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A very popular YouTuber called Bharat in Germany recently made a video where it says that it is illegal in Germany to address a police officer informally, that is, using the informal pronoun du* rather than the more reverential Sie. And if one does do this, they will get up to a 600€ fine.

Hearing this almost made my eyes pop out in disbelief. Is this really true?

The claim seems outlandish to me, but due to the immense popularity of the YouTuber I'm not immediately dismissing it.

* - In German 'du' is an informal form of 'you', used for children, pets, friends and family. While 'Sie' is used for everyone else. Similarly to the long dead informal 'thou' vs. the formal 'you' in English or the 'tu' vs. 'vous' in French.

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    If this was true, would it also apply if the police officer uses "du" the first time to address me and I'd just reply in kind?
    – vsz
    Aug 14, 2023 at 5:12
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    What exactly does "du" mean in English? Why would it cause a fine to be issued? This information needs to be edited into the question.
    – Ian Kemp
    Aug 14, 2023 at 11:26
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    @IanKemp Apparently it just means "you", but it's the informal form used with friends and family rather than the polite form, which is "sie". There's no equivalent in English, it's like the distinction between "tu" and "vous" in French. Using it with someone you're not close to is a sign of disrespect.
    – Barmar
    Aug 14, 2023 at 14:32
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    @IanKemp It means "thou". In many languages other than English you address your brothers and sisters, children, your playmates, your fellow students, and your fellow soldiers as "thou". How you address your parents varies. You address store clerks and other adult strangers as "you". Addressing a policeman as "thou" would mean that you regard him as a child. The younger you were, the more insulting it would be.
    – David42
    Aug 14, 2023 at 19:40
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    Keeping in mind that an insult is something actually covered by criminal law in Germany, just think of "Sie" as "You" or "You, Sir" as opposed to "Du" as "You, Fam". --- Then imagine exchanges with cops or other authority figures. 'Ehrdelikte' (honor-offenses (de.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ehrdelikt) are a thing in most European (continental) countries, while the AngloSaxon tradition usually only sees them as punishable when there is money(loss) involved)
    – bukwyrm
    Aug 29, 2023 at 10:20

3 Answers 3

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Laws and fines

The relevant law is § 185 StGB (English version), which only says:

Die Beleidigung wird mit Freiheitsstrafe bis zu einem Jahr oder mit Geldstrafe […] bestraft.


The penalty for insult is imprisonment for a term not exceeding one year or a fine […].

There is no definition of insult, so it is left at the discretion of the judge. While they tend to maintain some continuity to precedence cases, they are not bound by them: Germany uses statutory law instead of case law.

Also note that nothing about this law is specific to police officers, public servants, or similar. In particular it equally applies to the police officer addressing you.

Fines in turn are issued as daily rates (“Tagessätze”), which are roughly the daily income of the culprit. As a result, a well-earning person may pay more for a minor insult than somebody unemployed for a major insult. Thus stating absolute fines for such offences makes little sense.

The pertinent law is § 40 StGB (English version). Note that the maximum daily rate is 30.000 € and the minimum fine is five daily rates. Thus, even if every judge issued the minimum penalty for duzen (five daily rates), the only statement we can make about the penalty without knowing anything about the culprit’s income is that it’s “up to 150.000 €” (which is far more than 600 €)..

Individual cases

If you search the Internet, you’ll find two things in abundance:

  • legal cases where somebody was indicted for insulting a police officer and duzen (using du) occurred together with other insults (which are usually clearly worse),
  • lists of how much certain insults cost. These usually immediately reveal their bad quality by listing absolute monetary values instead of daily rates (see above).

These are worthless for evaluating the claim in question. I also failed to find any verdict or explicit citation thereof with the specific fine (600 €) in question.

However, I could find three cases, where duzen is somewhat isolated:

  • Case 1: According to several journalistic reports (1, 2) politician Özcan Mutlu was indicted for using du towards a policeman in 2001. The case went through many revisions and ended with acquittal in 2005. According to the reports, the main argument was that Mutlu immediately apologized and thus was not using it to express his disrespect. Note that the fine in the first revision was 2000 € (thus explicitly invalidating the claim of “up to 600 €”).

  • Case 2: TV personality Dieter Bohlen was indicted for insulting a policeman in 2006. According to this journalistic report, he was originally indicted for several insults but only duzen was independently evidenced (which is why we got an isolated verdict on it). He was immediately acquitted with the argument that it was well documented that he was using du for everybody and thus he was only impolite but not expressing disrespect for the policeman in particular (which is generally regarded relevant for an insult).

  • Case 3: Decision 31 C 148/21 of Amtsgericht Brandenburg (2021): This is not about the police, but fellow members of a political party. One tried to achieve a court order against the other to keep them from duzen. The verdict was not about the case itself but granting legal help in it. The judge denied the help on several grounds but also addressed the legality of duzen itself. They opined that context matters a lot and this is something you have to expect among members of a party.

