Germany searches soul after old man left to die in bank

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Germany searches soul after old man left to die in bank
CCTV footage shows a customer stepping over the collapsed man. Photo: DPA

After four people ignored an 82-year-old man who had collapsed and would later die in a bank in Essen, Germans have been forced to ask if their society has become too egotistical.


The incident took place on October 3rd - the holiday of German Unity Day when the country celebrates German reunification at the end of the Cold War in 1990, meaning Germans could once again live as brothers and sisters in one society.

But footage caught on a bank CCTV camera suggests a bitter emptiness to that sentiment. The old man collapsed while trying to transfer money at a machine in the front room of the bank in the western town.

The footage shows that four customers - men and women - avoided the man, either by stepping over him or walking around him. Only 20 minutes after he collapsed did a fifth customer finally call emergency services. But the pensioner never regained consciousness and later died in hospital.

Police announced on Monday that they had identified the four people in the video after the bank passed on details of who had conducted transactions at the branch during the time period in question.

The four are being investigated for failing to offer help and could face prison sentences of up to a year if found guilty.

Many Germans expressed their anger via social media after the story was first revealed by police on Friday.

“Everyone has a mobile phone after all!” wrote one person on Twitter.

“That could have been your father or grandfather” another said.

Thomas Kufen, the mayor of Essen, told DPA that he was “equally affected and disturbed” by the incident.

Catholic bishop Franz-Josef Overbeck of Essen said he was reminded of Jesus' parable of the good Samaritan and the compassion he showed.

“I believe very strongly that without true compassion, society cannot ultimately exist,” he added.

Arnold Plickert, deputy head of the Union of Police Officers (GdP) said the case was a one-off, but added that the police often come across people in the general public who have an attitude of "why should I care about other people's suffering?"

Rainer Wendt, head of the police union DpolG went further, saying “of course you can say this was a one-off - if that’s the case though it was several one-offs put together.”

For Wendt, Germany has suffered a “collective loss of empathy.”

“And quite honestly, I don’t have the solution for how we can stop that,” he said, claiming both parents and the education system are failing to imbue children with proper values.

But psychologist Peter Walschburger argued that the unusual situation had also played a role in the behaviour of the bank customers.

“It's an empty room on a day when the bank is closed. You want to quickly withdraw money. You are in a rush. Then you are confronted by something awkward and strange. You have often seen homeless people lying there," Walschburger explained.

“You think to yourself 'should I call the emergency services? But perhaps it’s not serious - then I’ll look a fool. Would I also have to try and resuscitate him? I don’t trust myself to.' And then you walk away, partly because you feel unobserved. Of course that is wrong.”

Walschburger said that human empathy normally only stretches to those whom we know well.

“Our modern lives, especially those in the city, work by completely different rules. Everyone does their own thing there. We need to turn the cities into villages, to encourage people to help neighbours rather than have big city anonymity.”


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