Germany vs America
Like most Americans who arrive in Berlin I was first stuck by the seemingly rampant lawlessness in Germany’s capital. At nights the parks were full of kids drinking and playing loud music around bonfires. In the home of the free we had invented words like loitering that are as much a contradiction to our concept of freedom as is equal rights for all except slaves and women as our original constitution paradoxically implied. It took a while for me to accept that public drinking was not illegal but also when inside bars (and even out in public) it was not uncommon to catch a whiff of someone openly smoking marijuana and hashish. In the former East Berlin many derelict buildings had gone un-renovated since the end of WWII and were now the home to illegal squatters who often threw massive parties on the weekends. Many of the coolest bars and even restaurants were underground affairs operating outside the law. Prostitution became legal in 2002 but prior to that the police took very little to no action against the ladies of the night brazenly walking the streets plying their trade. All this in the capital of stodgy and orderly Germany?
Berlin as an exception
One could of course argue that in the same way NYC is not really indicative of America as a whole, Berlin also is not really representative of the rest of Germany. One could also argue that just as how marijuana is legal in Amsterdam yet the Dutch do not have a culture of stoners perhaps it is precisely because of Berlin’s lack of enforcement and acceptance of social freedoms that the Berliners do not abuse their freedoms. One thing you cannot deny however is that crime in Germany is amazingly low considering how much leeway people are given in their daily life. Take the subway for example, if one was so inclined one could board and ride for free illegally with a fairly low chance of being caught by ticket collectors but nonetheless very few people chose to ride illegally (schwarzfahren). There are many theories on why crime in Germany is so low though the one I prefer is that it is due to the re-education of the German society after WWII and the emphasis placed on human rights and respecting basic freedoms that the Germans have created a near utopian society when compared with the one I was brought up in.
According to the Deutsche Welle, “Between 1993 and 2003, the number of murders fell by 40.8 percent and domestic burglaries fell by 45.7 percent. All in all, crime in general dropped by 2.6 percent during the 10-year period” The Atlantic review lists some interesting statistics as well, “In the US, there are roughly 17,000 murders a year, of which about 15,000 are committed with firearms. By contrast, Britain, Australia and Canada combined see fewer than 350 gun-related murders each year. . . . Among Germany’s 82 million citizens there have been 794 murders in 2005. That’s two more murders than in 2004. . . .Murders per 1.000.000 inhabitants in the US: 56,3. And in Germany: 9,7. That means the murder rate is nearly six times higher in the US than in Germany.” Last month the crime statistics for 2010 came out and, according to the Ministry of Interiors, “5.93 million criminal acts were committed last year, down 2 percent from the year before. . . . , it’s the first time the figure has fallen below 6 million since the country was reunified in 1991 and is the lowest crime level since records began. . . . Juvenile crime levels dropped by 6.9 percent, with violent youth crime among 14-18-years-olds falling by 9.9 percent. This figure far exceeded the average 3.5 percent drop in violent crime.”
This is not to say that there is no crime in Germany and Berlin. Over the past year there have been a few disturbing occurrences of violence by groups of kids in subway stations attacking unsuspecting victims. Though these might have been exceptions however there is a rise in cyber-crimes and home break-ins which cannot be denied. According to the Ministry of the Interiors again, “The number of cases of Internet crime climbed 8.1 percent in 2010, with around 224,000 reported cases. This figure represented more than 80 percent of all registered cases of fraud. The number of homes broken into in 2010 was also up by 6.6 percent.” When I first arrived in Berlin I was astonished to see how trusting the Berliners were when it came to leaving open windows and not double locking their front doors when going out. I have come to appreciate this trust in your neighbors but as Berlin grows it seems I will have to become a bit more cautious once again but in the large scheme of things it seems a small price to pay.