Office of Honour: The “Ehrenamt” – Voluntary commitment in Germany

When I came to England ten years ago, many things seemed weird, often quirky and in many cases confusing. One of these things were the idea of Special Constables – voluntary police officers who spend their free time on the beat or doing other police work. “Is that a good idea?”, I thought. “Volunteers in such a responsible and potentially dangerous position?”

But then I remembered what seemed to be totally normal to me when still living in Germany. Outside of the big cities, firefighters are usually volunteers – unpaid, hard working and well educated. Paramedics are often working without pay in their free time. The famous “Technisches Hilfswerk”, the governmental disaster relief organization, is run by 77,000 volunteers, often highly experienced and well educated engineers.

The over 900,000 voluntary firefighters (with 92,000 women among them) come to the rescue over four million times every year. Their 32,000 professional colleagues take on more than 60 per cent of this number, though – which doesn’t make the achievement any smaller. Additional to the help the non-professional fire departments deliver, they are also sources of good fun. Unforgotten the story a local firefighter friend of mine told me about their attempt to extinguish a burning shed on a farm, but spectacularly failing because the whole team came straight from a party and wasn’t all that sober. While the driver was – of course – not drunk, he still made it to run the fire engine into a muddy field where it got stuck and had to be rescued subsequently by the fire engines arriving from the neighbouring village.

As funny as this sounds, the responsibility weighs heavily, and fun is not the main goal. The German word for voluntary commitment is “Ehrenamt”, an office of honour, and it is being taken very seriously. That includes networking within the local community, of course. Friendships forged in places like this last and bring many a benefit when it comes to job search, discounts in local shops and other business connections. An official survey in 2014 established as additional reasons personal growth, the wish to make new experiences, the feeling to do something good for society, and above all: Working in a team and be part of something important.

Beyond emergency services

German society relies on voluntary work far beyond the emergency services. 31 million people out of a population of 82 million are signed up for some Ehrenamt. Without payment, they work as instructors in sports clubs, look after elderly or ill people in care homes, engage in environmental protection and animal support or help refugees. Very popular are also lifeguards on the coast or in swimming pools, and the Deutsche Lebensrettungs-Gesellschaft DLRG (the Life Saving Association) insists that this was the same before Baywatch hit German TVs. Their evidence is sound: The DLRG is older than the German republic. It was founded in 1912 and is today the largest voluntary life saving organisation on the planet, with more than 560,000 members.

The idea of free voluntary work dates back even further, when in the late 19th century, the idea of the “Verein” was created in the Kingdom of Bavaria. These tax-exempt charitable organisations are a backbone of German life today. Since their invention they were also under fire: Bureaucrats do not like the idea of semi-professional organisations that do not pay taxes.

Just a short while ago, in November 2020, a parliamentary committee came to the conclusion that the requirements of the complex German tax law are strangling voluntary work like never before. The pandemic has a share in this: To get financial state support, businesses have to deliver very detailed and well-audited accounts, and this can be difficult in organisations run by amateurs in their free time. Definitely an area where England is indeed superior to Germany: Doing things fast and without a barrage of red tape.

The Voluntary Social Year

One reason to engage in voluntary work used to be the wish to avoid conscription to military service. Instead of joining the armed forces, German young men could decide to go for civilian service and work in hospitals, with disabled people, in nursing homes or ambulatory services, youth centres and many similar areas. While the civilian service lasted at least three months longer than military duty, it was nevertheless highly popular. For women, although they could not be drafted to the military, there was a similar option: The Voluntary Social Year.

Since the suspension of military duty in 2011, the Voluntary Social Year is now open for everybody as a chance to make new experiences and work in exciting jobs. In 2019, 33,518 women and 18,773 men joined this personal challenge and received at least 25 days of training before they embarked on their voluntary missions. Their work isn’t entirely free – to support them during their service, they receive 360 Euro per month as “pocket money”, paid by the employers who benefit from their hard work.

While the Voluntary Social Year isn’t an option for expats, Ehrenamt in general is, and it might be a fantastic way to meet new people and really arrive in Germany, no matter if you want to stay forever or just spend a few months or years in the country. Typical for Germany and its level of organisation, there is even an own agency for that: The Freiwilligenagentur.

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