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GERMANY EXPLAINED

Why are shops in Germany closed on Sundays – and will it ever change?

Germany's strict ban on shops opening on Sundays can be a shock to foreigners. We looked at the culture around it, and spoke to one of the country's largest trade unions to find out if things are ever likely to change.

Shoppers at a drugstore in Mainz.
Shoppers at a drugstore in Mainz. Just don't except it to be open on a Sunday. Photo: picture alliance/dpa | Frank Rumpenhorst

It’s Sunday. You’ve invited people for dinner, but you’ve forgotten the most important ingredient. Tough luck – you’ll either have to do without or wait until Monday because your local shops are shut. 

Most of us are familiar with this inconvenience, and perhaps you’ve even found yourself screaming: “Why?” in frustration in front of a locked-up supermarket. 

But it’s something us adopted Germans have had to get used to. We decided to take a look at the reasons behind Germany’s ban on Sunday shopping – and to find out if it might change in future. 

Where does the rule come from?

The Sonntagsruhe or ‘Sunday rest’ principle is an integral part of German culture, so much so that it is enshrined in the German constitution (Grundgesetz).

Article 140 of the law, which has remained unchanged since 1919, says: “Sundays and state-recognised public holidays remain protected by law as days of rest from work and spiritual upliftment.” 

But the practice of not working on Sunday has been around for much longer. The idea that the seventh day of the week is a day of rest dates back to the old testament and was declared a general day of rest across the Roman Empire as early as 321, by Roman Emperor Constantine.

In the centuries since, however, most of Europe has gradually relaxed the strict ban on commercial activities on Sundays. 

But in Germany, the rules remain restrictive. It’s unlikely to change anytime soon partly because of religious reasons, and also in relation to the interests of workers.

Germany’s biggest trade union Verdi spelled out their view. “It’s not ‘modern’ to work seven days a week,” they told The Local. “That’s the Middle Ages.” 

What exactly does the law mean?

On the face of it, the German law forbids all forms of work on Sundays and public holidays, though numerous exceptions are laid out in the Working Time Act. 

As well as emergency and rescue services, hospitals, nursing and care facilities, exceptions include cultural and sporting activities, and the hospitality sector. 

Another notable exemption to the rule is bakeries, which are allowed to open for three hours on Sundays – which is why you may often find a long queue at your local baker if you want to get your freshly baked Brötchen on Sunday morning. 

A saleswoman reaches for a loaf of bread in a bakery.

A saleswoman reaches for a loaf of bread in a bakery. Photo: picture alliance/dpa | Mohssen Assanimoghaddam

Illustrating how seriously the rule can be taken in Germany, there have even been cases of bakeries being sued for selling bread for too long on Sundays.

Shops, however, aren’t exempt from the rule and, the only way they can legally open on a Sunday is on a so-called verkaufsoffener Sonntag – Sunday trading day.

In most federal states, shops are allowed to open on between four and eight Sundays per year, and the States can decide when these should be. The chosen days must, however, be linked to a relevant occasion – such as a local festival, a market, a trade fair, or a similar event. 

Sunday openings also have to be recognisable as an exception to the general rule and Sunday openings that have already been approved can often be later overturned by the courts.

How strictly is the rule enforced?

Retailers who break the rules and open for business on Sunday can face fines ranging between €500 and €2,500.

The strictness of enforcement can vary widely between different regions.

In Berlin, for example, you can still find lots of Spätis (late night shops) open on Sundays. Although this is technically illegal, the authorities in the capital seem to take more of a relaxed approach to enforcement than in other states. 

A "Späti" late-night shop in Berlin.

A “Späti” late-night shop in Berlin. Photo: picture alliance/dpa | Florian Schuh

In the traditionally Catholic state of Bavaria, for example, the law is much more strictly guarded and enforced.

READ ALSO: Why Germany has strict shop opening hours

Is the law likely to change?

A survey by Spiegel in 2017 showed that 61 percent of Germans wanted to be able to shop on a Sunday, and this desire is shared by the trade industry.

