AS AN INDICATOR of European states of mind, the vehement quarrel over the German census is remarkably revealing. It's scheduled to be taken on the last Wednesday of this month--but whether it will actually take place then or some other year or not at all is increasingly hard to predict. The sudden surge of hostility to the census has been a genuinely spontaneous movement, and the opposition politicians who routinely voted for the census law last fall are now scrambling to get on the other side of it. Middle- of-the-road newspapers are calling for at least a postponement, and Germany's high court is solemnly considering its constitutionality.
Compared with the long form that a random sample of Americans had to fill out in the 1980 census here, the German questionnaire is a rather mild affair. The questions are those that you would expect. Then why such impassioned resistance? There is the objection that the responses may not remain anonymous. There is the argument that it might be used to locate draft- dodgers or debtors. There is the complaint that the census-takers get too close a look at the lives of the people they visit. But that's all pretty familiar.
You get a better explanation if you switch to another wavelength and note the repeated references to the insatiable nosiness of the bureaucrats. "Knowledge is power," warns one denunciation; the data will become an overwhelming weapon, it declares, in the hands of public officials pursuing their own purposes. Opponents keep bringing up the Nazis, which enrages the present generation of decent and cautious German officials. The hard-pressed minister of internal affairs recently declared that the whole thrust of the opposition is "less an attack on the census than an attack on the whole system." That's evidently true.
The government says that it needs the census figures for effective and rational government. The response seems to be that a lot of citizens think that they are being crowded and are taking this opportunity to push back. To be German is to have an exquisitely sharp sense of vulnerability to the behavior of governments-- one's own and all the others beginning with the Russians, the Americans and the French. It's not entirely wrong to observe in the battle of the census some of the same attitudes that are forming the quite separate debate over nuclear weapons in Germany. In the election last month, Germans made a careful and sober choice. Now they have gone outside the bounds of conventional politics to tell the politicians that there are limits to their trust, and that the whole structure of public authority sometimes looks to them like an adversary. It's possible that more than the population statistics will depend on the government's response