While the judges did not consider duzen to constitute an insult in the cases in question, their rationales also reveal that duzen can potentially be used to express sufficient disrespect against the individual person to do so.

Finally, it is important to note that the first two cases (which actually involve the police) are about twenty years old and duzen has become much more accepted in German culture since. If you get indicted for duzen today, the judge cannot simply rely on such old cases. On the other hand, it is quite plausible that somebody was sentenced for duzen only in the fifty years of German history before that (probably cited by the verdict in Case 3), but that’s even less relevant today.

Sidenote: Why the focus on the police?

Since the legal situation is not specific to the police, one may wonder why it is involved in almost everything you can find about the topic. I can only speculate here, but I think there two main reasons. The first is that in every other situation where the law might apply, you have either:

  • There is a social connection that can excuse duzen (e.g., Case 3 above).
  • The “victim” has little to gain from antagonising the culprit and risks bad publicity (e.g., a shopkeeper).
  • The potential culprit has no motive to act disrespectfully, whereas police encounters are rarely ever pleasant.
  • The potential culprit is prepared or even briefed for the situation and thus less likely to act impulsively, e.g., when appearing in court.

The second reason is that in police encounters, duzen occurs with other insults and may thus contribute to the accumulated disrespect, even though it would not have done much on its own. This is then what journalistic reports focus on (e.g., Case 2 above).

Summary

  • There is no law against duzen (using du) as such, but it may be covered by the law against insults. It is not specific to police officers.
  • Some old verdicts suggest that duzen may suffice to constitute an insult when talking to the police, but a judge today would not be bound by such precedents.
  • The “up to a 600 € fine” has no basis whatsoever. You might say that it doesn’t even use the right unit.
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    “Note that the maximum daily rate is 30.000 € and the minimum fine is five daily rates. Thus if you are earning sufficiently well and are found guilty, there is no way you would be fined less than 150.000 €.” You can’t multiply a maximum and a minimum like that to make a meaningful result. Aug 13, 2023 at 19:31
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    @NeilTarrant: Well, we have a two dimensional penalty space depending on the daily rates sentenced by the judge and the income of the culprit. We want to make a statement about the maximum fine (like “up to 600 €”) without knowing the culprit’s income. We don’t know the daily rates either (since all sources only ever list absolute values), so we make the most lenient assumption (lenient for the claim in question), i.e., five daily rates. Even in that case, the maximum fine is 150.000 €, which debunks the original claim of “up to 600 €”. Also see my edit.
    – Wrzlprmft
    Aug 13, 2023 at 21:03
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    @DanilaSmirnov: completely left up to the judge's decision – I wouldn’t say completely, as there should be some continuity. If several comparable offences were “worth” about five daily rates, a judge would cannot issue three hundred daily rates just like that. — As for determining the daily rate, I could not find anything quickly, but I expect that this is determined by some clerk, not the judge. — Also, what would be the point of this? Daily rates are a far better unit for comparing punishments than absolute fines. — Finally, mind that § 40 governs all fines, not only those for insults.
    – Wrzlprmft
    Aug 14, 2023 at 7:46
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    @DanilaSmirnov: It’s more or less the same. One daily rate equals one day in prison (and if you really want to, you can go to prison instead of paying).
    – Wrzlprmft
    Aug 14, 2023 at 9:51
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    I've changed "sued" to "indicted" in this answer. "Getting sued" ("verklagen") is a phrase used in civil law only. In criminal law (which this answer seems to be all about) people get "indicted" ("anzeigen").
    – Philipp
    Aug 15, 2023 at 8:26
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It is not illegal per se. See

10 surprising German laws foreigners need to know - The Local

Though using the “du” form with a German police officer is not directly forbidden, it can be (and often will be) taken as an insult that constitutes a criminal offence under section 185 of the criminal code.

English does not have† a familiar form of the pronoun 'you', unlike German, French and other languages. In English it could be like saying to the officer, examples

Look love, I was not speeding.

which will immediately get you on the 'wrong side' of the police officer.

'Thee' and 'thou' were the familiar forms for 'you'. They can still be heard sometimes but they're dying out.

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    Just as a note: 185 of the criminal code applies to anyone. Not just police officers.
    – Victor
    Aug 12, 2023 at 19:48
  • @DJClayworth indeed, but I was thinking of a female police officer. Thanks, i added your example. Aug 12, 2023 at 19:51
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    @Victor There is one difference: Most people have to go to court themselves when they are insulted. For employees of the state the state can and will take you to court. So insulting a police officer (or a state employee working at the Inland Revenue, or a university lecturer employed by the state) is just a lot more risky.
    – gnasher729
    Aug 13, 2023 at 14:42
  • I intended the second example response to be that way, following DJC's idea. Your opinions were transferred to an edit that proposed no significant changes. Aug 13, 2023 at 20:27
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    @gnasher729: Could you clarify what you mean by "For employees of the state the state can and will take you to court"? For instance, regarding your concrete examples, I'm a state-employed lecturer at a German university and don't see why insulting me would be more risky than insulting anybody else. (I was briefly wondering whether you are referring to §194(3) of the "Strafgesetzbuch" (= German criminal code), but its content is quite different from what you describe in your comment, so maybe you mean something else?) Aug 15, 2023 at 18:45
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First off, a bit of background on "Du" vs. "Sie".

