Not far from the city's court of justice, in the same building as such innocuous firms as the Nuremberg Insurance Co. and GBB Construction, there's a plaque on a door that reads: "Germans Association Against Bureaucratic Arbitrariness."
Inside, Bernd Silfang sat one day recently bemoaning the overbearingness of German officialdom.
"There are some things that go on in this country that are unbelievable," Silfang said. "Officials here have their order and that is the fixed way. They can be so self-righteous, so arrogant about it. It is so easy for them to push people down."
To help push people back up, Silfang, 37, founded the autibureaucracy association. The group is not actually against officials, Silfang said, just against overly official officials.
For an annual fee of about $20, a member can phone the association whenever a West German official gets out of hand, and the group looks into the case. Or at least it did.
In the United States, this sort of citizens' action line effort would have been seen as just another -- and a perfectly tolerable -- example of political idiosyncrasy. But in West Germany, where the experience with such groups is still very limited, anything that upsets the stable, regulated order of things is not easily accepted.
Predictably, West German officials did not take kindly to Silfang's efforts, not because they condone arbitrariness or arrogance in their ranks. Rather, Silfang's group looked disturbingly out of place. And so this month the powerful arm of West German authority reached for Silfang -- on, of all things, a technicality.
It seems he had committed the unpardonable sin against bureaucracy; he had failed to register his group.
Besides, declared the Association of German Officials -- the official association for more than half of West Germany's 1.6 million civil servants -- the group was not needed. After all, they contended, West Germany has administrative courts and official petition councils in the federal legislature to handle complaints against officials.
Alfred Krause, the president of the West German officials association, which had complained to the courts, said in an interview that he had never taken Silfang's group seriously. Be that as it may, after combing the West German legal code, the Duesseldorf court objected even to the group's name.
The court said the word "German," could be applied only to a group that is active in all parts of West Germany. Having members in 62 cities, as Silfang's group did, was said in this regard to be insufficient. Moreover, use of the word "association" strengthened the word "German," the court said.
Finally, the phrase "bureaucratic arbitrariness" could be conceived, according to the court, as defamation of a professional group, for which the punishment was several months to years in jail.
That last part frightened Silfang right out of business. In a letter to the 600 members, he said he had invested about $18,000 in the business and had to desire at this point to risk jail.
The group was organized last autumn, after Silfang's sailboat sank. Rather than return to the advertising business, which he had forsaken a year earlier for the sailboat, Silfang decided to launch the association.
This was something he had wanted to do for four years, since the day he tried to register a car, he said. "I drove in and the official let me wait for an hour, even though I was the only customer," he recalled. "Then he closed the window. At that time I recognized the powerlessness of citizens against officials."
He said he realizes citizens in all countries sometimes suffer the same. He has had trouble with U.S. customs officials, too.
In all, Silfang figures his group took care of 150 complaints during the past six months and received enough requests from members to fill eight looseleaf notebooks.
He said he enjoyed phoning officials about complaints, whether to speed up welfare payments or point out an oversight in a local construction project.
"An official responds to nothing better than an official-sounding voice on the other end." Silfang said.