Historical Amnesia (2020)

Conference of interior ministers of the German federal states

The conference of interior ministers of the German federal states receives the BigBrotherAward 2020 in the “Historical Amnesia” Category for their intention to create a life-long personal identification number based on the tax identification number. Such personal identification numbers were used in two dictatorships on German soil: in Nazi Germany and in the East German GDR – for registration, repression and in the end for extermination. They violate the spirit of the constitution.
padeluun am Redner.innenpult der BigBrotherAwards 2021.
padeluun, Digitalcourage

The BigBrotherAward 2020 in the “Historical Amnesia” Category goes to the conference of interior ministers of the German federal states, represented by its acting chairman, Georg Maier, Minister of the Interior of the federal state of Thuringia, for their intention to create a life-long personal identification number based on the tax identification number.

Border(line) Experience

Nineteen-hundred eighty-one; almost forty years ago. I was on tour, travelling by railway with a bag full of 8-millimeter films from Graz in Austria to Düsseldorf. That is to say: I wanted to go to Düsseldorf, but by the time I reached the Austrian–German border, my journey came to a premature end. In Austria my only identification document, my passport, had been taken away. (That is a story for another time.)

I had not expected any big problems, because – so I imagined – I was in possession of a secretive power: I could recite the number of my identity card from memory, and with that – so I imagined – it could quickly be determined that I was the one and true padeluun and I would be allowed to cross the border and be on my way. In the following eight hours, which I spent in the company of friendly border guards, I learned about personal identification numbers.

I learned, in particular, that after 1945, when it had become clear how much the counting and the collection of statistical data had helped the Nazis with murdering people, such personal identification numbers should never be created again. This is what the Parliamentary Council, tasked with writing the German Constitution and consisting of 66 men and four women, almost all of them convicts, concentration camp inmates, deserters or resistance fighters1, wrote in Article 1 of the Constitution:

“Human dignity is inviolable.”

This is why the identity card number cannot be traced back to the person, and a new number is assigned for every new identification document for which I apply. No person on German soil shall ever again be reduced to a number – or even worse, uniquely tattooed with such a number.

And I, being a young fool, just thought this was terribly inefficient. I had to stay put at this border post for eight hours, just because “they” would not release the number for search purposes because of some “romantic” reasons. I didn’t think it was important. The war had been over for a long time, the Nazis and fascists would never return. That was my youthful misjudgment.

What I wasn’t aware of: personal identification numbers like this were used in two dictatorships on German soil: in Nazi Germany and in the East German GDR – for registration, repression and in the end for extermination. They violate the spirit of the constitution.

Rejected Time and Time Again

As early as 1969 the German Federal Constitutional Court (“Bundesverfassungsgericht”) decidedly rejected such personal IDs for the first time in the “Micro Census” ruling. As they did several more times after that. The judges found it unconstitutional, ...

“... to register and to catalogue someone in their entire personality […] and thus treat them like an object allowing a complete inventory in every respect.”2

In May 1976 the judicial committee of the german federal parliament stated that ...

“... for reasons of constitutional and legal policy it is not permissible to develop, deploy and use a numbering system which allows for a uniform enumeration of the entire population.” This vote caused the first draft of a federal registration law to fail.3

But in 2007 Peer Steinbrück, then finance minister, introduced the tax ID. Back then, 13 years ago, we already gave him a BigBrotherAward for that. At the time solemn oaths were taken that this tax ID would never be extended into a personal identification number. And now look at the mess we’ve got.

What is planned for 2020

In our February 2020 session of the BigBrotherAwards selection committee we talked about the personal identification number as a possible candidate. I remember that at first we refused to believe that such a bill was actually being proposed.

We came across the National Regulatory Control Council (“Normenkontrollrat”), which presented an expert report by McKinsey&Company concluding that a “register modernisation act” was needed, and that this would save 6 billion euros. It would require courageous political actions, it says. And I think to myself, yes, it does takes courage to offer the keyboard and monitor to the mundane evil.

