Two different mindsets came starkly into view during travels in Europe.

Last March, during my fifth trip to Germany, litter made the deepest impression. Discarded trash lined both sides of a two-lane country road for some 60 kilometers as our tour bus headed to a factory in the little hamlet of Grossheringen, in what used to be communist East Germany.

The factory belongs to Viega Pro-Press, which makes crimped plumbing fittings that have been marketed in the United States for several years. I was with more than 30 fellow travelers on a tour co-sponsored by Pro-Press and Roofing Contractor’s sibling magazines, Plumbing & Mechanical and PM Engineer. We visited several Viega facilities as well as the renowned ISH Fair in Frankfurt, the world’s largest exposition of plumbing-heating-piping products. With so much glitter on display, it seems perverse to write about litter. But bear with me, please, because all that litter speaks volumes.

That’s because it contrasts so starkly with the fastidiousness one finds in the west side of Germany. There, people will stare holes through you if you drop a gum wrapper anywhere but a designated trash receptacle.

In fact, the litter I saw in the east was even out of sync with country roadsides in Poland, where I went for a couple of days to visit distant relatives after breaking off from the Viega tour. This is curious, because Poland shared the postwar fate of the former East Germany in suffering Communist rule. In today’s Poland, one finds even more poverty and shabbiness than in eastern Germany, but virtually no litter. Why is that?

The explanation is that although Poland was ruled by communists, it never succumbed to communist rule. The real governing authority in Poland for the last thousand years has been the Catholic Church. The Church sustained the sense of nation and its language even when Poland officially ceased to exist. In 1796, Prussia, Russia and the Austro-Hungarian empires carved up the land and did their best for the next 123 years to erase the concept of Poland from Polish minds. But every Sunday, Poles attended services and listened to sermons that told them Poland is alive, and it finally reappeared on the map of Europe in the aftermath of World War I.

The Nazis crushed virtually everything else in Poland during their unspeakable occupation, but they let the Church survive albeit on a tight leash. They viewed it as a pressure relief valve preventing messy explosions. Hitler gave way to the atheist Stalin, who tried mightily to stamp out the Poles’ 1,000-year-old religious tradition, but it proved an impossible task and his successors felt compelled to relent a bit.

Communism symbolically ended with the fall of the Berlin Wall, but the beginning of the end came a decade earlier with the rise of the Solidarity movement in Poland. Solidarity usually was described in the Western press as a trade union, but it was really a social army whose weapons were ideas shaped in church pews. Virtually all of its leaders were churchgoers.

One of them was a man named Wieclaw (Vee-YESH-wov) Olsztynski, whose home I revisited in March. He holds an advanced degree in economics, but his Solidarity activism forced him to spend most of the 1980s lying low and feeding his family of six through menial labor. Over two days in March I spent about 16 hours in conversation with him and his family. Time was never better spent.

Ownership and Pride

The people of Poland do not litter, nor do the western Germans, because they feel a sense of ownership of their respective lands and pride in themselves. How ironic that is, because the promise of communism was that “the people” rather than greedy capitalists would own everything. And the Party insisted its system would bring pride to even the humblest of “the people.” Instead, their mindset creates litter.

The western Germans pay about half of their income in taxes to help dig their eastern brethren out of the Marxist hole. You hear some grumbling about this, but no significant political opposition. Most Germans can’t think of any other way to reintegrate a country split for almost half a century with two opposing systems that stood on the brink of warfare throughout. They think it will take at least one and maybe two generations before the litter of the east transforms into the glitter of the west.

Viega is helping to speed that along. Now managed by the fourth generation of the Viegener family that started the company in 1899, Viega Pro-Press built the Grossheringen plant in 1992 in response to tax incentives encouraging development in the east. Company lore has it that the Viegener patriarch selected the Grossheringen site when he noticed that residents of the little village kept their homes and gardens in neater shape than most other places in the shabby eastern sector. He figured these people had pride in themselves and would make good workers.

That judgment has proven out. The plant is enormously successful — and litter-free.

Job-site Litter

Litter is an issue pertaining to roofing work as well. I’ve been on enough construction job sites to notice that there, too, one can sense a correlation between the degree of disorder and the ultimate quality of work performed.

Don’t get me wrong. Construction is inherently messy and nobody expects to find a pristine environment until the last punch list item is resolved. But there are degrees of messiness, and much can be judged from its duration. Many trade workers don’t see any point in cleaning up at the end of a workday, because the site is going to get filled with dirt and debris once again during the next shift. And let’s not blame the workers for this. Trade workers take their cue from the contractors who employ them. If the contractor allows messy job sites, that will be the result.

Cleaning up is more than simply a matter of cosmetics. Clutter and debris lead to health and safety hazards, perhaps more in roofing than any other trade. I think they also give rise to that dangerous “communist” mindset which says, “I have no stake in this, so to hell with it.” More often than not this mindset will also manifest itself in the craftsmanship, or lack thereof.

In the plumbing field that I know best, one still finds an occasional old-fashioned plumber who takes the time to polish joints with steel wool. The task makes no sense from a performance standpoint, since polished fittings work no better than those that have been dulled or discolored. It’s simply a drain on productivity. Yet, there is something admirable about such senseless quirks of craftsmanship. Viega has followed their cue by adding a final polishing step to the manufacturing process so that its fittings sparkle to the eye.

Few American bean counters would tolerate such excess, but how many of us want to live in a world completely run by bean counters? Thank goodness this world still has places where pride trumps efficiency, and where employees feel a personal stake in the work they do.

Litterbugs do not feel welcome in such a world.