Horst-Werner Nilges: Germany’s freelance parking cop

BERLIN, Germany — A death threat on the answering machine. A bullet in the mailbox. Anonymous phone calls and notes. And a letter with a bomb sketched on it.

This is the life of Horst-Werner Nilges, a 58-year-old retiree in the German town of Osterode. Known as “Knoellchen Horst,” or “Parking Ticket Horst,” Nilges has created a name — and an unsavory reputation — for himself by taking on injustices in his hometown, one parking ticket at a time. And in return, he says he’s been threatened, harassed and bullied.

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The catch is, Nilges doesn’t work for the city, nor does he work for the district. He acts as an unofficial custodian of traffic law on his own free time, documenting parking violations and then forwarding them to the police to issue actual tickets — to the tune of 30,000 over the past seven years.

“I’m a normal citizen,” Nilges said. “I’m not an administrative authority, I’m not a politician, I just got interested and involved in the topic.”

As simple as that may sound, Nilges has become the subject of ire and amusement across the country, as his name and image have appeared splashed across newspapers and on television. Deemed a “party pooper,” “nutcase” and “self-named vigilante,” Nilges says he has been largely misunderstood by both the German press and the public, who unfairly portray him as a bored pensioner with an unusual penchant for traffic ordinances and an indefatigable need to correct other people’s wrongs.

Nilges, on the other hand, says he, too, uses the road, and when a few, or many, people don’t follow the rules, it makes life difficult for everyone.

“When someone uses the argument that they just had to pick up some bread, or grab a newspaper, or run into the pharmacy or send off a package quick — look at the traffic regulations,” said Nilges. “It does NOT allow for exceptions.”

Alles in ordnung

It is that understanding of the law that has often been associated with a wider Prussian-based culture in Germany: the value of rules and following them. Germans have long been classified by outsiders as uber-punctual, highly disciplined robots who prefer order over all else.

Ralph Martin, Berlin-based author of the books Ein Amerikaner in Berlin (An American in Berlin) and Papanoia, says he was unnerved by the incessant amount of attention paid to details when he first arrived.

“It’s almost a postwar thing that we should never let horrible things happen again. But rather than being self-flagellating, it’s self-righteous,” Martin said, recalling his initial surprise when people would watch him park on the street — and make a point of telling him if he had tapped the car in front.

“You almost feel like you could go to jail for a misdemeanor but not for murdering someone,” he said.

But Frithjof Hager, a sociologist and professor at Free University in Berlin, says that while Germany, like many other countries, has provincial tendencies in small towns and cities across the country, those don’t hold true for many.

“The more provincial the place, the more narrow-minded it is,” Hager said. “That culture of being petty or harping on small things does exist in Germany, both in the East and the West. But that’s just a tendency, and there are so many other tendencies that also exist.”

And Hager say Nilges’ case is certainly not a typical one.

Documenting misdemeanors

For Nilges, it didn’t all start with parking tickets. He says he originally got involved in public administration issues when he discovered sewage-water treatment prices were climbing unusually high.

Once he delved into that investigation, he uncovered more injustices he wanted to set right — like garbage-collection fees. It was always a matter of closing the gap between legal theory and reality, Nilges says. And early on, he was praised by many for his efforts to set things right.

In 2004, he was sipping a coffee in Osterode’s city center — a primarily pedestrian zone — when he noticed the number of cars on the street. After finding out that those traffic violations were more or less tolerated, he approached district officials. And they allowed him to write up parking violations, so he did.

“I’m out and about in Osterode as a pedestrian or a car driver or on a bicycle,” Nilges said, who was born and raised in the town. “Within a minute, you see two or three parking violations without even trying to look for them.”

The district says any citizen can document misdemeanors in their spare time. But now, officials say, things have gotten a bit out of hand.

“At this point, we’re more than annoyed by the thousands of notices,” said Gero Geisslreiter, Osterode district spokesman, who made clear that Nilges is not working on behalf of the administration. According to Geisslreiter, Osterode receives on average six to eight notices a day from Nilges.

City officials were not amused when he filed suit against the district to force them to take his notices seriously and pursue the violations.

Nilges sparked a firestorm of press coverage and anger in 2008 when German media reported that the 58-year-old had ticketed a rescue helicopter attending to a medical emergency.

But he has vehemently disputed those claims, saying that he only photographed the helicopter — which had landed in the midst of a pedestrian zone — and alerted the municipality without classifying it as a violation. The district, though, says Nilges changed his story after coming under fire.

A guardian of the block

Nilges has also been criticized for documenting commercial vehicles like DHL trucks and police cars. His list of offenders also includes the administration itself: including a retired judge (3 times), the former mayor (3 times), a lawyer (32 times). He’s ticketed UPS 142 times.

“If we don’t want laws, we change them. Period. But as long as we don’t change them, they apply to everyone — even the police, the toll-duty officers, the judges, the public prosecutor,” Nilges said. “It’s in the constitution.”

More importantly, Nilges said, he is astounded at the lack of responsibility average citizens feel. When a woman is attacked, a child disappears or an elderly person is beaten in a train station, people wonder why nobody stepped in — and Nilges says more “zivilcourage,” or civil courage, is needed.

That, author Ralph Martin says, is something that is often valued in Germany — acting as a sort of guardian of the block. And while Nilges might be an extreme example of that trend, it could certainly be worse.

“Everywhere you go you get these extreme people who seem to characterize a complex,” Martin said. “Here, they hand out homemade parking tickets.’’

Even so, some Germans felt pure glee when Nilges received a speeding ticket in 2010, according to local press, in an emotional phenomenon often identified in German: schadenfreude.

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