Daylight Saving Time: Why does Germany change the clocks twice a year?
It's been a practice on and off in Germany and other countries around the world for over 100 years, but to some expats it comes as a bit of a surprise: every year at the end of March and October, people set their clocks forward and back one hour, to implement what's known as Daylight Saving Time. If you've ever wondered why we change the clocks twice a year - and if we'll carry on doing so forevermore - here's a brief explainer.
A brief history of time in Germany
All German federal states fall under the same unified time zone: Central European Time (CET) - also known as UTC+1.00. CET has been used in Germany since 1893.
Unified Germany time?
Germany has only had uniform time measurements for around 120 years. Prior to this, when the country existed only as a patchwork of independent cities, duchies and kingdoms, each area kept its own time, dictated by when the sun was at its highest, when the local church bells rang, and the timings kept by the five different railway systems across the country. This meant that short journeys across the country could take a passenger through as many as six different time zones.
When the German Empire came together in 1871, it didn't immediately lead to the standardisation of time in Germany. In 1884 the Washington Meridian Conference saw 25 countries agree on a universal world time, but Germany did not take part, objecting to the fact that the prime meridian ran through London in England, and not through Berlin. It was not until 1893 that the German Empire finally joined Central European Time.
Daylight savings in Germany
Germany has been changing the time twice a year since at least the end of the 1970s. Daylight savings is designed to help people make better use of the sunlight hours during summer and winter.
Time change in Germany 2023 (Zeitumstellung 2023 Deutschland)
In Germany and elsewhere across the world, the implementation of Daylight Saving Time (Zeitumstellung) sees the time change twice per year. Daylight Saving Time begins in Germany at 2am on the last Sunday in March, forcing people to move their clocks forward an hour as Central European Summer Time begins.
Daylight savings ends on the last Sunday in October, when the clocks are set back one hour and Central European Time resumes.
Summer time in Germany 2023
In 2023, summer time in Germany begins at 2am on Sunday, March 26.
Winter time 2023
Summertime ends and wintertime begins (or normal time resumes), at 3am on Sunday, October 29, 2023.
The origins of Daylight Saving Time (DST)
The concept of setting the clock forward and back to reflect the fluctuations of the seasons and daylight has a long history, stretching all the way to the Romans, who used water to measure time, adjusting their scales throughout the year according to solar movements.
In 1784, following the advent of the pendulum clock and other more accurate timekeeping devices, the polymath Benjamin Franklin proposed the idea of moving waking hours to align better with daylight hours. In a satirical letter to The Journal of Paris, he suggested people should wake up earlier in summer to save money on candles and lamp oil, after observing city-dwellers sleeping late into the morning and missing out on daytime hours.
Later, in 1895, New Zealander scientist George Vernon Hudson proposed changing the clocks by two hours every spring, to give him more daylight hours to collect and examine insects. In 1907 British builder William Willett suggested implementing a clock shift to save energy. Although there was interest in all of these ideas, they were never followed through.
When were the clocks first changed?
It was a region of Canada that was the first to actually implement Daylight Saving Time. In 1908, residents of Porto Arthur in Ontario decided to change their clocks to make better use of the daylight hours during spring and summer. Various other regions in Canada soon followed their example, starting with Winnipeg and Brandon in 1916.
The first countries to utilise Daylight Saving Time were Germany and Austria, which both implemented the policy on April 30, 1916. This was two years into World War I, and the logic was to reduce the use of artificial lighting, to save fuel and energy for the war effort. Seeing sense in the idea, other countries across Europe began to adopt the same practice. However, most returned back to standard time after the war, with Daylight Saving Time relegated to a wartime phenomenon.
The practice was implemented again during World War II by the Germans, who spread it to many countries under Nazi occupation, including Denmark and Poland. In the Netherlands, the Germans advanced the local time by one hour and 40 minutes, changing the time in Amsterdam from “Dutch Time” to Central European Summer Time (CEST). Again, Daylight Saving Time was used to conserve energy and fuel during wartime.
Daylight Savings Time was implemented again in the 1970s
After World War II many countries scrapped the practice, once again dismissing it as a wartime phenomenon.
DST was then reintroduced amid another world crisis: in October 1973, the Organisation of Arab Petroleum Exporting Countries imposed an oil embargo, causing energy prices to skyrocket. With energy savings once again high on the agenda, France was the first to revive DST in 1976. By the end of the 1970s, most of Europe was back in the habit of changing the clocks twice a year, Germany included.
In 1996, the European Union standardised the Daylight Saving Time schedule across the bloc, in a directive that is still in force today, covering the whole European Economic Area (EEA) except Iceland, but including Switzerland. The directive stipulates that the clock is set forward one hour at 1am on the last Sunday of March, before being set back to standard time at 1am on the last Sunday of October.
Europe wants to ditch the time change - but can't agree on which time to keep
Nowadays, just shy of 40 percent of countries around the world use Daylight Saving Time. Those that do are typically countries at a greater distance from the Equator, who want to make better use of daylight during seasonal fluctuations. Some countries implement it due to research that shows that people have fewer accidents while driving when there is more daylight. Other studies, however, have shown that it could have a detrimental effect on health and circadian rhythms.
The issue has long been on the agenda in Europe. Indeed, on March 26, 2019, after years of debate, the European Parliament voted in favour of scrapping Daylight Saving Time in the European Union permanently. However, the project has stalled because member states cannot agree on whether to permanently adopt summer or winter time.
In Germany, a move to drop the seasonal clock changes would most likely be warmly received. Back in 2021, a representative survey by polling institute YouGov found that 71 percent of Germans were in favour of abolishing clock changes, while only 18 percent wanted to keep Daylight Saving Time. But with the war in Ukraine and the consequent energy crisis pushing the issue onto the back burner, it seems we'll have to live with the clock changes for a while longer yet.