Markus Reuter of the netzpolitik.org blog writes about this McKinsey report (quote):

“The report mentions that from a constitutional and from a privacy perspective it is difficult to introduce a personal identification number. Among other reasons the introduction of such a personal identification number is problematic because of the census ruling of the Federal Constitutional Court and because of a possible violation of the fundamental right to informational self-determination. This ruling prohibits the administration from linking personal data with an overarching identification number which could be used for profiling.” (End quote)

However, according to a submission of the Department V II 2 of the federal ministry of the interior, the 212th conference of interior ministers has been discussing the report and decided to go through with it.4 Not unanimously, I’d like to add. Some federal states were apparently opposed, but to no avail. As early as December, the initiative “Freiheitsfoo” (“freedom foo”) had contacted and queried all interior ministers in Germany. According to the replies, the states of Baden-Württemberg, Bavaria and Saxony were unconditionally in favour of the personal ID. Berlin and Bremen needed more time for consideration, North Rhine Westphalia, Saxony-Anhalt, and Saarland declined to comment, and all the other states and the federal ministry simply ignored the request.5

The tax ID is intended to become a personal ID this summer6 (hidden away by the federal cabinet in the economic stimulus package). This will once more reduce humans to numbers. For all dealings with any government institution. To make this new crime against the constitution somewhat less obvious, an ominous additional agency will be inserted in between. A similar stunt had been used years ago for the de-facto merging of the civil registers: the databases remained separate, but a common linking index was created on top.

If all this is now introduced as a “stimulus” called “register modernisation”, because “digitalisation is so important”, then we should finally suggest “digitalisation” as the bad word of the year. We have to digitalise? We have to do no such thing. Our sole obligation is to create a world worth living in, for all creatures, flora and fauna, and to live together peacefully.

The only response left to us is sarcasm: at least the personal ID does not encode the entire family history (as was the case with the original Nazi ID), it will only reveal the responsible local tax office. No, that is not really a consolation.

What it all means

Those who think “how convenient” might have a point. There’s a single number for all occasions, we no longer have a notebook full of little numbers for different agencies, but everything at a single glance: in every file, for every agency I have to deal with. Yes, that is convenient. But it is one more step in disregarding and undermining the constitution, and not only deprives the true sovereign, the citizens, of their power, but also of their dignity.

Today, looking back 39 years, I can see a reflection of my own avant-garde stupidity in thousands of expressions of opinion. Not only in the grubby streets of social-media comments, but also in workers’ homes, in citizens’ houses, in the media and, worst of all, even in parliaments, which, forgetting history, try to forge such plans and sneak them through.

The economic dictatorship

Modern thinking about sovereignty is dominated by the promises of big money from the big Internet without big effort, and by the whining struggle against all those who might somehow stand in the way of making big profits from sovereign administrative acts, too. Six billion euros – that is the great promise – could be saved by introducing this personal ID. But it is really the other way around: these six billion euros, which apparently is the price tag for maintaining separate administrative databases, are a good investment in protecting the population from the government.

And we need this protection, not only if ever more fascists enter the parliaments, but also, and specifically, when they are bustling with “flawless democrats” (translator’s note: this is the tag once given by former chancellor Gerhard Schröder to Vladimir Putin).

What needs to be done

Where are the elected persons who cry out and who desire what is true and right, who defend the constitution against attacks from government agencies and the administration? In their absence, all we hear from the ministries and parliaments is “What is it you say?! This is unconstitutional? Even though it is so convenient? We still want it anyway!”

Although the constitutional corrective, the Federal Constitutional Court, raises its supreme-court voice every now and then, the government is not getting any wiser.

Should the personal identification number be codified into law, those of us who do not suffer from historical amnesia will have to rise against this new presumptuousness of governmental action. We call upon lawyers and other experts in constitutional law to support us.

Until then,

congratulations for the BigBrotherAward 2020 in the category “Historical Amnesia”, Mr. Maier, and all other members of the conference of interior ministers.


Updates to this awardee

Unfortunately, we do not have the capacity to translate our updates into English.


padeluun am Redner.innenpult der BigBrotherAwards 2021.
padeluun, Digitalcourage

1 Christian Bommarius: „Das Grundgesetz. Eine Biografie“, Berlin 2009, ISBN 978-3-87134-563-0

2 Bundesverfassungsgericht 16.7.1969, Aktenzeichen BvL 19/63

3 vgl. 5. Tätigkeitsbericht (TB) des Bundesbeauftragten für den Datenschutz (BfD), BT-Drs. 9/2386, S. 13 und 68

4 Abschlussbericht zur Sondierung eines registerübergreifenden Identitätsmanagements mit Einbezug der Erfahrungen mit der Steuer-Identifikationsnummer für die Innenministerkonferenz (PDF) (German)

5 ID-Register (German) (Web-Archive-Link)

6 netzpolitik.org: Eine Nummer, sie alle zu finden (German) (Web-Archive-Link)

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