The German Trade Association, for example, which represents around 400,000 independent companies, has strongly criticised Germany’s refusal to budge on the issue of Sunday openings on several occasions and argued that Sunday opening is also popular with staff, with many shop assistants appreciating the work in a more relaxed atmosphere.

In its latest statement on the issue, the association stated that, especially after following the economic impact of the pandemic, many retailers would benefit greatly from being able to open on Sundays. 

READ ALSO:

“It is remarkable that in no other EU country Sunday opening is as restricted as in Germany,” the association said. “Even in strongly Catholic EU countries such as Italy and Poland, shoppers can generally shop on Sundays. The same applies to France, although they place great value on culture and socialising.”

However, even if there is a widespread desire in some quarters to allow Sunday trading, an amendment to the constitution would require the consent of two-thirds of the German parliament. Also, there remains strong opposition to changing the rule from many workers’ groups and trade unions.

Trade union Verdi, which regularly files complaints against states and organisations which seek to deviate from Sunday trading restrictions, said that Sunday rest is still very important for workers.

A sign reads “Spring for Frankfurt – Sunday trading day” in front of a shoe shop in Frankfurt.

A sign reads “Spring for Frankfurt – Sunday trading day” in front of a shoe shop in Frankfurt. Photo: picture-alliance/ dpa/dpaweb | Arne Dedert

A spokesperson said: “We have just one day a week when employers can’t stop us from going to football together, meeting friends, attending cultural events, or spending free time with the whole family.

“And we want to keep it that way. There are six days a week when we can go shopping, take the car to the garage, do our banking, or get the package delivered from the online retailer. On Sunday, there has to be peace and quiet.”

The Verdi spokesperson added that it’s important to think about “work-life balance, and not about being available 24/7 for a company”.

We also asked the union if the law looks set to change in the near future.

The spokesperson said: “Sunday, which is a non-working day for most people, has so far been protected by the majority of political parties in Germany.

“Verdi, with its almost two million members, continues to work to ensure that working on Sunday does not become an everyday occurrence.”

So it appears that the culture shock for many non-Germans of shops being closed on Sundays won’t change anytime soon. 

READ ALSO: From nudity to sandwiches – the biggest culture shocks for foreigners in Germany

Member comments

  1. Yes, lets ask a union what is best for the majority of people…..The comment of working 7 days a week and being in the middle ages is pure entertainment. If a grocery store is open 7 days a week, does a union spokesperson really believe that the same people are working for all the open hours? Its hilarious. Also the middle age comment, yes because we all know the internet, government, banking etc is leading is into the future. If we had grocery stores working in middle age conditions, that would allow it to be more in line with the rest of German technology no?

  2. Germany, the country that loves to say “No, we can´t/ won´t do that”,
    without any real world logic whatsoever.

  3. Good for the Germans that respect is paid to the biblical day of rest. I know there are hundreds of examples where Christian principles are flouted, but 2 wrongs don’t make a right.
    6 days at which businesses are accessible for the public ought to be enough.

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GERMANY EXPLAINED

Fact check: Is Germany really such a car-obsessed country?

From major manufacturers like BMW and Volkswagen to the world-famous Autobahn, Germany is said to be a country that loves its cars - but how much truth is there behind the stereotype?

Fact check: Is Germany really such a car-obsessed country?

In many ways, Germany is a car lover’s paradise. Not only are some of the world’s biggest car manufacturers based here, but drivers also enjoy numerous rights that they don’t elsewhere, from cheap parking permits to speed-limit-free sections of the Autobahn.

It’s no wonder then that the country has developed a reputation for being somewhat car obsessed. But how true is it really? We take a look at some of the facts. 

The endless Tempolimit row 

It’s a topic that’s almost never out of the news, and a debate that has been rumbling on for years: should Germany finally introduce a hard speed limit on sections of its Autobahn? 

In German politics, the Green Party has been one of the loudest voices calling for so-called Tempolimit in recent years, arguing that the move would prevent accidents and drastically cut carbon emissions on the motorway. However, the liberal FDP were dead-set against the move when the ironically named traffic-light coalition sat down at the negotiating table last year. 

