A Great Contribution to Mankind: Das Formular

Intricate systems of lines and boxes: now UNESCO world heritage

I have to interrupt the usual flow of information about the German language and share with you exciting news.

Today, on April 1st , many Germans are standing tall and congratulating each other. Last night, news broke that UNESCO, the cultural arm of the United Nations, will declare the German Formblatt or Formular (n, plural: Formulare) as the property of the cultural heritage of humanity. Finally, after many years of lobbying by the German government and after many inspections by an international expert team of the United Nations, the paper form or Formular, as it has been refined and cultivated in Germany, is from now on considered throughout the world as the great, if not greatest contribution the German populace has made to the welfare of mankind.

Formulare,  these papers with their intricate systems of lines, numbers and boxe, with their subtle questions and affectionate instructions, will live and flourish forever nder the protection of the United Nations, side by side with the pyramids in Egypt, the Sydney opera house and the Sichuan great panda sanctuaries. People around the world envy the Germans for the unique opportunity in their country to drink good beer, eat real bread and fill out a Formular.

Every morning for the last couple of weeks, the author of these lines marvels at the tax form he has to deliver soon to the local tax department, the Finanzamt. It lies on his desk and consists of altogether ten pages. Several pages are identical to give him the chance to spend his hours more useful by giving the same information several times and fulfilling the needs of subdivisions and sub-subdivisions of the Finanzamt. In return, he is given a wonderful gift, namely the only place in the landscape of Formulare where he can compile all numbers the government has ever assigned to him: The tax number – of course – and a certain Federal Identification Number of a still unidentified purpose, the number of the national ID card or passport, the number of the semi-governmental healthcare provider and the number of the federal pension administration.

While in some cultures people trade kisses on their cheeks or give flowers when they visit each other, Germans exchange little quotes from their tax form, written on fine stationary and handed over at the doorstep: “Anlage S: In den Zeilen 4 bis 7, 9 und 10 nicht enthaltener steuerfreier Teil der Einkünfte, für die das Teileinkünfteverfahren gilt.” (Please note the discrete exclusion of line 8 as well as the positioning of three ü-umlauts in the last third of the sentence.)

Instead of flowers, the young and the successful surprise their fiancées on valentine’s day with deckle-edged paper, containing a personal note with the payment instruction from the Formblatt of the federal pension administration (Deutsche Rentenversicherung), a beacon of clarity: “Die Beiträge sind spätestens bis zum drittletzten Bankarbeitstag des Kalendermonats, für den sie gelten, zu zahlen.” (First the imperative, “sind zu zahlen”, which makes the instruction so personal, than a new definition of time, only Einstein could have written, namely the “antepenultimate bank working day of the month in which the fees are due”, finally the relative clause that lets “zu zahlen” flap in the wind like a white handkerchief in the hand of a young longing lady.)

By early this morning, most TV commentators and experts of international affairs agree that the main reason for the decision of the UNESCO was the German government’s effort to channel its compassion for the jobless people solely through paper forms. Normally, a woman or a man who lost his or her job, will also lose a great deal of self-confidence and the sense of purpose in this world, but at the door of the unemployment agency – or Jobcenter (one word) as it is officially called – they are greeted by a bouquet of 16 pages Formulare that will keep them busy and happy for the nights to come. In a separate form, the unemployed can ask the Jobcenter to reimburse the postage they have to buy to send out their resumes. The title of the form is “Antrag auf Gewährung einer Förderung aus dem Vermittlungsbudget gem. … (than follows the exact title of the law, composed of six words, six abbreviations, two symbols and five numbers) … für die Anbahnung einer versicherungspflichtigen Beschäftigung bzw. schulischen Ausbildung”. On three pages, the unemployed person is allowed to express all kinds of information about the resumes, the recipients of the resumes, what kind of work they applied for, their bank account and – the postage itself. The postage will only be reimbursed when the applicant attaches copies of the resumes in question and copies of the letters the companies had send in response. (The copy costs may exceed the postage, actually.)

In a hastily organized ceremony at the Bundesdruckerei, the printing plant for federal ID cards and other official documents, the recently elected president, the chancellor, the coach of the national football (or soccer) team as well as important people from the film, fishing and lottery business will honor the creators of the Formblatt. There are hundreds of thousands of them in the whole country, on all levels of the government and in institutions, and today, some of them will come forward from the darkness of anonymity and talk for the first time about their hard work, how they design Formular questions, and how they draft denials for the answers they get.

Just a moment ago, a young man who works as a Formulardesigner in an agency of the Berlin city government, was shown on TV as he entered his office building. The journalists asked him about his driving motive for his work, his ultimate mission. He offered only one word as answer: “Empathy”.

This afternoon, children from a school in the neighborhood will present him a selection of little Formulare they have created in art class as a symbol, as a reminder that this beautiful trademark of German culture will be handed down from one generation to the next, so it will never die out.
Next update: Sunday, April 8th

Published by


Bernd Hendricks. Born in Duisburg, Germany. Based in Berlin. Writer, German Language Educator. I was six years old when I went to the opera for the first time. My Grandma took me to Hänsel und Gretel at the Deutsche Oper am Rhein in Duisburg. The first time I met an opera singer personally was during my time as foreign correspondent in New York when at a Christmas party a baritone pelted me with questions about the language of Zauberflöte. He was preparing for his role as Papageno. After my return to Berlin in September 2010, I have been giving German lessons to singers on their audition tours. My workshops in Berlin, Vienna, and London are based on my widely read book Ach, ich fühl’s—German for Opera Singers in Three Acts: Studying, Speaking, Singing. My latest book, Die Frist ist um—Navigate the Language of 10 German Operas, takes you on a journey through the language of the most popular and often performed operas in the German-speaking countries. I am also the author of several non-fiction books and two novels.

One thought on “A Great Contribution to Mankind: Das Formular”

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s