We used to mock the Germans for the devotion to the outward forms of authority. Back in the days when everything was allowed which was not forbidden, and when Britons were allowed to make their own assessments of risk, we laughed at Fritz because he would do nothing without a notice to tell him he was allowed to and felt adrift if his next step was not laid out in a manual.
Jerome K Jerome summed it up neatly in Three Men on the Bummel, written in 1900.
…your German likes his view from the summit of the hill, but he likes to find there a stone tablet telling him what to look at… If, in addition, he can find a police notice posted on a tree, forbidding him to do something or other, that gives him an extra sense of comfort and security
We don’t laugh at the Germans now, at least not for that reason. Signs and notices litter our every street, every public building, every view, erected by some tiresome little nobody pursuant to some regulation or for fear of litigation. Parish churches bear notices telling us not to smoke, our roads are littered with metalwork erected by highways officers for whom notices are a tangible sign of their power, Health & Safety goons warn, admonish and direct our every move. Port Meadow, on the rural Thames near me, now bears big notices telling us that it is dangerous to use the footpath when it is under water, erected by some thick little man from Oxford City Council.
Madame Tussauds in Berlin briefly exhibited a wax model of Adolf Hitler, sitting at a table in the Bunker. Every effort was made to achieve verisimilitude, not just in the figure but in its setting. Affixed to the wall behind the Fuhrer’s head, however, was a big, bright and very modern notice – a camera in a red circle with a line through it, presumably banning the taking of photographs. It quite ruined any sense of realism – all the modeller’s skill and scene-setter’s art thrown away by one crass notice.
It crossed my mind to wonder if this was meant to be ironic – a trivial symbol of authority set up as counterpoint to and mockery of the most authoritative figure in German history. But no – the German does not do irony. It was just a petty notice stuck up by someone with no feel for context, a dull little functionary who was so keen to ban something that he did not mind ruining the tableau with his notice. The Times photographer was clearly unimpressed by the notice – in theory one should never see a photograph of notice banning the taking of photographs.
By then, Adolf had lost his head, victim of an assault by a builder who brought him down with a rugby tackle and twisted his neck. I would love to do the same to the man who stuck the notices along the Thames.