Is Germany the “Faule Republik”?

Non-German speakers, it’s not what you think: faul not as in the English “foul” (so that you might envision “environmentally polluted,” or “cheaters at football,” or even “morally decrepit”), but as in “lazy.” This issue has been raised lately by no less than the Federal German Labor and Economy “super” Minister Wolfgang Clement – “super,” because Clement has been put in charge of what were formerly two separate ministries and granted extra authority within Gerhard Schröder’s cabinet, and extra say over economic policy, in exchange for coming up with something ingenious – anything! please! – to ease the rampant unemployment and general economic stagnation that has afflicted Europe’s economic “powerhouse” for several years now.

It seems that his latest approach is founded on his conviction that Germans in general work too little – Germany as Freizeitpark, meaning “leisure park” or even “amusement park.” “Whoever compares our holiday-calender with other countries gets a lot to ponder on,” Clement told Stern magazine on 17 June. “When it comes to vacation time, holidays, and working time we have without a doubt reached the absolute limit.” Or, as Die Welt sums things up in its report: “12 holidays [per year], 30 vacation days, a 37-hour work-week, and retirement at age 60. You can only find that in Germany.”

Soon afterward some leading economic research institutions took up the theme, as reported in the Süddeutsche Zeitung. There was the Institut der Deutschen Wirtschaft (IW), or Institute of the German Economy, based in Köln. It came up with the intriguing proposal to have Germans work just one more hour per week, with no additional pay, and merely for the rest of 2003; according to the IW, that would result in economic growth of 1,6% for the year. (If nothing is done, the IW estimates that such growth will be about 0,5%; the German government itself estimates 0,75%). What’s more, that would set the stage for a possible growth of 3% in 2004. And the Munich-based IFO-Institut für Wirtschaftsforschung (“IFO Institute for Economic Research”; I don’t know what the “IFO” stands for) chimed in with a proposal actually to eliminate one German holiday; that itself would add € 3,5 billion to German GDP. (The CIA World Factbook gives Germany’s 2002 GDP as $2,184 trillion; taking $1 = €1 for simplicity, € 3,5 billion is 0,16% of German GDP.)

Excellent idea! found Minister Clement – let’s do away with Pfingstenmontag, or the Monday after Pentecost, and that just for starters. “We must work more,” he emphasized. And it is not as if such a measure were unprecedented: as the Berliner Morgenpost reminds us, in 1995 one German holiday was actually abolished, as an explicit trade-off to enable the financing of state medical insurance. (This was the Buß und Bettag – the “Day for Penance and Praying.” I lived in Germany for a couple of years – although as a member of the US Armed Forces – and I can’t remember this holiday. Anyway, maybe the Germans considered that they didn’t need to repent and pray so much anymore, fifty years after the end of World War II.)

However, Clements proposal – and his general “we work too little” attitude – have come in for the sort of criticism you’d expect, e.g. from the head of the Germany-wide trade union organization (the DGB), Michael Sommer, and from Cardinal Lehmann representing the religious interests. (In fact, I’ve even seen the argument that most German citizens have “paid for” these holidays via the special tax they pay to the government to support religious institutions.) And, as the Berliner Morgenpost reports in another article, the all-important support of Bundeskanzler Gerhard Schröder is so far missing: he is characterized as zurückhaltend (“holding back”) on this issue. The opposition CDU is also unenthusiastic; CDU vice-chairman characterizes Clement’s proposals as “unrealistic.”

By the way, that metaphor of “Freizeitpark” Clement did not actually use in his recent public statements. Rather, the Die Welt article reminds us that it was actually coined by former Bundeskanzler Helmut Kohl, back in his “State-of-the-Union” speech in October, 1993. (“State-of-the-Union” in Germany is actually known as the Regierungserklärung.) “We can’t guarantee the future by organizing our country as a collective Freizeitpark,” Kohl warned. But that was when the SPD, currently the majority party in government, was in opposition; then, it’s opposition-party response was to print 100,000 postcards, with Kohl’s official address on them as well as the message Wir sind nicht faul!, and to distribute them throughout the country for people to sign and send.

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