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Germany

How Bureaucracy Got up Germany's Chimneys

Although the tradition of sending young boys up blackened chimney shafts has long been considered a relic of the past, the practice of sweeping flues in Germany is still bound up in what some consider ancient history.

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Is it time for chimneysweeps to make space for competitors?

At a recent meeting between representatives of the Federal and State Ministries of Economics and Labor one item on the agenda was the reform of what is widely known in Germany as the "chimneysweep monopoly." The very existence of such a thing in the electric twenty-first century seems like an unlikely concept, but then again, Germany is fertile ground for the sustained nurture of bureaucratic edifices.

The fact is that German chimneysweeps enjoy a privileged position of protection which is quite out of step with the free market mentality of the modern age. "We are looking at measures to reduce bureaucracy in Germany, and as a part of that, are currently examining whether the chimneysweep monopoly is in keeping with the times," Christoph Reichle, Spokesman for the Federal Ministry of Economics and Labor said.

Schornsteinfeger in Leipzig

Sweeping chimney is currently a job for life

That very process of examination has sparked flames of emotion on both sides of the fence. As a self-proclaimed justice fanatic, and staunch opponent to the continued existence of the monopoly, Paul Theisen wholly embraces any steps towards its abolition. "I had my fingers burnt with my chimneysweep and now work with a group which lobbies politicians in a bid to see the monopoly removed from our society," Theisen said.

Stuck in old ways

The problem is, as with many solid German bureaucratic traditions, implementing change is akin to igniting a brushfire. Back in the 1800's the work of German chimneysweeps was divided up into some 8,000 districts across the country. Each district, or Kehrbezirk, was appointed a head sweep, who together with his sidekick, undertook to clean the chimneys of some 2,000 homes.

But it wasn't until considerably later, during the Third Reich, that this model became a law, under which each homeowner was legally bound to have his chimney swept once annually. Although the law was reviewed in the late 1960s, little was changed.

And so it is, that still today, once initiated into the monopoly, a sweep -- there are currently some 25,000 of them in Germany -- can lean back on his brushes, safe in the knowledge that he'll be making the same rounds year in year out until his pension beckons him down from the roof and into his fireside slippers.

Legally bound

What has changed since the birth of the sweep are his duties. With the progression of technology, chimneysweeps have also become responsible for checking gas heating appliances for sinister carbon monoxide (CO) emissions.

It's a uniquely authoritarian system, but those doing the sweeping see it as the best way to minimize fire hazards and fatalities. "Compared to other European countries, the number of CO deaths in Germany is practically non-existent, and although we have nothing against the idea of free market competition, who is to say that homeowners would bother to get a sweep once a year," Christian Schmahl, an old-school chimneysweep said.

Schornsteinfeger mit Zylinder in Hannover

A happy sweep

In the case of Paul Theisen, he wouldn't. It's this legal obligation to have his heating pipes cleaned each year which has him fuming. He knows how to do the job himself and resents having to pay a fee for a man in black to make-believe. "All they cleaned out of my heating pipes was one gram of dirt. So the next time, I refused to let them in," Theisen said.

It turned out to be an expensive decision. After several rounds of petitions and letters, his dogged determination led him to the courtroom dock, where he was ultimately stung with a €4,000 ($5,350) fine.

"It is unbelievable, no other country does it like Germany. Other places have chimneys too, and they care about their people, but they do it differently. In France, if you need a sweep, you just call one," Theisen added.

An end to spoon-feeding?

The very thought of leaving the responsibility up to individual homeowners is enough to make chimneysweep Schmahl shudder. "I have been sweeping the same houses since 1979, and have built up great relationships of trust. That would all fall by the wayside if homeowners could call on any old sweep," he said.

Perhaps that is true, but in an age where democracy professes to rule, and essentially anything goes, it seems nothing short of Dickensian to be allocated a non-negotiable chimneysweep by the state. Whether they will be granted the go-ahead to continue on in their old-world ways will depend on the outcome of the current review, and until such time, the issue will doubtless continue to smolder.

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