Germany Bans Double Names For Families

What's in a name? In Germany, it's now a matter of your legal identity.

Under a new German law, newlyweds are not allowed to register their names combined into hyphenated hybrids, such as Schmidt-Klein or Klein-Schmidt.

And as for parents who keep their individual family names but want to bestow a double name on their progeny - Herr Schmidt and Frau Klein may want to call their children the Schmidt-Kleins - again, the new law won't let them.

In particular, the latter restriction has drawn pointed criticism from affected families and civil libertarians around the country.

Changes in the Namensrecht, the law governing names, in the last several years have resulted in families where each child has a different last name - a reflection of the different options legally available when the children were born.

Averting a tidal wave?

Some options that were briefly available during an interim period were eliminated when new legislation came into force in April 1994. This leaves some Germans feeling that a tidal wave of unwieldy double names has been prevented. Others feel civil liberties have been set back.

In 1991 the Constitutional High Court ruled a section of the 1975 Namensrecht unconstitutional. The section said that in cases when a marrying couple could not decide on a new family name, the man's name prevailed. Unfair to women, the court ruled. It called on the Bundestag, the lower chamber of parliament, to pass a new law. Meanwhile, interim regulations allowed double names for both marrying couples and children.

The Justice Ministry, in the hands of the centrist Free Democrats, the traditional civil-liberties party, prepared legislation for the coalition government to consider that included the double names.

Then suddenly, the Christian Democrats pulled the emergency brake. The law that eventually passed included a number of elements that would be considered liberal or progressive. For example, each partner could keep his or her name at marriage, or both partners could take his name or hers. But as far as double names for spouses and children are concerned, the new law is clear: Hyphenation is not permitted.

The government's concern was a proliferation of double names: After a few generations, names would be so long that people would be walking genealogical logs.

There was also concern of a different kind on the part of the nobility, who are still a part of public life in Germany. The proposed legislation would have allowed divorced people to retain names acquired through marriage and to bestow them on subsequent marital partners.

Thus, Frau Klein marries Herr von Hohenfelsen, a nobleman, and becomes Frau von Hohenfelsen. If the marriage ends, she can marry Herr Schmidt, a commoner, and dignify him too as Herr von Hohenfelsen.

"Shock! Horror! Name inflation!" exclaims Marliese Dobberthien in mock alarm. She's a Social Democratic member of the Bundestag who has been working on legislation to put the double names option into the Namensrecht.

Her own interest in the issue dates to the time of her divorce, when she tried to keep her married name, under which she had published and earned her professional reputation. The Namensrecht of that period did not allow this, and so she resumed her maiden name.

"When I got into this issue, I found it was more important than I had thought. One hears it's not an important issue - but it's always men who say this. How would they feel if the tables were turned, if it was assumed that they would take their wives' names?" she asks.

Meanwhile, precisely because it took the Bundestag so long to work out a compromise, German couples had 2-1/2 years in which to produce double-named children.

The new law is being challenged in a number of cases working their way through the courts. Also, a lobbying group for "Family-Friendly Namensrecht" has been established.

"Names are tied up with individual personality and human dignity," says Heinz Stenz, director of the registry office in the university town of Tbingen in southern Germany. He has seen some of the effects of the latest legal changes, such as disappointment and frustration, when couples come to him to marry or register the birth of a child. The 1994 law was "half-baked, piecemeal reform ... not geared to the needs of the citizens."

The danger of hyphen buildup is exaggerated, advocates of liberalization say. When two bearers of double names marry, each can be required to drop a part of his or her name, they suggest.

No name chaos elsewhere

Other countries in the European Union (EU), including France, Spain, and Denmark, as well as Britain, have more liberal laws "and chaos has not broken out there," says Mr. Stenz. "They're still able to nail mail frauds when they have to."

Namensrecht in Germany is based on a desire "for the state to be able to keep track of you," Ms. Dobberthien suggests. But computers can keep track of people whether they share a last name or not, she says.

The controversy over double names reflects a basic difference in legal systems. In the Anglo-Saxon countries, many of these matters are governed by custom, not law, and laws tend to be broadly framed and enhanced, if necessary, with regulations. The tendency in countries with legal systems derived from Roman law (much of continental Europe) is for detailed legislation.

Highlighting this focus on detail in the law, Dobberthien notes that "the Ten Commandments consist of 180 words" but the EU's regulations governing manufacture of caramel candies contain 22,000 words.

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