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Informal practice commonly found in Germany
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Map of Germany, where Klüngel commonly takes place.
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Flag of Germany.
Entry written by Lea Genermann.
Lea Genermann is affiliated to University College London.

Original text by Lea Genermann

Klüngel denotes secret agreements and underhand dealings made possible through personal connections to family members, friends, colleagues or political associates, and often, but not necessarily, used for personal gain. The word stems from the regional dialect of Cologne and is used predominantly in the broader Rhineland region, commonly in reference to Cologne itself, though it also occasionally appears in national media in the context of national or international scandals concerning public mismanagement and corruption. It derives from the diminutive of the Old High German noun klunga (ravel, entanglement; see also English: to cling). The first known use of the word in the sense of deceitful scheming can be traced to the year 1782 (Wrede 1971 : 55[1]).

The word Klüngel has a predominantly negative connotation and is associated, albeit not synonymous, with administrative secrecy and cases of suspected or proven corruption among municipal authorities. In the most prominent case in recent history, the 1999 Cologne donation scandal, it was revealed that private contractors had paid millions of Deutschmarks in bribes to city officials in order to secure construction contracts. The contractors further bribed local politicians to gather support for the construction project, while the politicians then added the money to party funds as faked donations from party members (Die Welt 2004[2]). Key actors in the scandal were personally acquainted or otherwise socially associated, lending weight to accusations of Klüngel (Überall 170-2[3]).

Other local instances of allegations of Klüngel include the 2009 collapse of the Historical Archive of Cologne, which was heavily covered in the media in conjunction with accusations of cover-ups of inadequate construction supervision by local authorities (Driessen 2009[4]; Bannas 2009[5]). Use of the term in the national media may also occur in reference to other city administrations or higher-order authorities such as the European Union or the World Bank, indicating a conflation of the term with corruption and the inappropriate usage of personal networks in general (Welt 2008[6]; Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung 2007[7]).

It is important to note that in any instance of this broad, but in no way exhaustive, range of negatively associated examples of Klüngel, a characteristic feature of the practice is the role of social ties in underhand dealings rather than in any particular illegal practice (Überall 183[8]). Broadly speaking, Klüngel describes the pursuit of a particular goal, often economic or political in nature, with the help of available social connections. The criminal meaning with which the word is often associated in everyday usage stems from the potential for private networks to divert resources from the common good through the subversion of official procedures.

The meaning of Klüngel should therefore not be confused with corruption, particularly as local manifestations and perceptions of Klüngel are far from universally negative. High-level officials such as former mayors Norbert Burger and Konrad Adenauer have publicly depicted Klüngel as a positive feature of urban life in Cologne, with the former pointing to its usefulness in efficient and unbureaucratic decision-making and the latter describing it as a social network of mutual assistance (Klauser 2007:183[9]). In this more positive sense, it has even been suggested that Klüngel may contribute to the democratic culture of Cologne by increasing communication between the municipal administration and local citizens and creating unofficial opportunities for civic participation, assuming that it is not performed within closed networks (Überall 2007:242[10]). Researchers and local folklorists such as Überall, Feldhoff (1996[11]) or Klauser acknowledge this more positive understanding of Klüngel as a shortcut that skirts official channels without necessarily causing harm for those uninvolved. At the same time, however, they warn that the possibility of positive and constructive functions of Klüngel should not detract from the potential of Klüngel to be employed for personal advantage over the common good (see also the entry on jaan-pehchaan in this volume).

Klüngel as a term and practice can perhaps be best conceptualised as a form of social capital that is simultaneously bonding and bridging (see for example Putnam 2000[12]): On the one hand, it may build on existing connections between individuals of similar social standing and occupation, closing out those lacking necessary connections and generating potential incentives for abuse to the disadvantage of outsiders. On the other hand, Klüngel can also form a strategy for cooperation within and across social and political networks that facilitates formal procedures. This ambiguity is reflected in the local understanding of Klüngel, which acknowledges the centrality of social connections in decision-making procedures and the fragility of purportedly rigid barriers between public and private life in an urban context.

