Why you should care

Apparently, noise costs Europe some $45 billion a year. 

Recent years have seen European countries on a crusade of sorts against an invisible foe, one that, according to reports, each year costs Europe more than $45 billion and steals 61,000 of its residents’ health-life years. The message is clear and firm but not at all loud: Noise should no longer be the “Cinderella” of pollutants, swept under the rug. It’s real.

But Germany, land of Bach and Beethoven and Wagner, has known this for at least a century. Are the ears of any nation quite so sensitive?

Anyone who has taken a cab into one of Germany’s major cities will have noted the giant Lärmschutzwände (noise protection walls), which, while they make for a pretty dull ride, keep car noise away from local residents. While some of Germany’s European neighbors have “dragged their feet” on noise pollution, says the European Environmental Agency’s Colin Nugent. But “Germany seems to be making very good progress.”

There’s more to that than the here and now. The truth runs right into the heart of German culture, including its language. Classic German literature has for centuries fetishized the beauty and quiet of nature. Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, the most famous of them all, frequently wrote of the “quiet” of the German countryside. “How the soul fills with happiness,” goes The Lovely Night, “In this true place of quiet!”

Happily for Goethe, he did not live to hear the welter of noise, or lärm, wrought by the Industrial Revolution. Philosopher Theodor Lessing did. By 1907, his home city Hannover clanged with factories, cars, doorbells — all new sounds, all encroachments on his deep-thought world. Lessing had to stop them. He formed Germany’s first Antilärmverein (anti-noise society), which met to discuss (in soft tones, probably) the dangerous intrusion of urban din on Teutonic intellectualism. It would continue until 1913, a year after which Europe was thrown into the bedlam of the First World War, which was then the loudest event ever.

In most German cities, noise is strictly verboten after 10 p.m.

Lessing would eventually give up and retreat to a life of tranquility in nature — or rather he would have found tranquility, had he not been irked even by the sound of the animals. But the year 1907, it turned out, would be a kind of turning point in noise reduction: That’s when a a Berlin pharmacist named Max Negwer invented the modern earplug. His company, Ohropax, is still going strong.

Why did German ears take industrialization so hard? It’s possible that all that noise felt like it was polluting the fledgling nation itself, says Lutz Koepnick, professor of German cinema and media arts at Vanderbilt University. The nation-state had integrated only in 1871, which might explain “the avid nationalism of composers such as Wagner,” he says. “Keep music sacred, protect it from the noises of industrial modernity.”

In January 1933, Adolf Hitler — whose rambunctious speeches would rouse the nation — became German chancellor. So essential was the Führer’s voice to the Nazi movement that Hitler had a voice double called Adolf Wagner. Hitler even once attributed his power to the loudspeaker. The shame of Germany’s Second World War defeat, and the Holocaust, left a huge rip in society. Noise represented loss, guilt and embarrassment, whereas for the Allies it meant victory. In East Germany, founded in 1949, the zeal of its secret police, the feared Stasi, created a state-enforced silence that fell with the Berlin Wall.

Today much of this history can be heard, even in recent noise conflicts. In most German cities, noise is strictly verboten after 10 p.m. Many of Berlin’s famously hedonistic bars and clubs have fallen foul of such rules in recent years, especially as the city gentrifies. In 2013 the Berlin Music Board was created to help preserve the city as a clubbing destination, and to mediate in noise disputes. Its budget is $1.7 million. The local newspaper of Oldenburg, the Nordwest-Zeitung, even has a section reserved for complaints related to noise pollution. John Goodyear is director of studies at the city’s Academy of English. “It is something that comes up proportionally more here than perhaps in Britain,” he says.

One aspect of German life that has remained loud, adds Goodyear, is football. Borussia Dortmund’s Westfalenstadion, whose 25,000-capacity, all-standing “Yellow Wall” terrace is famed for its roar, is known as one of the sport’s loudest. The game is “slightly more detached from society than anything else,” he says. “You can be patriotic, you can be noisy, because that’s separate from the general.” But even last year’s World Cup win was celebrated with a typical German moderation. It took a special order to allow games to be shown beyond the 10 p.m. cutoff, a move 14 percent of Germans opposed. The day after the final, “you wouldn’t believe the World Cup was a day ago,” Goodyear says. “Everything was back to normal.”

Normal, as in all countries, is relative. So is quiet. Just make sure that, when you visit Germany next, you take your Lärm indoors at night. Or you could have to face some angry locals.

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