journalist and addresses the inspectors): Please show your identification cards. How do we know you really are inspectors and have the right to do this? (She has memories of the 1968 Prague spring, one of the first triumphs of which came when students demanded and won the regulation that policemen wear visible ID badges.)

W.I.: I already showed her (Sherwood) my ID. I don't have to show it to you.

Trench Coat: You can get our names all right - when the police come.

Impasse. Sherwood and Reporter introduce them-selves.

S.: Now I understand how the Nazis succeeded in Germany. This same sort of thing happened to me in East Germany, but I thought then it was just East Germany and a shakedown.

R. (stricken, thinking of all the generous Germans she knows and imagining Ms. Sherwood remembering this incident in some future crisis in Washington-Bonn relations): The Germans aren't like this. They really aren't.

S. (looking at her watch, which now reads 40 minutes past the time the conference was due to start): Should I just pay the fine and get my passport back?

V.R.: No, don't pay.

Two Policemen finally arrive (from two towns away, since Ebenhausen is too small to have its own force). Leather Jacket explains the situation from inspectors' point of view. Von Rappard and the Reporter explain the situation from Ms. Sher-wood's point of view.

The Reporter contemplates the social trade-off in which the German fetish for rules punishes innocents, but at least keeps city streets a lot freer of violence than American streets. She recalls the aftermath of a Libyan assassination in Bonn, when casual passers-by incredibly detained the assassin until police came.

Policeman: You mean that's all we got called for? (Dutifully takes down Ms. Sherwood's name and passport number. Von Rappard and Reporter request that he take down names of inspectors as well. The first two show their IDs. Trench Coat does not, until reporter insists.)

T.C. (extracting rubber stamp from pocket and stamping Policeman's report sheet with ''K 298''): You don't need my name. That's all you need. . . . But get her name (pointing to Reporter).

The Reporter knows K 298 has no right to her name, but thinks witnesses should be ready to declare themselves - and doesn't want to hide behind an aura of anonymous authority the way K 298 is doing. She gives her passport to one of the Policemen. Ms. Sherwood, realizing that the inspectors are taking down the name of the person who organized the conference she is to attend, and will pressure the foundation for the fine, hands over 40 marks.

Exeunt most characters.

Von Rappard shakes Reporter's hand and offers further help if needed. The Reporter asks if von Rappard will have any problems if his name appears in print , since he is a partial employee of the railroad. He replies that he owns his stand and can take care of himself - and he's eager to get the incident publicized.

Conclusion: No, the block-warden mentality hasn't disappeared from the petty bureaucracy in West Germany. But yes, West German citizens these days are ready to challenge this mind-set.m

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