The proposal to scrap German Unity Day sparked a wider debate about what needs to be done to boost economic growth -- no one wants to lose a public holiday, but they don't want to work longer weeks either.
Are public holidays like Ascension just an excuse to drink beer?
When Chancellor Schröder and Finance Minister Hans Eichel suggested abolishing the Day of German Unity as a public holiday, they were unprepared for the torrent of indignation that followed. They ditched the proposal as soon as it emerged that it lacked support even within their own ranks, but while the critics made it abundantly clear what they don't want, Eichel says he still hasn't heard any reasonable alternatives.
"I didn't hear a single persuasive and realistic option over the weekend," said the finance minister on Monday. "It's unacceptable that everyone objects to unpopular proposals but fails to come up with viable alternatives."
A return to the 40-hour working week?
After the government succumbed to pressure to revoke the plan, the focus of austerity measures needed to kickstart the economy shifted to the idea of reintroducing a 40-hour working week -- a contentious move in a country where the 35-working week is sacrosanct.
"Returning to a 40-hour working week would be the equivalent of scrapping eleven public holidays," said President of the German Industry Association (BDI) Michael Rogowski in the weekly magazine Focus. He also observed that both Unity Day and Labor Day could equally well be celebrated on Sunday, adding the controversial comment that Labor Day was a public holiday first introduced by Adolf Hitler.
Meanwhile, head of the Christian Social Union Edmund Stoiber proposed cutting holiday entitlement, arguing that dispensing with one of Germany's up to 16 public holiday would have little effect. "Bavaria has the most public holidays in Germany and also the highest growth", he pointed out in Bild am Sonntag
"Everyone in Germany needs to work more," he added. "That entails reintroducing the 40-hour working week on the factory floor and offices, and relinquishing our status as holiday world champion."
Forfeiting another public holiday
While the last few days have seen politicians across the board moot jettisoning just about every public holiday on the German calendar -- including Ephiphany and Pentacost -- the government has ruled out the proposal altogether.
"A discussion of Germany's public holidays was begun, but it lasted 24 hours and it's now finished," said Dieter Wiefelspütz of the Social Democrats on public broadcaster NDR. He went on to contest the nation's fixation on public holiday. "Wealth is not something achieved by sitting at home or going on holiday," he added. "Wealth is achieved through hard work."
Wolfgang Böhmer, State Premier of Saxony Anhalt, also suggested Germany has more days off than it needs, telling public broadcaster MDR that no one even knows what what the religious significance of Ascension Day is, for example.
"If Germany celebrates these public holidays simply in order to consume alcohol and without any kind of awareness of what the day means, then it's time we began a debate," he insisted.
His thoughts were echoed by Chairman of the Protestant Church in Germany, Wolfgang Huber (pictured).
"We approve steps towards positive economic progress," he said at a Protestant congress Sunday. "But we do not accept an economization of our entire national thinking."