Rainer Tormin – From Student Activist to Law Maker

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From left to right: Rainer Tormin, Ralf Stegner, Willy Brandt and Gustav Heinemann

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Rainer Tormin – From Student activist to Law maker
chats with Mark Ulyseas

“The late 60s through to the early 70s was a heady period of change in West Germany. There was an expectancy of revolution, the spirit for change was growing and the streets were invariably filled with protesting students.

On the extreme side of the spectrum there were a number of left-wing radical student groups that wanted a communist revolution in Europe and criticised German society and State and questioned the fundamentals on which these two were based on. And on the other side, it was the right wing conservatives who didn’t want any change. Sandwiched between these two was a small group which I headed – Demokratische Alternative. Our group agreed with the left wing radicals that change needed to be made but did not agree with their methods and definitely not with the idea of turning either Germany or the rest of Europe into a communist State!

Demokratische Alternative began by changing the ‘college conditions’. At that time Professors had exclusive authority on all matters relating to ‘college conditions’. For instance, students could not question nor take part in any decision making including formulation of the syllabus and method of teaching. This situation soon changed with our group protesting the shortcomings of the system and ensuring a change for a more democratic method of functioning. Soon committees were made up of professors as well as students. This was the beginning of an overhaul of the entire ‘old-fashioned college’ system.

“Our society at that time was very conservative. Here are some instances….

– If you were over 21 years but not married you were not allowed to rent an apartment with a woman. It was illegal. The Law stated that those who rented out apartments to unmarried couples could be prosecuted because they were promoting sexual relations between unmarried adults. In a way terming this immoral!

– Abortion was illegal.

– Gay rights did not exist and one could go to jail for having sexual relations with a person of the same sex. I recall an incident when I was training to become an expert rower, my trainer was always short of money. The reason was that someone had been blackmailing him because he was gay. If reported he would have been jailed.

– Life was restricted and one couldn’t do what one wanted. It had to be acceptable to the social mainstream.

The mass student protests which included promoting sexual freedom were sparked by the rule that women friends could not visit male friends in dormitories after 10 p.m. Of course, other major issues followed like the Vietnam War. These protests were fuelled by the French demonstrations for change in May 1968 which was headed by the legendary French-German Daniel Cohn-Bendit aka Dany le Rouge (French for “Danny the Red”, because of both his politics and the color of his hair). He brought the protests to the streets of Germany. Cohn-Bendit is presently a Member of the European Parliament among other things.

And then Willy Brandt was elected as Chancellor and sweeping social changes came about in the following years. Brandt was a Social Demokrat whose famous words still resonate today – “Wir wollen mehr Demokratie wagen” (We want to take a chance on more Democracy). He spoke about the need to reintegrate the students back into German Society, that they had good ideas about social change and that the people had to listen to them.

What followed was a deluge…democracy unfettered, sexual revolution and the general opening up of German society.

Gustav Heinemann was the President of West Germany at that time who often remarked that he wanted to be ‘the citizens’ President and not ‘President of the State’. He encouraged Germans to use their democratic rights and not be subservient to the authorities. This endeared him to the young generation fighting to break out of the restrictive conservatism.”

Where did you grow up and study?

Hamburg City State is where I grew up, studied and worked and still work! I attended Law School at the University of Hamburg and was admitted to the Bar.

My father began his career as a High School teacher and later became a senior officer in the State  Government as Head of Department for Adult Education and was elected as Member of State Parliament. He belonged to the Sozialdemokratische Partei Deutschland (SPD).

And what did you do after college?

I joined government and one of my first jobs was Head of Personal Office to the First Mayor and State Governor of Hamburg, Klaus von Donanyi, from July 1981 thru July 1982. This post was exciting and varied from carrying the briefcase of the Governor to telephoning, on behalf of the Governor, Secretaries of Construction or Economy and instructing them what to do or not to do. This was followed by a stint in the Department of Interior (DOI).

When I joined DOI (1982 end-1990) I was given the job of drafting a law that would help police (German: Polizei) in their drive to collect the personal data of suspected criminals etc. without impinging on the civil rights of citizens. The Bundesverfassungsgericht (Federal Constitutional Court of Germany) had directed the DOI to work on such a law as consequence of a new created constitutional law of informational self-determination, after there were protests by human rights groups on the perceived ‘involvement’ of the State in the ‘personal’ lives of citizens.

At that time the Polizei were forbidden to collect any data on citizens. But they needed this data to tackle growing crime. For example, here were two areas –

– Identifying trouble makers in a protest rally. Usually in a rally there were always some trouble makers who provoked the crowd to react violently, attack Polizei and destroy property. These few trouble makers had been known to create chaos at a rally attended by genuine human and civil rights activists.

