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What it was like voting as an American in Germany right before the Berlin Wall fell

In a time when US absentee ballot signatures are being questioned, author Susan Signe Morrison remembers the 1988 election and a vexed incident of signature recognition.

What it was like voting as an American in Germany right before the Berlin Wall fell
Author Susan Morrison (left) and a friend at the Brandenburg Gate in November 1988. Photo: DPA

Registered in Rhode Island, I made sure to fill out the paperwork for my absentee ballot. I thought I was so clever.

One day in early October across the Atlantic Ocean, my ballot arrived in the mail. As I sat at my ample desk in Charlottenburg, the leafy suburb of (West) Berlin, I prepared to open the large envelope. A letter cutter came in handy. Picking up a black pen—I wanted to make sure it would be official (oh bright and shining mind!) –I voted. I signed the ballot. Sighing with self-satisfaction, I laid the pen down.

Then, I read the instructions.

Oh. You have to have your signature witnessed by a notary public. Not to worry, not to worry. Americans are less fussy obeying orders than the notorious Germans. I’ll just go to the American Embassy where they have such folks to get it notarised.

Pleased with my genius, I made my way to Jungfernheide U-Bahn station, took the U7 and changed at Fehrberlinerplatz for the U3. From Oskar-Helene-Heim Station, I walked on large cobbled streets, shiny from recent rain. I was careful not to slip on the white mulberry leaves decaying in the autumnal chill.

At the embassy, I was soon seen by an appropriately officious woman. If you can’t be officious at an embassy, where can you be? Smugly, I explained my idiocy.

“And so,” I concluded, “I was hoping someone could notarise my ballot.”

“May I see your passport?”

I handed over my blue document to ride almost anywhere. It was a golden ticket, envied the world over. Once, changing planes in Karachi, Pakistan (don’t ask), unable to avoid goats and swarms of fellow travellers, I managed finally to make it near the transfer desk.

Everyone bunched together with no concept of the queue in evidence. A small woman, I felt at a disadvantage. How could I ever get serviced? I noticed that those with similar blue pass books were being quickly processed. I then did something I’ve been ashamed of since. I used my nationality to get ahead. Throwing my passport onto the desk from four rows back, I found myself permitted to go on through.

Now, fate intervened to punish me for my hubris.

The woman looked at my signature on my ballot, signed the previous day, and that in my passport from four years earlier.

“These aren’t the same signature.”

Morrison's ID – and her notorious signature. Photo courtesy of the author. 

In disbelief, I protested. “But they are!”

“See?” she said, holding them both up for me to see.

The signature in the passport was rounded, still childish. It dated from the spring of 1984 before I began graduate school, an experience that altered my writing irrevocably. Now my signature was spiky, pointed, even illegible.

At this moment I did something I was incapable of controlling. I began to cry.

The thought of not being able to exercise my right to vote – especially for something so unjust as this – bid hot stupid tears to flood my eyeballs and trickle down my face. “It is the same signature,” I protested weakly.

How many people had protested – still protest –in embassies all over the world their innocence and their plight. Yes, mine was extremely minor. My little vote would make no difference to the world. Indeed, ultimately it didn’t.

The woman finally relented.

“I shouldn’t do this,” she said, imprinting my ballot with her stamp.

I gratefully took it, popping it in the mail.

I’d bucked the system, even though I felt as though the system had bucked me. In a letter, even my own mother said the official shouldn’t have stamped it.

My fervent hope is that others will not face the same dilemma I did. Or, if they do, they’ll be treated by an official who might do something she shouldn’t– the right thing.

Susan Signe Morrison, Professor of English literature at Texas State University, has published numerous scholarly books and a novel. Currently, she is working on a memoir about her experiences teaching in the GDR in the 1980s. She also recently talked about her experiences in an episode of the Cold War Conversations History Podcast. 

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REVEALED: The most commonly asked questions about Germans and Germany

Ever wondered what the world is asking about Germany and the Germans? We looked at Google’s most searched results to find out – and help clear some of these queries up.

Hasan Salihamidzic, the sports director of FC Bayern, arrives with his wife at Oktoberfest in full traditional dress. Photo: picture alliance/dpa |

According to popular searches, Germany is the go-to place for good coffee and bread (although only if you like the hard kind) and the place to avoid if what you’re looking for is good food, good internet connection and low taxes. Of course, this is subjective; some people will travel long stretches to get a fresh, hot pretzel or a juicy Bratwurst, while others will take a hard pass.

When it comes to the question on the bad Internet – there is some truth to this. Germany is known for being behind other rich nations when it comes to connectivity. And from personal experience, the internet connection can seem a little medieval. The incoming German coalition government has, however, vowed to improve internet connectivity as part of their plans to modernise the country.

There are also frequent questions on learning the German language, and people pointing out that it is hard and complicated. This is probably due to the long compound words and its extensive grammar rules, however, as both English and German are Germanic languages with similar words in common, it’s not impossible to learn as an English-speaker.

Here’s a look at some of those questions…

Why is German called Deutsch? Whereas ‘German’ comes from the Latin, ‘Deutsch’ instead derives itself from the Indo-European root “þeudō”, meaning “people”. This slowly became “Deutsch” as we know it today. It can be a bit confusing to English-speakers, who are right to think it sounds a little more like “Dutch”, however the two languages do have the same roots which may explain it.

And why is Germany so boring? Again, probably a generalisation, especially given that Germany has a landmass of over 350,000 km² with areas ranging from high rise, industrial cities to traditional old town villages and even mountain ranges, so you’re sure to find a place that doesn’t bore you to tears.

Perhaps it is a question that comes from the stereotype that Germans are obsessed with being strict about rules, organised and analytical. Or that they have no sense of humour – all of these things being not the most exciting traits. 

Either way, from my experience I can confirm that, even though there is truth to German society enjoying order and rules, the vast majority of people are not boring, and I’m sure if you come to Germany you’ll meet many interesting, funny and exciting people. 

READ ALSO: 12 mistakes foreigners make when moving to Germany

When it comes to the German weather, most people assume a cold and cloudy climate, however this isn’t entirely true. While the autumn and winter, especially in the north, come with grey skies and sub-zero temperatures, Germany can have some beautiful summers, with temperatures frequently rising above 30C in some places.

Unsurprisingly, the power and wealth of the German nation is mentioned – Germany is the largest economy in Europe after all, with a GDP of 3.8 trillion dollars. This could be due to strong industry sectors in the country, including vehicle constructions (I was a little surprised to find no questions posed on German cars), chemical and electrical industry and engineering. There are also many strong economic cities in Germany, most notably Munich, Frankfurt am Main and Hamburg.

READ ALSO: Eight unique words and phrases that tell us something about Germany

Smart and tall?

Why are Germans so tall? They are indeed taller than many other nations, with the average German measuring a good 172.87cm (or 5 feet 8.06 inches), however this may be a question better posed to the Dutch, who make up the tallest people in the world.

Why are Germans so smart? While this is again a generalisation – as individuals have different levels of intelligence in all countries – this question may stem from Germany’s free higher education system or their seemingly efficient work ethic. Plus there does seem to be some scientific research behind this question, with a study done in 2006 finding that Germans had the highest IQ in Europe.

So, while many of the questions posed about Germany and Germans on Google stem from stereotypes, we can confirm that some aren’t entirely made up. If you’re looking to debunk some frequently asked questions about France and the French, check out this article by our sister site HERE.