"Du" is an informal address usually reserved to family and friends. There are special groups where group membership pretty much implies using "Du" (like when you're part of a sports team -- it would be strange to use formal address in those environments). Certain workplace environments encourage "Du", others don't.

Saying "Du" where a "Sie" would be expected[1] -- like when addressing your company's CEO, a police officer, or your doctor -- would be considered uncourtly. Much depends on the exact circumstances. A drunk person, someone mentally challenged, a non-native speaker etc. can easily get away with calling everyone "du". There is nothing inherently insulting in saying "Du", it's just not appropriate everywhere. More like a faux-pas. However, depending on context, it can give the impression of you being insulting.

Someone who is arguing about a speeding ticket in a raised voice and insisting on saying "du" to a police officer is meaning to be disrespectful. And this is where the difference is being made -- not so much in which word you use, but how you use it.

(The English equivalent "other" pronoun -- "thou" -- has fallen out of favor. It also was much less clear when it was meant to express familiarity with a person or disdain.)

Now we're entering legal territory, so first off, I am not a lawyer and this is not legal counseling.

In Germany, insulting someone can be prosecuted. The relevant law is § 185 StGB (StGB being the German penal code). Punishment can be a fine or even jail time.

Fines in Germany are generally issued as day-fines, i.e. there is no fixed amount but rather the fine is made to fit that person's income. So the line "up to 600 Euro" is doubtful, especially since the law does allow for the judge to decide on jail time, so there's nothing "up to" with 600 quid when severe cases can earn you a year behind bars.

This is true for everybody, not just police officers. Surprisingly enough, although there is even a word for it ("Beamtenbeleidigung"), there is no special law against insulting a police officer (there is § 188 StGB but that is not applicable here as it refers to insulting someone in public office in a larger scope, e.g. by disseminating insulting content).

Again, saying "Du" to a police officer, while definitely inappropriate, is not an insult in itself, especially not when coming from a non-native speaker. You can readily insult someone calling them "Sie" as well. "Du" and "Sie" don't make much of a difference, when the next word is "a**hole".


[1]: Note that omitting a "Sie" is often, effectively, the same as saying "du":

"Geben Sie bitte mal her." -- "Gib bitte mal her."

Either is a polite request, but the latter is to a person you're acquainted with, whereas the former could be to a total stranger. Neither would be impolite. Saying the former to a friend would be just as "off" as saying the latter to a stranger in a formal environment.

"Geben Sie her!" -- "Gib her!"

Both are a command, again the latter being the equivalent of "duzen", and again either one being completely "off" if used in the wrong context, but not in fact being insulting. Not saying "please", and not framing it as a request, but still not an insult per se.

Calling someone names however doesn't get any less insulting by saying "Sie".

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    +1 just for bringing out the issue of "uncourtly." Here in the U.S., where we've not had a monarchy since our revolutionary war, the idea of "courtly" simply doesn't exist. We replace it with "respectful," but in my very limited experience that's not quite the same thing. Nations with political and legal environments descending from monarchial rule have this sense of authority and prestige that's socially important but difficult for an American to understand. And frankly, I might not be expressing that issue well. It's like explaining color to a blind person.
    – JBH
    Aug 13, 2023 at 2:11
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    I believe that historically, the concept of Beamtenbeleidigung did exist, rooted in medieval concepts of lese majeste. It has long been gone.
    – o.m.
    Aug 13, 2023 at 5:43
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    @JBH Yes, it is difficult to find the exact word. Impolite, rude, uncouth? You just don't do it, unless you want to be insulting or just don't know any better. It's like omitting the "-san" when addressing someone in Japanese. Not calling someone "sir" in US English is not quite the same, because "sir" is a sign of added respect, whereas "Sie" or "-san" is just how it's done.
    – DevSolar
    Aug 13, 2023 at 12:42
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    In the US, it's not a crime to be disrespectful to someone (even police); the 1st Amendment generally protects it. However, annoying a police officer is likely to get them to treat you more harshly, so there's little upside.
    – Barmar
    Aug 14, 2023 at 14:42
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    We maintain that "thou" from superiors to inferiors is proper as a sign of command; from equals to equals is passable as a note of familiarity, but from inferiors to superiors, if proceeding from Ignorance. both a smack of clownishness.. if from affectation, a tone of contempt (Hill 1975:247, Cheyney 1676'5)
    – david
    Aug 15, 2023 at 6:39

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