Germans Invented Daylight Saving Time—Now They’re Going to Kill It

Is Daylight Saving Time annoying? Millions of Germans say, ja.

The notoriously time-conscious nation is behind a new initiative from the European Parliament to end the practice of pushing clocks forward by one hour in the spring (which will occur this Sunday in Europe), and back by one hour in the fall.

On Tuesday, the Parliament voted in favor of stopping the practice by 2021, following a poll last year from the EU in which 84% of the respondents voted in favor of reverting to one time year-round. The law must now be passed by national governments.

The debate isn’t just limited to Europe. Earlier this month, U.S. President Donald Trump endorsed ending the changing of the clocks in a tweet.

European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker is a force behind the movement, having vowed to back the end of Daylight Saving Time in September last year, after the results of the poll were released. The survey proved it was the will of the people, he declared; “Clock-changing must stop.”

But in reality, it was mostly just the will of the Germans.

Out of 4.6 million responders to the poll, 3 million were German. (The country accounts for about one-sixth of the EU’s total population.)

But it is fitting that Germany should have a starring role in the death of Daylight Saving Time (DST), or as it’s known in Germany, sommerzeit (literally, ‘summer time’.) After all, it gave birth to the practice in the spring of 1916.

A wartime history

The ‘invention’ of DST is often debated. Some attribute it to Benjamin Franklin, after he jokingly suggested it as a strategy for tackling Parisians’ love of sleeping in. Others say the creator was a entomologist from New Zealand who wanted more after-work hours for insect collecting. Don’t we all.

But DST was first widely practiced in the midst of World War I, when the German government ordered pushing the clock back by an hour to gain an extra hour of evening daylight and, in turn, save on coal that was used to keep the war running. The practice was adopted by both allies and adversaries of Germany that were just as desperate to save energy, but it was quickly dropped after the war’s end.

During World War II, Adolf Hitler reintroduced the practice, again to save energy. After the war, the practice was unevenly adopted across a divided Germany, with occupied Berlin even briefly jumping ahead by two hours in 1945, to track the time in Moscow.

DST’s pros and cons

Since then, Daylight Saving Time has gone in and out of style in Germany and the rest of the world, usually finding favor in times of crisis or energy shortages, including after the 1970s oil embargo. It was only adopted in its current, country-wide form in Germany in 2002.

The natural argument for Daylight Saving Time as a result been energy savings, but the benefits are now inconclusive, with some arguing the energy or economic gains of an extra hour in the spring are cancelled out by the removal of that hour in the fall. Some make the case that DST in the fall extends daylight in the winter, making dark winter evenings more bearable.

The arguments against, meanwhile, include the risks of a slightly sleep-deprived population: some claim the days after a time change bring a potential rise in car accidents, a decline in productivity and health, and just general crankiness. Also, many argue, it’s a hassle.

“If we didn’t have the time change, and today someone would come up with the idea of introducing it, everybody would think that person was crazy,” said Peter Liese, a Member of the European Parliament from Germany’s Christian Democratic Union who pushed for the abolishment of DST, in a statement on his website.

Other politicians shared the sentiment: after Juncker advocated eliminating the time change in September, German MP Christian Lindner tweeted his approval.

“It was annoying,” he wrote.

‘Fatter, stupider and grumpier’?

Even still, the issue hasn’t been without controversy in Germany.

In the fall, as the rule was being debated, Till Roenneberg, a University of Munich chronobiologist (yes, that’s someone who studies the biology of time and biological clocks), was quoted in the Zeit newspaper warning that the shift away from sommerzeit could be disastrous for Germans, preventing them from getting the proper night’s rest that comes from tracking seasonal shifts in light.

“It increases the likelihood of diabetes, depression, sleep and learning problems,” he said. “This means we Europeans will become fatter, stupider and grumpier.”

After the Zeit article was published, Roenneberg noted on Twitter that he was getting “the usual” hate mail, and added a custom hashtag: #cloxit.

A time saver? Not so much

At Germany’s national metrology institute, known as the Physikalisch-Technische Bundesanstalt, or PTB, the law is unlikely to cause much technical hassle. The institute is responsible for distributing the country’s so-called “legal time”—including on the two days a year when the clocks change.

“We got the same questions from our ministry: Doesn’t [eliminating DST] save us a lot of work?” said Dr. Andreas Bausch, head of Dissemination of Time at the institute. “This saves nothing. Fifteen minutes.”

From a personal perspective, the gains are even less clear. Bausch himself responded to the EU’s poll, after his daughter told him about it. He would prefer to keep the system exactly as it is, he said, noting that the loss of DST would mean one less hour of sunlight during the dark winter evenings.

As for the unpopularity of sommerzeit in Germany, he proposed a concise theory.

For many people, he said, “complaining is an extremely important part of life.”

In the U.K., meanwhile, Daylight Saving Time’s German origins have largely gone unnoticed in favor of an even more obvious opponent: the EU as a whole.

“We’ve long been aware the EU wants too much control over our lives,” John Flack, a Conservative MP said in the Guardian after the vote was passed. “Now they want to control time itself.”

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