Berlin - The other day, Peter Stiller* was teaching a Chinese man Spanish but in English. Pretty lucrative, he says. "But also very strange." Not because Stiller, as an American, is also fluent in Spanish, or because the lessons took place from Berlin via Zoom - "but because I could see a painting by Picasso behind my student." It was clear to Stiller that the painting was real and the Chinese man very rich. A tycoon. The pay was so good that Stiller could live on the money for several months. The kind of hourly wage more likely for lawyers, not language teachers.
After six weeks, however, from one day to the next, the lessons were cancelled. Stiller had mentioned his boyfriend, with whom he lived. "The bizarre thing is," Stiller says, "I almost think he was jealous." For many Chinese, homosexuality is still a sensitive issue.
But at least Stiller still got paid. And he needs the money because of a letter he received three weeks ago. The letter carries the Berlin bear logo and refers to events at the beginning of April 2020. The two pages could change Stiller's view of Germany. Stiller has been living in a Neukölln apartment for four years and currently does not know whether he will still be allowed to do so next year.
No money, no Berlin
Shortly after the start of the pandemic in March 2020, Stiller received a lot of cancellations from his clients. "For one thing, publishers put their book projects on hold," he says, "and besides, many of my language students had no more money for their lessons." Stiller is self-employed, and the lack of income threatened his livelihood. The emergency corona aid was intended for such cases. But Stiller initially thought that, as an American, he was not entitled to it. He only realised his mistake when the programme was stopped.
When Berlin's Emergency Aid II programme was launched in April 2020, he immediately applied. He didn't want to be late again. Even when he talks about it, he quickly switches between English and German. He throws in the German words "solo self-employed" or "utility bill". He filled the application out and sent one copy to Investitionsbank Berlin (IBB) and one to tax consultant - because he had a question.
"I had a funny feeling at the time," says Stiller, "partly because of wording that was unusual for Germany in the texts about emergency aid." There were repeated references to payments being made "with little bureaucracy."
That was true insofar as Stiller found €6,000 in his account just a few days later. That could have reassured him, but then he got a call from the tax advisor. She said that "Emergency Aid I" had applied to him, but "Emergency Aid II" no longer did. It was about his office, which was inside his apartment and not in another building. It was a matter of bureaucratic niceties, which should not have been the issue.
After that, Stiller had two sleepless nights, and in the morning he dialed the number of his advisor again and again, asking friends and other self-employed people for advice. It was clear to him, "I think I'm not berechtigt (eligible)." He didn't touch the money in his account, borrowed from his boyfriend and kept reading the FAQ on the bank's website.
Crime scene: April 23, 2020, 11:56 p.m.
Apparently, there were a lot of frequently asked questions because the IBB had 41 answers. Among them, he found the question that wouldn't let him sleep: "I applied for the grant and also already received it. I discovered that I am not entitled to it or have requested an increased amount. What can I do?" The answer to this procedure is again surprisingly unbureaucratic: it comprises one paragraph and sounds very reassuring. Pay back the money. Then the account number, and as the reason for payment Peter Stiller was supposed to enter a word he had never heard before: "Rescinder".
That's exactly what he did, and he remembers exactly when: on April 23, 2020, at 11:56 pm. He knows this because that time is listed as the time he committed his crime on a letter that arrived in his mailbox three weeks ago, more than a year later. The actual crime scene is listed as the IBB's office. He knew the word because it's also the name of Germany's most popular crime show. He couldn't believe he was suddenly a suspect in a criminal case. His crime: computer fraud.
Last fall, authorities said they expected thousands of cases of fraud in connection with the unbureaucratic emergency aid. In November 2020, Berlin police established a special investigatory group and named it Crown after the coronavirus. The special unit had been founded primarily for rightwing extremists and Islamists, "who are said to have cheated their way into the aid money." Nationwide, the police assume tens of thousands of fraud cases. In Berlin, 2,100 investigations were underway at the beginning of the year.
The days since receiving the letter have been a rollercoaster ride for Stiller. "I've never had any contact with the police before," he says, "especially not with the German police." He immediately hired a lawyer. "I was particularly irritated that they accused me in the letter of having paid back the money." The word in officialese on the two-page letter is "admission of guilt." But surely he only paid back the entire sum because he thought it would solve the problem - and not cause it. The rhetorical question has hung in his head ever since: "How many bank robbers return the money after a week?" And, "Would it have been easier to just spend the money?"
The letter sparked dreams that reminded him strongly of the works of Franz Kafka. The Castle. The Trial. The Judgment. In one dream, he walked out of a supermarket and then realised that he had forgotten to pay for something on the way out. When he went back to return it and apologise, the cashier called the police. In jail, his cellmate lay in bed with only one word between his maniacal laughter, "Unbureaucratic!" For about a week he felt really bad. He felt numb, depressed, plus there were other bills that had to be paid unexpectedly.
Peter Stiller isn't worried about himself so much. "I'll find a way out of this situation," he says. "But what about others who don't speak German as well as I do or have rich friends who can step in quickly?" He faced a system that operates by its own rules, which only insiders can understand. "One of them, for example," he says, "is that I'm not supposed to respond to this letter under any circumstances."
At least, that's what the lawyer told him. Yet Stiller thought he had escaped the American system, in which the lawyer's pocketbook and skills determine right and wrong. What Peter Stiller lost in the past weeks was the feeling that his new home, Germany, could really solve something without bureaucracy. The Berlin government may have said it and, for a few weeks, even believed it but in the end they can't help complicating things. By making them bureaucratic. It's now up to a prosecutor.