German style toxic passive aggression…

Part of the reason I moved my almost nine year old blog to a new site is an indirect consequence of passive aggression. It’s been on my mind lately, as Bill and I reflect on the four years we spent living near Stuttgart, dealing with the frankly toxic effects of people who refuse to clear the air in a direct way. It’s hard to live in a situation in which a person is obviously angry, but refuses to confront that anger constructively.

What is “passive aggression”.

Most people are passive aggressive sometimes. There are times when it doesn’t feel “safe” to be directly confrontational, so angry feelings are pushed beneath the surface. Sometimes, being passive aggressive is a matter of self-preservation. For instance, when I was growing up, I was often very angry with my father. However, I learned very early not to confront him directly, since it would often lead to painful physical and emotional consequences. So I would often seethe when he was around… anger festered, and I must admit, it’s still an issue today, almost five years after his death. In fact, I would even venture to guess that some of my problems stem from unresolved issues with my father, who often treated me with contempt and disdain. I was rarely allowed to address my issues with him and I almost never got validation when I did address them. The end result is that I have a lot of baggage and very little tolerance for people who show me disrespect.

I think “German” style passive aggression, is kind of different than “garden variety” passive aggression. I think it comes from German culture, which gives it a particularly nasty quality. I’ve noticed it a lot during this stint in Germany. This week, I read about two true crime cases that illustrate it quite well. The first case took place in Fischbach, a hamlet near Kaiserslautern. A lot of Americans live near there, since there is an Army installation close by. An American woman, now living in the United States, had rented out her house to other Americans. Prior to renting out her home, she hired gardener Bernhard Graumann to design a garden for her.

Evidently, the homeowner didn’t like Graumann’s work. They had a dispute. Graumann was angry enough that he booby trapped the woman’s carport with a log that had a bomb within it. The landlady moved back to the States before the trap harmed her. Fortunately, the trap was found before anyone else was hurt; presumably, that would have been the innocent American tenants who were living there. Police determined that if the log had detonated, it would have destroyed a wood stove. They detonated the explosive in a safe way, so no one was harmed. However, other people who had dealings with Graumann were not so lucky.

In Otterberg, a woman and her small child were injured by a similar device left to be discovered by an unlucky person. A 64 year old physician in Enkenbach-Alsenborn died last Friday when he touched a booby trap. Police believe that these incidents were also perpetrated by Graumann, who is now himself dead as of last Sunday. The cause of his death is currently unknown. Police are saying that Graumann purposely made these booby traps to deliberately hurt or kill people with whom he had issues. He’d leave them in places where they might or might not be discovered, completely taking his victims by surprise and injuring or even killing innocent people in the interim.

Police set up a hotline to find out if other people had problems with Graumann in personal or professional relationships. Sure enough, over 100 references have been recorded, some of which is information about Graumann’s life and some which regard personal conflicts people had with Graumann, a man many described as “withdrawn”. Graumann, who was 59 years old when he died and was a member of a medieval club where he worked with “black powder”, was married and had two grown children, one of whom is now a police officer. The son who is a cop is not working on this particular case.

The second case I read about is even more sinister. In the northern German city of Schloß Holte-Stukenbrock, a 23 year old man fell into a persistent vegetative state after ingesting high levels of mercury. Investigators were at a loss as they tried to determine how the man had fallen ill.

Another man, who had worked with the 23 year old on the same shift, also got sick and visited a doctor at least five times, complaining of mysterious symptoms. He was later found to have severe kidney damage. A third man, Klaus Radke, went to the police after several instances of noticing a brownish substance in his sandwich he’d brought from home. Hidden cameras were finally installed in the break room where these three men had worked. That’s when they discovered their colleague, Klaus O., was poisoning them.

Why was Klaus O. poisoning his co-workers’ food? Well, it wasn’t because he was necessarily angry with them personally. A psychiatrist who interviewed him explained that Klaus O. was “interested in watching the effects of poisons on his victims’ health”. Klaus O. had his own home lab, which included lead, cadmium and mercury. Klaus Radke, whose sharp eyes had noticed the “brownish substance” on his sandwiches, had brought one to the police for sampling. Lab tests discovered over 71,000 micrograms of lead within it. The police later discovered that Klaus O. had ordered more poisons online just before he was arrested. Investigators also found extremely high levels of mercury on the man’s property.

What caused Klaus O. to so callously harm his co-workers, with whom he’d apparently had no real or obvious conflicts? It’s hard to say definitively, although the court did hear testimony from Klaus O.’s estranged siblings and other family members. They described his upbringing, which was evidently traumatic and marred by poverty. Was this the reason why Klaus O. felt the need to strike out at innocent people by surreptitiously poisoning their food? Maybe… or maybe he’s just a sociopath who would have turned out this way regardless.

Many people are uncomfortable with openly expressing hostility. It’s as if being angry and expressing that emotion is some kind of sin. But anger is a very natural and normal emotion. Sometimes it’s even a motivating and constructive feeling. Bottling it up is unhealthy. On the other hand, expressing it can also be hurtful. I moved my blog, in part, because I was openly expressing anger that was making other people uncomfortable and they were confronting me in a way that was making the situation worse.

Germany is different than the United States is. Things are done by the book. I now live in a country where a person can be sued for verbally insulting another person and flipping someone the bird in traffic can lead to a very expensive fine. I am not German, so I don’t know what they learn when they are growing up in this society where it’s illegal to be insulting. However, knowing how challenging and frustrating life can be, particularly when you must deal with people with whom you don’t mesh, I can see how the habit of being passive aggressive could develop in a place where venting openly can lead to the courtroom. On the other hand, in the United States, expressing anger and engaging in conflict sometimes leads to violence. Here, people insist on civility… at least on the surface. In the United States, civility is less important and, I think, that sometimes leads to real tragedies.

I notice a lot of jokes about German passive aggression. In fact, just Googling it led me to this humorous blog post written by a fellow expat who has observed it. I have also noticed that Germans are also openly aggressive in some situations. If you do something that isn’t “right”, you can expect to be yelled at by someone. It’s happened to me more than once. This is a very “rules oriented” society, and people are very open about telling you when you’ve messed up. But if they stay angry with you, you might start noticing little subtle things that eventually become less subtle.

A good example of German passive aggression spotted in a public toilet. The sign requests that users not throw things on the floor and to use the toilet brush. The handwritten part beneath it requests that the people cleaning the toilets do something about the stench.

Don’t get me wrong. I do love living in Germany and I have developed a real affection for most German people. I’ve made friends here and there’s a lot to love about the German lifestyle. But I don’t know if I’ll ever get used to the German style of passive aggression. I find it maddening.