The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Why Germany now requires people to be trained before using some elevators

On most autobahns, Germans are not held back by speed limits — but as of Monday, when it comes to the use of some elevators, they face heavy restrictions.

Germans now need to complete special training before being able to enter the old-fashioned elevators called paternosters.

Those elevators are unusual — they do not have doors and do not stop at any floor. Instead, they operate continuously, and users need to jump in and out of the moving cabins. You can see them in action below.

"When I first used it, I had an uneasy feeling," Jan Steeger, one of Germany's few paternoster experts, told WorldViews on Monday. Although there are no official statistics on paternosters, even experts admit that their use can be risky. Passengers who enter or exit the elevator too late could be crushed between the cabin and the ceiling.

"Unofficially, paternosters are often called excavators," Steeger added.

German Labor Minister Andrea Nahles first proposed the new law, which makes it mandatory for all paternoster passengers to pass a training program before boarding the device, in January.

Officials all over Germany soon criticized the plans, fearing that it could effectively mark the end of Germany's paternoster era. They say visitors at public institutions, where these elevators are most prevalent, would be unable to use them — making their shutdown unavoidable. According to Die Welt newspaper, some cities have announced that they will do away with paternosters.

"It's absurd! Our employees have used those lifts for decades without any training," Stuttgart's head of bureaucracy, Werner Wölfe, was quoted by the paper as saying. Whereas he decided to temporarily stop the paternosters in the city, other institutions have asked security guards to teach visitors how to use these elevators.

In a response to the criticism, Nahles said Monday on her ministry’s Facebook page that state governments can lift the restrictions if they want, the Associated Press reported.

Even so, the new law may threaten Germany's position as the world's paternoster leader. Data gathered by elevator enthusiast and historian Wolfgang Flemming shows that there are 200 to 400 operating paternosters in Germany — compared with about a dozen in other European countries. Although they were particularly popular in the first half of the 20th century, heavier regulations and laws have gradually reduced their presence all over continental Europe.

German regulations have prevented the erection of new paternosters since 1974, but dozens of these elevators remain in operation today. The paternosters' heavy presence in federal ministries and city halls makes questions about safety and a lack of access for disabled people particularly delicate.

"It is impossible for disabled people, children or elderly to simply jump into them," Steeger said. "However, paternosters' advantage is that they can transport many more people within a shorter amount of time than most regular elevators."

Operators are legally bound to install a regular elevator if they want to keep a paternoster in their building. In 2009, a German company invented a more secure paternoster that automatically stops once a passenger is about to be crushed because he or she was too slow in jumping in or out.

Given that there have been several reports of lethal incidents involving paternosters, some might still want to pray as they exit the device.

Indeed, paternoster is a Latin word — it means "Our Father."

More from WorldViews

The fascinating story of the alcoholic, womanizing German double agent who turned the tide of World War II

Germany’s army is so under-equipped that it used broomsticks instead of machine guns

Why was a 9th-century Viking woman buried with a ring that says ‘for Allah’ on it?