Global Politics

Despite Privacy Concerns Germany Conducts Census

Census workers fanned out earlier this month to start counting Germany's population. It's Germany first census since reunification.

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It's not a complete count. The government is only surveying about one in 10 people. It's taking pains to tread carefully and appear sensitive.

The last time there was a census here was in 1987, in the former West Germany, and hundreds of thousands boycotted it. They didn't trust the government with their personal information. 35-year-old Alexandra Schiller said she still doesn't.

"If the state knows so much about you and your private life, it could be dangerous," she said. "I think it's because of the history of the German country."

That history includes East Germany, where the Stasi secret police kept extensive files on East German citizens. But Schiller's also looking further back, to when the Nazis used the 1933 census to target Jews and other minorities. The Nazis later conducted their own census in 1939 that categorized people according to their notorious racial laws.

So to break from the past, Germany's current statistics office, which is conducting the census, decided to give the count a new name. It used to be called "Volkszählung," which means something like "people-reckoning." Now it has a name that Americans would recognize, Zensus.
Zensus

Andrew Johnston, a linguist at the Free University of Berlin, said "zensus" has a technocratic ring to it.

"It is a loan word from Latin, so it sounds vaguely educated, rather abstract, something that doesn't seem to be part of anybody's everyday life experience," Johnston said.

Zensus is a German word, but Johnston said it's not commonly used here, so that could help the German statistics office make a clean start.

Anette Huneke, who's 28, said she's fine with the new census, as long as it stays off sensitive topics.

"I think they shouldn't ask about religion," Huneke said. "But we have to know how many people live in Germany."

Then she added that her grandmother is still worried about it. "It's very difficult for her," she said.
Approval Among Young

According to a recent survey, about 57 percent of Germans over 50 approve of the new census; approval rates are higher among younger Germans. But Alexandra Schiller remains unconvinced, even though she wasn't among the one in 10 selected to participate.

"I'm a bit sorry I was not asked to take part in it," Schiller said, "because maybe you can give false answers."

Germany's statistics office plans to have a new population count ready in about 18 months.

The current estimate is based on old data and a little guesswork. Experts expect Germany's real population will turn out to be around 80 million — 1.3 million fewer than the old data suggest.