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Alcohol and Socialism

Germans Ignore Dying Man in Bank Despite Law Telling them to Help


The police in Essen reported (g) on a case in which an 82-year-old man collapsed to the floor of a branch bank in Essen, Germany in early October. At least four people were seen on security cam footage simply walking over his body without offering help or calling an ambulance. The man was eventually taken to a hospital, where he later died. The police are now investigating these persons for failure to render assistance, which is a crime under German law. Section 323c of the Penal Code:

Whosoever does not render assistance during accidents or a common danger or emergency although it is necessary and can be expected of him under the circumstances, particularly if it is possible without substantial danger to himself and without violation of other important duties shall be liable to imprisonment not exceeding one year or a fine.

In common-law countries such as the United States, the law imposes no duty to rescue strangers. As long as you didn't cause the emergency and the bear no special duty to the victim (as a guest or relative, etc.), the law will not punish you for ignoring him. There are a number of justifications for this doctrine, both theoretical (you can't be held responsible for injuries you didn't cause), and moral (the state should trust its citizens to do the right thing uncoerced).

This is one of the most obvious differences between common-law systems and civil-law systems such as the ones in most European countries. When I was teaching, many of my German students professed to find the common-law doctrine shocking or cold-hearted. It's not hard to detect the attitude behind this: the still, small voice in every German's head which whispers: "Despite the recent unpleasantness, Germany is a more decent, moral, caring and sensitive society than all others in the world, except maybe Sweden, but at any rate definitely more caring and 'social' than the selfish, dog-eat-dog United States."

Am deutschen Wesen...*

The students assumed that the existence of a law requiring help made Germany a more caring place, and that it affected Germans' behavior toward one another. This is another typical German attitude -- the notion that once a law has been passed to address a problem, the problem no longer exists.

Alas, I had to shatter their precious smugness idealism.

Studies show that 'duty to rescue' laws have no effect on whether people rescue their fellow humans in need. In the United States, where the law says you don't have to try to rescue people, a huge majority does exactly that, often risking their own lives:

As Table 3 reflects, there are approximately 1003 non-risky rescues (cell 2) and 263 risky rescues (cell 4) per year in the United States. Thus, verifiable rescues outnumber non-rescues by almost 800:1. If one loosens the standard for rescue only slightly, to encompass instances of rescue that were reported in a newspaper but did not pass initial screening by the Carnegie Hero Trust Commission, the ratio increases to approximately 1400:1.

Approximately 100 Americans lose their lives every year as a result of attempting to rescue someone else. Thus, even in the absence of a duty to rescue, deaths among rescuers outnumber deaths attributable to non-rescue by approximately 60:1 every year. Stated differently, there are six times as many rescuer deaths every year as there are deaths attributable to non-rescue in the past ten years combined.

Finally, injury is common among rescuers. Aggregate figures are unavailable, since most of the data sources did not separately track injury, but in those that did and as detailed below, a substantial percentage of risky-rescuers and a significant number of non-risky rescuers were injured – sometimes quite severely.

This isn't to say that Germans are more cold-hearted than Americans. Why, just five days ago, a staff member on a German Rhine cruise ship jumped into the cold water to rescue a woman who had fallen off a bridge into the Rhine (g).

The point is first, that law on the books, as usual, has little to do with what happens in the real world. Second, that laws drafted by tiny commissions staffed by elites (such as law professors) and then passed word-for-word by the national legislature do not necessarily reflect "the values of our civilization".

Points worth remembering!

*For German speaking readers, this short German phrase conjures up a universe of associations. For my non-German-Powered™ readers, here's a brief explanation. The words come from a paraphrase of a line in a 19th-century poem by the nationalist poet Emanuel Geibel: “Am deutschen Wesen soll die Welt genesen”. This roughly translates to "German values shall cure the world." I.e. shorthand for a particularly pompous notion of German national superiority.

This wasn't Geibel's original meaning. His original poem "Germany's Vocation" (from which the phrase is adapted), was meant as a rallying cry to the various small German-speaking principalities to unify themselves into a single German state. This unified state would then synthesize the best customs and political ideals of all the individual duchies and statelets into a new political organization capable of protecting German interests and encouraging healthy and moderate customs among the German people.

Ever since the phrase was misused by Kaisers and dictators, poor Geibel's been associated with German nationalism. This is the same fate as the phrase "Deutschland über alles" (Germany above all). It was originally a rallying-cry for German unification -- i.e., let's stop putting the needs of our small local community first and unite to put the needs of the German-speaking peoples as a whole first, by unifying into a single, strong country.

So much misunderstanding of Germany comes from the fact that people don't know that modern Germany only emerged from a dizzying patchwork of small states into a national entity in 1871. And that this process took decades, was extremely controversial, and that the people in favor of unification were among the most progressive and liberal forces in society.