– Prostitution – it was not illegal – so collecting data should have normally been forbidden. But there was an urgent need to collect/collate data on this business. I spoke to some prostitutes who narrated instances where pimps kidnapped and traded women in the business. The prostitutes did not object to giving the Polizei any data needed because they knew they would be protected by the law.

The Law is now in place and does not infringe on the democratic rights of the citizens.

In the summer of ’88 I was sent by the government to study Economics and Computer Systems at Harvard. The Americans had been computerising their government work and I was sent to learn the system so that it could be applied back in Germany.

When I returned from Harvard I found my job responsibilities greatly diminished and so after a short while I quit government and joined one of the world’s largest auditing/consultancy firms, KPMG.

Two years later I started my own consulting business in the area of public sector.

Do you still work for government in a private capacity?

I have done over 300 projects that include work done for the Hamburg State, Federal Government agencies, Municipalities, Utilities and Hospitals.

Most recently I was involved in fighting joblessness.

The system prevailing before my input was that five different government agencies (Federal/State/Municipal) were involved in assisting in solving the problem of youth joblessness. My contribution to this has been to create an umbrella organisation so that under one roof a job seeker can approach the relevant agency. This has streamlined the process, cut down red tape and overhead expenditure and has resulted in fast processing of applications of youths seeking jobs.

One has heard about the economic crunch in Europe and how people are finding it very hard to find work etc. Please comment.

Europeans are complaining on a high level. I would say that the poorest person in Germany is probably wealthier than the average Indian Middle Class person.

Nothing is wrong with the economy of Europe. We have accomplished a lot in 150 years. We have improved our society so much. It is ridiculous how people complain.

But we have to change. We need to change every day; to improve our standard/way of living.

Do you know that only 45% of German students go to college? The other 55% do not. It is something that needs to be changed. Added to this is the ‘shrinking’ population resulting in ‘importation 

of expertise/people’ from other countries. And this adds to other social issues arising from foreigners working in Germany.

Is there any difference between students in your days and that of today in Germany?

We needed to pass…it was as simple as that. It was not necessary to get high marks in an examination. After college a good job was always available…. So we spent our time doing many other things like protesting, being involved in social issues and broadening our horizons by taking part in the Arts etc. College was not just studies!

Nowadays students spend all their time studying their narrow/limited subject because if they don’t get a high percentage, the chances of a good job will diminish. So they simply study a subject focused on a good examination and that’s it! Further, with the advent of social media even though they are connected by the cell phone or computer they are actually disconnected because they don’t spend quality time discussing issues one on one, face to face. The emphasis is more on “I, Me and Myself” than on wider pressing social issues affecting humanity.

When the Wall fell where were you and what were you doing?

On November 9, 1989, I was invited to a dinner party by my friend Ralf Stegner and his wife. During the party somebody called Ralf and we turned on TV for the sensational news.

Ralf and I had studied together at Harvard´s Kennedy School of Government. Only a few months earlier we had organized a panel at the Kennedy School on the German issue. All panellists, including two speakers from East Germany, Ralf and myself were convinced at that time that the two German states would never ever reunite!

Nowadays Ralf is the leader of the Sozialdemokratische Partei Deutschland (SPD) in Schleswig-Holstein, the most northern state of the Federal Republic of Germany, and he is also one of the party´s most important federal leaders.

What is your message to the students of today?

Studies should be only one part of the syllabus. One must go beyond the recommended books. One must go beyond the college gates…to involve oneself in social issues, in the questions of today. Then and only then can great leaders emerge from the people and solutions to problems affecting humankind can be solved.


Rainer Tormin’s mission is to help create an efficient and responsible working public sector which is crucial for the welfare of the people. Rainer (born in 1949) has served as a management consultant for all kinds of public sector organizations helping to improve their performance during the last 23 years. Before that he took one year off to achieve comprehensive knowledge at Harvard´s Kennedy School of Government. During the 80s he worked for the State Government of Hamburg, Germany, in different challenging positions. www.tormin-unternehmensberatung.de

One Reply to “Rainer Tormin – From Student Activist to Law Maker”

  1. Hallo Rainer..das Ausrufezeichen klappt
    Irgendwie nicht, here speaks old Ulrich Thießen, The Troddels und so.
    Hab Grad etwas rumgegoogelt..wie geht’s so Fragezeichen. Vielleicht mal etwas an der Oberalster Gedanken austauschen Fragezeichen. ..Spiel manchmal Schach im Langenhorner Club, nicht weit entfernt von Fahrradwegen, auf denen wir…

    Sei gegrüßt

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