Since Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, it seems that public opinion in Germany has been swinging towards the Greens. When framed as a solidarity measure in an ARD poll, 60 percent of Germans said they would be in favour of a temporary speed limit on the Autobahn, while just 35 percent were against.

Most surprisingly, even Finance Minister Christian Lindner (FDP) – who’s said to be a huge fan of fast cars – has softened his stance on the measure in recent weeks. In an interview on political podcast Lage der Nation, Lindner signalled his readiness to negotiate on the issue.

“I would immediately be prepared to say that we would impose a speed limit in Germany if the nuclear power plants were to run longer,” he told podcast hosts Ulf Buermeyer and Philip Banse. 

READ ALSO: EXPLAINED: Could Germany introduce a motorway speed limit?

German car manufacturers 

One of the reasons Germany is so closely associated with cars is the unwavering national pride in its car manufacturers. BMW, Volkswagen, Porsche and Mercedes-Benz are all German brands – and politicians in Germany have often been accused of being in the pockets of these big companies over the years. 

Indeed, former chancellor Angela Merkel (CDU) has been branded the “car Chancellor” for her perceived friendliness towards the car industry – even when it interfered with her environmental aims. And there are endless jokes on German satire shows about Christian Lindner supposedly taking his policy ideas from the CEO of Porsche. 

However, there’s no denying that car manufacturing plays a significant role in the German economy. In 2021, the sector employed almost 790,000 people and turned over a whopping €410 billion – accounting for 24 percent of domestic industry revenue. Seen from that perspective, it’s understandable that successive governments have wanted to keep these heavyweights on-side. 

Angela Merkel BMW

(Former) Chancellor Angela Merkel looks an electric BMW at a car expo in Hannover in 2018. Photo: picture alliance / Peter Steffen/dpa | Peter Steffen

Car ownership 

Though driving is clearly close to Germans’ hearts, it may surprise you to know that the Bundesrepublik is by no means at the top of the ranks in Europe when it comes to car ownership.

In a ranking of motor vehicles per capita in the EU, Germany actually ends up somewhere in the lower-middle, with a total of 14 member states – including France, Portugal, Italy and Finland – boasting more cars, vans and freight vehicles per person. (In case you’re interested, the Italian micro-state of San Marino topped this particular chart.) 

However, when you look at the number of motor vehicles in total, rather than just per capita, the stats paint a slightly different story. While Italy and France both have around 45 million motor vehicles in the country, there are 52 million of them in Germany.

READ ALSO: Will Germany’s motorists and cyclists ever learn to live with each other?

Average mobility spend

Of course, that’s not to say that the German love affair with driving is entirely a myth. A recent study found that the average German spends a whopping €233 per month on their Auto, which adds up to almost €2,800 per year, compared to just €33 per month on buses and trains. 

That’s not including the outlay for a car in the first place, which can cost well into the tens of thousands. 

Debates over right-of-way

The seemingly unshakeable bond between Germans and their cars has become the subject of heated debate recently as the government tries to encourage people to switch to more climate-friendly options. Some argue that people have become far too attached to convenience and need to make lifestyle changes, while others say the transport network in Germany just isn’t good enough to support this.

In fact, it would probably be fair to say that there are two competing forces in German civil society at the moment: those who are fighting to reshape cities for a more eco-friendly future, and those who are fighting for drivers to maintain their rights and privileges (at least for now). 

Climate activists in Munich

Climate activists glue themselves to the road in Munich’s Karlsplatz. Photo: picture alliance/dpa | Lennart Preiss

The latest front for this battle is Berlin, where the Senate has recently been forced to re-open a busy street to cars after a court ruled that there was no valid legal basis to redirect traffic. Friedrichstraße had originally been blocked off the motor vehicles as part of a traffic trial in 2020 – but the cycle paths and pedestrian walkways had simply remained in place ever since.

As the signage redirecting vehicles is removed from Friedrichstraße, it seems that those who wanted cars to return to the busy thoroughfare have won the battle. But with the Senate vowing to push ahead with plans to pedestrianise the street in the long-term, they may not have won the war. 

READ ALSO: How Berlin Friedrichstraße ended up at the centre of the car-free debate

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