Western Societies and Cold Souls: Man lay dead in the apartment for several years
Wolfgang Dircks was found on his sofa in his small Hamburg apartment last month, he died while watching television sometime before Christmas — five years ago. His television flickered on for a few months before it broke down and the electric lights on a small Christmas tree in his window burned on brightly all year round for nearly five years. A newspaper dated December 5, 1993, and an empty beer can were among the few clues police had about the time of his death.
No one noticed when the 43-year-old divorced, disabled loner had passed away. No one had even noticed when he was alive. He never talked to neighbours. His food was delivered from a local market. And he kept to himself. He had broken off contact with his mother and his ex-wife.
The lonely death of the retired welder made headlines when his mummified remains were found, but hardly a month passes in Germany without a similar report of an isolated soul having died weeks, months or even years before being discovered.
The ghoulish find in the one-room Hamburg flat has led to a bout of national soul-searching as Germans ask themselves: Has German society become that cold?
“It’s tragic, but unfortunately, it happens all the time in an industrial society like ours,” said Luebbo Roewer, a spokesman for the German Red Cross in Bonn. “It’s a societal problem. People don’t look after one another the way they once did. Families are disintegrating. People don’t care anymore.”
Sociologists and social workers say that Germans are increasingly living “next to each other” rather than “with each other” and that people like Dircks can disappear without being missed. The corpses of others are discovered only when the odour penetrates the hallways.
Police speculated that Dircks’ corpse did not smell because the ground floor of the apartment remained cool during the winter months when it was decomposing.
Social workers believe a growing gap between the haves and have-nots in Germany is partly to blame for the phenomenon, but they also point to an increasingly frosty social climate.
Exacerbating the problem is an efficient German banking system, where automatic monthly transfers for pensions, rent and other financial transactions make it possible for bank accounts to continue functioning for years after a person dies.
Dircks’ bank account processed his disability pension as well as financial support payments from his estranged mother for five years after he died. His rent was paid on time automatically. “I’m sure that undiscovered corpses are lying in apartments all over Germany right now,” said Ralph Kirscht, a former vicar who is now director of a Bonn counselling centre.
”The disintegration of society is a huge problem in Germany and the social climate is getting worse all the time,” Kirscht said that many isolated deaths are discovered within a few weeks rather than years. He once attended the funeral of a travelling salesman who had been dead for three months before anyone noticed.
“More and more people are leading isolated lives,” Kirscht said. “They have no friends, no family. It’s perverse that people can die and no one notices. But it happens all the time.” The corpse of another 50-year-old man from the eastern town of Brandenburg was found in June. His remains were found in the chair in front of his television. Police estimated that he had been dead for at least four years before being discovered.
The man had been the last tenant in the building and when the rent payments stopped, his flat was declared officially empty in 1994. The electricity was turned off. But no one checked inside until an estate agent trying to sell the building made the macabre discovery.
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In Munich, the body of a 61-year-old pensioner lay in his 12th-story flat for at least two months before it was found. In Hamburg, the remains of a 50-year-old Turkish immigrant were found in his flat an estimated 18 months after he had died. And in Leipzig, the rotting corpse of a 37-year-old man was found in September, several months after he had died. Neighbours had complained about the smell.
Prominent Germans are not immune. Petra Kelly, a charismatic founder of the Greens party, was found dead in her Bonn’s apartment in 1992 at the age of 44 — about three weeks after she and her companion Gert Bastian had died in what police later reconstructed as a murder-suicide.
German media and social workers alike have held up Dircks’ isolated death as an extreme example of society’s coldness. Roewer of the Red Cross said, people may pay attention to isolated friends and family members for a short period now, but the old habits will return soon enough.
“Dead in his apartment for five years — why didn’t anyone notice?” asked the Bild am Sonntag newspaper in a two-page study of the death. Der Spiegel, Sueddeutsche Zeitung and Bild also devoted lengthy articles to Dircks.
His 75-year-old mother was quoted saying she thought he had run away with a girlfriend. His ex-wife hadn’t heard from him since they were divorced in 1977. His neighbours never talked to him because he had never had anything to say to them.
A retired police officer who noticed that the Christmas tree lights were on all summer passed his concerns to the apartment building’s manager, but no action was taken. The caretaker said he didn’t try to break into the apartment because the rent was being paid and he saw no reason to invade Dircks’ privacy.
“It’s a cold world,” said Wolfgang Kitils, spokesman for the Hamburg police. “Mr Dircks had treated the neighbours poorly and no one took an interest in him. He wanted to live an extremely isolated life. That’s what we have to assume because we can’t ask him any questions anymore.”
©️ Erik Kirschbaum