German Court Upholds Ban on Extra-Long Names

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Karl-Theodor Maria Nikolaus Johann Jacob Philipp Franz Freiherr zu Guttenberg, right, with his wife Stephanie

In a country whose Economics Minister is named Karl-Theodor Maria Nikolaus Johann Jacob Philipp Franz Freiherr zu Guttenberg, the verdict seems illogical. But on Tuesday, Germany's Federal Constitutional Court rejected a woman's appeal to go by her new married name, Frieda Rosemarie Thalheim-Kunz-Hallstein, arguing that the name is too long.

The court was upholding a law introduced in 1993, which banned multiple surnames in Germany. Before this legislation, triple- or quadruple-barreled names were rare, but they existed: there is an East German athlete, for example, named Simone Greiner-Petter-Memm, and a prominent pollster and political scientist who went by Elisabeth Noelle-Neumann-Maier-Leibnitz until she dropped the second half of her name after her husband died. And members of the German aristocracy often carry extremely long names. (See pictures of Berlin.)

Before the law was introduced, it was merely illegal to pass multiple surnames on to a child. Legislators worried that, should a child later marry someone who also had a long surname — and if their children did the same and so on — the result would be endless name chains, which could cause intolerable administrative difficulties for German officials. In 1993, the ban was extended to couples who wanted to combine their names into a three- or four-pronged surname — but this is the first time that that ban has been upheld by the Constitutional Court.

But Frieda Rosemarie Thalheim, the Munich dentist who filed the complaint, said the law infringes on her personal rights. She wanted to prefix her name to that of her husband, the lawyer Hans-Peter Kunz-Hallstein. Thalheim's lawyer argued that Thalheim and her husband did not want to lose the good professional reputations associated with their old names, for fear it could be harmful to their careers. Thalheim also wanted to keep her old name to stress her connection with her children from her first marriage, while at the same time demonstrating unity with her second husband. (See pictures of money being printed in Germany.)

The court, however, defended the verdict by saying that German law leaves spouses enough freedom to choose how to combine their names and thereby express their identities. It also added that Thalheim and her husband are free to continue using their original names for business purposes.

Isabella Götz, a Munich judge and expert in family law, is critical of the verdict. "I believe that triple names should be allowed on the parent level," she tells TIME. "Names are something very emotional ... a part of one's personality."

Critics of the verdict — dubbed the "Hadschi Halef Omar ban" by the German daily Sueddeutsche Zeitung, in reference to a character invented by the popular adventure-story writer Karl May called Hadschi Halef Omar Ben Hadschi Abul Abbas Ibn Hadschi Dawuhd al Gossarah — say it does not necessarily prevent long names, since it applies only to names conjoined by a hyphen. A name like Schulze zur Wiesche-Meyer auf der Heide would still be allowed, notes Götz, even though it's seven words long.

But it's not only surnames that are subject to regulation in Germany — first names are too. According to German law, parents can choose any name for their child as long as it does not go against order and decency. The name must be in accordance with the child's gender and must not expose the child to ridicule or discrimination. The number of first names generally should not exceed five.

"Calling your kid Adolf Hitler would not be possible," says Götz, referring to a case that recently made headlines in Germany about a boy from New Jersey named after the Nazi leader. The decision on which names to accept and which to reject is generally left to the local registrar, but that decision can be contested in court. And sometimes the court's ruling can seem rather arbitrary. While the names Stompie, Woodstock and Grammophon have been rejected by German courts in the past, the similarly creative parents of Speedy, Lafayette and Jazz were granted their name of choice. (See pictures of Hitler's rise to power.)

Götz says these cases are rare: "Most people are reasonable and have the welfare of their children in mind." But now that the Constitutional Court has finally settled the issue of what adults can call themselves, many more Germans could be asking: What's in a name?

See pictures of the rise and fall of the Berlin Wall.

See all the names in this year's TIME 100.