“We should not return to business as usual”

Professor Wolfgang Seibel on the closing of the criminal case addressing the Loveparade tragedy in Duisburg.

Professor Seibel, your book “Verwaltungsdesaster” (administrative disasters) covers in great detail the grave mistakes made by the city of Duisburg’s municipal administration that led to the catastrophic tragedy at the Loveparade in 2010. The legal proceedings are to be closed. Is the case being closed without any consequences?

Professor Wolfgang Seibel: We should not return to business as usual and say: Since the court determined that nothing happend, there is no need for change. The criminal case is one thing. It is another thing entirely to examine the grievous failures of the administrative authority within the city of Duisburg's municipal administration that approved this large-scale event, although its own staff judged it unworthy of approval. It is now even more important to finally initiate an official inquiry into the event, through either a parliamentary or a governmental commission of inquiry, as in the cases of other grievous failures in public administration, for example, in the Amri terrorism case or with the NSU murders. The fact that, to date, no such investigation of these administrative failures has taken place in Duisburg, although 21 people died, is the scandal within the scandal for me.

“The decisions that led to the Loveparade being approved were not the result of bumbling, amateurish or otherwise incompetent officials, but rather the planned calculations of leading civil servants in Duisburg's municipal administration. These individuals disregarded the concerns of staff in the responsible authorising authority and the police force while deliberately finding ways around the legal safety regulations.”

From: Wolfgang Seibel et. al.: Verwaltungsdesaster. Von der Loveparade bis zu den NSU-Ermittlungen, page 82.

In your book, you show that the political pressure placed on the public administration played a decisive role.

Politicizing decisions is a general risk for public administrators. This is nothing new. Experienced administrative staff usually know how to handle this risk. The prestigious Loveparade was to be carried out in Duisburg, no matter what. In such situations, it is important that those members of the municipal administration who are directly responsible are able to withstand this political pressure and say: “Sure, it would be great to host this event, but our duty is to follow the regulations. It's not mere bureaucracy we are talking about, but actually matters of life and death.” This is what was missing in Duisburg.

Do you think that the government is responsible for investigating the causes of this tragedy?

According to the German constitution – the Grundgesetz – the German state is responsible for protecting the health and lives of the country’s inhabitants. When the failures of the governing authorities contribute to the death of 21 people, then the German state is all the more responsible for investigating the causes. This must take place independent of any potential legal consequences. Since the criminal case is being closed, it is all the more important  to comprehensively investigate the course of events and causes of the fatal failures made by the municipal authority in Duisburg. On the one hand, it is an issue of political ethics with regard to the responsibility for and obligations to the relatives of the 21 deceased. On the other, it is the German state's indispensable responsibility to analyse the causes so it can fulfil its duty to protect life and health, as it does in other matters of physical safety, e.g. when airplane accidents take place.

The investigation is thus, not only a matter of criminal law, but, above all, a question of taking responsibility.

One must learn from mistakes, and one who is not willing to even look for the mistakes is once again acting irresponsibly. This specifically is the litmus test for the shared sense of responsibility among the elected representatives to the Landtag in North Rhine-Westphalia and the state government in Düsseldorf. On 24 July 2010, 21 young people died in Duisburg as the result of grievous mistakes made by the public authorities. That is more than twice the number of people murdered by the NSU – a case in which a dozen commissions of inquiry have already looked into the failures of the public authorities leading to the NSU going underground and the mistakes that were made in investigating the subsequent murders. This was similarly the case with Amri and the twelve victims massacred on Berlin’s Breitscheidplatz. The politicization of a decision led to the approval of a large-scale event in Duisburg that was never eligible for approval. The responsible parties in the state of North Rhine-Westphalia should not repeat this mistake by making the investigation into the individual causes of the disaster dependent on political opportunities.

Wolfgang Seibel is a Professor of Politics and Public Administration at the University of Konstanz. He is currently running a research project entitled “Black Swans in Public Administration: Rare Organisational Failure with Severe Consequences” that is being funded through the German Research Foundation’s (DFG) Reinhart Koselleck Programme.

Jürgen Graf

By Jürgen Graf - 18.01.2019