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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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For members


Living in Germany: Battles over Bürgergeld, rolling the ‘die’ and carnival lingo

From the push to reform long-term unemployment benefits to the lingo you need to know as Carnival season kicks off, we look at the highlights of life in Germany.

Living in Germany: Battles over Bürgergeld, rolling the 'die' and carnival lingo

Deadlock looms as debates over Bürgergeld heat up 

Following a vote in the Bundestag on Thursday, the government’s planned reforms to long-term unemployment benefits are one step closer to becoming reality. Replacing the controversial Hartz IV system, Bürgergeld (or Citizens’ Allowance) is intended to be a fair bit easier on claimants.

Not only will the monthly payment be raised from €449 to €502, but jobseekers will also be given a grace period of two years before checks are carried out on the size of their apartment or savings of up to €60,000. The system will also move away from sanctions with a so-called “trust period” of six months, during which benefits won’t be docked at all – except in very extreme circumstances. 

Speaking in parliament, Labour Minister Hubertus Heil (SPD) said the spirit of the new system was “solidarity, trust and encouragement” and praised the fact that Bürgergeld would help people get back into the job market with funding for training and education. But not everyone is happy about the changes. In particular, politicians from the opposition CDU/CSU parties have responded with outrage at the move away from sanctions.

CDU leader Friedrich Merz has even branded the system a step towards “unconditional Basic Income” and argued that nobody will be incentivised to return to work. 

The CDU and CSU are now threatening to block the Bürgergeld legislation when it’s put to a vote in the Bundesrat on Monday. With the conservatives controlling most of the federal states – and thus most of the seats in the upper house – things could get interesting. Be sure to keep an eye out for our coverage in the coming weeks to see how the saga unfolds. 

Tweet of the week

When you first start learning German, picking the right article to use can truly be a roll of the “die” – so we’re entirely on board with this slightly unconventional way to decide whether you’re in a “der”, “die”, or “das” situation. (Warning: this may not improve your German.) 

Where is this?

Photo: picture alliance/dpa | Boris Roessler

Residents of Frankfurt am Main and the surrounding area will no doubt recognise this as the charming town of Kronberg, which is nestled at the foot of the Taunus mountains.

This atmospheric scene was snapped on Friday morning, when a drop in temperatures saw Kronberg and surrounding forests shrouded in autumnal fog.

After a decidedly warm start to November, the mercury is expected to drop into single digits over the weekend. 

Did you know?

November 11th marked the start of carnival season in Germany. But did you know that there’s a whole set of lingo to go along with the tradition? And it all depends on where you are. First of all, the celebration isn’t called the same thing everywhere. In the Rhineland, it’s usually called Karneval, while people in Bavaria or Saxony tend to call it Fasching. Those in Hesse and Saarland usually call it Fastnacht. 

And depending on where you are, there are different things to shout. The ‘fools call’ you’ll hear in Cologne is “Alaaf!” If you move away from Cologne, you’ll hear “Helau!” This is the traditional cry in the carnival strongholds of Düsseldorf and Mainz, as well as in some other German cities.

In the Swabian-Alemannic language region in the southwest of the country, people yell “Narri-Narro”, which means “I’m a fool, you’re a fool”. In Saarland at the French border, they shout “Alleh hopp!”, which is said to originate from the French language. 

Lastly, if someone offers you a Fastnachtskrapfe, say yes because it’s a jelly-filled carnival donut. And if you’re offered a Bützchen? It’s your call, but know that it’s a little kiss given to strangers!