The influence of social ties in local decision-making procedures is not a unique feature of urban administrations in the broader Rhineland area. Studies of the impact of decentralisation and privatisation measures in municipal administrations across Germany indicate that such institutional reforms may generally generate incentives for corruption by complicating accountability and blurring boundaries between the public and private sector (see for example Von Maravic 2006[13]). The distinctive feature of Klüngel, then, lies not in the unusual role of social ties in the institutional environment of the Rhineland, but in local awareness of these structures and understanding of the ambivalence of their effects.

Research on Klüngel is sparse, both in terms of empirical study and theoretical discussion, and practically non-existent in non-German academic literature. Micro-level studies of both the publicly documented cases of corruption as well as of the positive manifestations of Klüngel promise, however, to offer insights into the functions and effects of social networks in the context of strong formal institutions. Research into the prevalence of Klüngel might also investigate private contexts with little connection to public affairs, for example local business-to-business interactions or even purely social situations, as Klüngel does not necessarily involve administrative or political representatives. Such information could prove useful in enhancing the understanding of the functions and perceptions of social networks in Western societies.

References and Bibliography

  1. Rügemer, W. 2012. Colonia Corrupta: Globalisierung, Privatisierung und Korruption im Schatten des Kölner Klüngels (7th edition). Münster: Verlag Westfälisches Dampfboot
  2. Scheuch, E. and Scheuch, U. 2013. Cliquen, Klüngel und Karrieren: oder 15 Thesen gegen den Verfall der politischen Kulturen (revised edition). Berlin: Lit Verlag


  1. Wrede, Adam. 1971. Neuer Kölnischer Sprachschatz. Cologne: Greven Verlag.
  2. Die Welt. 2004. ‘Der Kölner Müllskandal,’ 13 May, http://www.welt.de/politik/article313538/Der-Koelner-Muell-Skandal.html
  3. Überall, F. 2007. Der Klüngel in der politischen Kultur Kölns. Bonn: Bouvier Verlag.
  4. Driessen, C. 2009. ‘“Sowas gibts doch nur in Köln“; Nach dem Unglück wird Kritik am Klüngel laut’, Aachener Zeitung, 11 March, http://www.aachener-zeitung.de/lokales/stolberg/so-was-gibts-doch-nur-in-koeln-kluengel-mentalitaet-in-der-kritik-1.307943
  5. Bannas, G. 2009. ‘Kölsch, Klüngel, Katastrophe’, Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, 26 March, http://www.faz.net/aktuell/politik/inland/einsturz-des-koelner-stadtarchivs-koelsch-kluengel-katastrophe-1923357.html
  6. Die Welt. 2008. ‘Die Klüngel-Geschäfte in der EU-Zentrale’, 27 April, http://www.welt.de/politik/article1943193/Die-Kluengel-Geschaefte-in-der-EU-Zentrale.html
  7. Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung. 2007. ‘Klüngel bei der Weltbank – Paul Wolfowitz taumelt,’ 8 May, http://www.faz.net/aktuell/wirtschaft/konjunktur/kluengel-bei-der-weltbank-paul-wolfowitz-taumelt-1433863.html
  8. Überall, F. 2007. Der Klüngel in der politischen Kultur Kölns. Bonn: Bouvier Verlag.
  9. Klauser, H. 2007. Kölner Karneval zwischen Uniform und Lebensform. Münster: Waxmann Verlag.
  10. Überall, F. 2007. Der Klüngel in der politischen Kultur Kölns. Bonn: Bouvier Verlag.
  11. Feldhoff, N. 2006. Kölscher Klüngel: Gestern, heute, morgen und überall. Cologne: Bachem Verlag.
  12. Putnam, R. 2000. Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of American Community. New York: Touchstone.
  13. Von Maravic, P. 2006. ‘Decentralized Corruption in Germany’, Public Administration Quarterly, 30 (3/4): 440-78.