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Germany has a reputation for efficiency. So why do fax machines remain popular?


If you think of Germans as impressively efficient, this next story may change your view. Here we are, far into the internet age, and many Germans in important jobs still rely on paper and rubber stamps. Now, in an effort to move into the 21st century, lawmakers have been told to get rid of their fax machines. Esme Nicholson begins her report with an explanation.


ESME NICHOLSON, BYLINE: This is the sound of the '90s. And like techno, it still resonates in the German capital. For listeners too young to remember, this is a fax machine...


NICHOLSON: ...A relic that figures say is still in use in 4 out of 5 companies in Europe's largest economy. Torsten Herbst, parliamentary whip of the pro-business Free Democrats, says it's worse in the public sector and that joining parliament was like going back in time.

TORSTEN HERBST: When I was elected in 2017, I walked to my office, and there was a fax machine inside. I called the administrator, asking, why did you send me a fax machine? I don't need it. Oh, yes, you need it. If you want to send an inquiry to the government, use the fax machine.

NICHOLSON: Herbst spearheaded the initiative to get rid of fax machines from parliament. But unplugging the devices is only half the problem.

HERBST: When you send a message with a fax machine, you sign it, and it's valid. That's a difference to an email which has not the same status in our legal system.

NICHOLSON: Herbst says the fax machine's exalted legal position boils down to widespread distrust of anything that isn't on paper. The result, he says, is excessive bureaucracy, something the International Monetary Fund says Germany must reduce to boost its economy. Political consultant Thorsten Alsleben agrees.

THORSTEN ALSLEBEN: Fifty-eight percent of companies say, we don't want to invest in Germany because of bureaucracy. That's worse than taxation, than high energy prices, than anything else.

NICHOLSON: As part of a campaign urging the government to finally digitize officialdom, Alsleben has opened what he calls the most German of German museums, the bureaucracy museum.


ALSLEBEN: (Speaking German).

NICHOLSON: Among the objects on display is a photograph of a mailbox with the label, please deposit online forms here. Alsleben says there obsession with red tape, which verges on the Kafkaesque, is the result of a risk-averse mindset among public servants.

ALSLEBEN: Government officials, not the politicians - they say, no, no, no. If we reduce this bureaucracy, this and this could happen, and that's too dangerous. Then everybody is scared and says, OK, no, then we cannot reduce it.


NICHOLSON: For some, though, paperwork means business.


MARCUS SCHULZER: (Speaking German).

NICHOLSON: Marcus Schulzer (ph) runs an office equipment supplier that offers a comprehensive fax repair and maintenance service. He says when it comes to fax machines, it's business as usual.

SCHULZER: (Through interpreter) Our customers include hospitals, doctor's offices, law firms, court rooms - you name it.

NICHOLSON: He even rents out older models to production companies shooting films set in the early '90s. Newer models are also in demand but not for make-believe offices.

SCHULZER: (Through interpreter) Last year we received an order from the Berlin police for 60 new fax machines.

HERBST: It's a fax transmission report.


NICHOLSON: Back at the Bundestag, lawmaker Torsten Herbst checks to see if the Foreign Affairs Committee machine is still connected. It is. He says the last fax he sent was to propose the motion to get rid of parliamentary fax machines.

For NPR News, I'm Esme Nicholson in Berlin.


NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.