German military bids Merkel farewell after 16 ‘eventful’ years

With a hit by the "godmother of punk" Nina Hagen, Germany's military saluted a visibly moved Angela Merkel during a ceremonial farewell Thursday, just a week before she is due to bow out of politics after 16 years in office.

Angela Merkel at the Großer Zapfenstreich
Angela Merkel gives a speech the Großer Zapfenstreich. Photo: picture alliance/dpa/AFP POOL | Odd Andersen

Soldiers in full regalia and carrying flaming torches took part in the carefully choreographed evening event, accompanied by a marching band performing traditional military music and Merkel’s own playlist.

The ceremonial send-off came just days before Germany’s parliament is due to officially elect Social Democrat Olaf Scholz as Merkel’s replacement, putting the centre-left politician in charge after 16 years of conservative-led rule.

At the ceremony, Merkel said her four terms were “eventful and often very challenging years.

“They have challenged me politically and humanly and at the same time, they were also fulfilling.”

Alluding to the challenge of countering fake news as Germany fights the relentless coronavirus pandemic, she underlined the “great significance of trust in politics, science and societal discourse — and also how fragile all that is”.

Stressing that democracies live on “solidarity and trust — also from trust in facts”, she said that where scientific facts were being denied and where conspiracy theories abound, they must be energetically countered.

‘Highlight of my youth’

Known for her regular attendance at Bayreuth opera festival, dedicated to the composer Richard Wagner, Merkel had surprised military band leaders and political commentators alike with her unusual playlist for the military pomp.

While Helmut Kohl opted for Beethoven’s “Ode to Joy” and Gerhard Schroeder plumped for Frank Sinatra’s “My Way” when it was their turn to bow out, Merkel chose East German pop song “Du hast den Farbfilm vergessen” (You forgot the colour film) by Nina Hagen.

Asked at a press conference Thursday about the pick, Merkel said it harked back to her younger days in communist East Germany.

“The song was a highlight of my youth… The song also came from East Germany and, coincidentally, it is still played in a region that used to be my constituency. So everything fits today,” the 67-year-old said.

READ ALSO: ‘One of us’: Merkel’s German hometown a refuge from wild world

Soldiers at the Zepfenstreich
Soldiers salute outgoing Chancellor Angela Merkel with torches at the Großer Zapfenstreich ceremony. Photo: picture alliance/dpa/AFP POOL | Odd Andersen

Merkel was born in the port city of Hamburg, but her father, a Lutheran clergyman and a schoolteacher, moved the family to a small-town parish in the communist East at a time when tens of thousands were headed the other way.

Hagen, who began her career in the East, emigrated to West Germany and became a leading figure in the punk scene of the 1980s.

In the song, Hagen complains that because her boyfriend forgot to bring colour film for the camera on their holiday, “no one would believe how beautiful it was here”.

An orchestral arrangement of the song, first released in 1974, was specially written by a music corps clarinetist for the ceremony.

‘Unexpectedly sentimental’

While few were surprised by Merkel’s pick of the hymn “Grosser Gott, wir loben dich” (Holy God, we praise thy name), commentators also raised their eyebrows over the third song, touching sixties ballad “Für mich soll’s rote Rosen regen” (It should rain red roses for me) by Hildegard Knef.

The tear-jerker is “unexpectedly sentimental for a woman with the sensible, pragmatic style of government,” noted Spiegel.

Its lyrics may hint at Merkel’s future, said Spiegel, citing the stanza: “Let it rain red roses for me, let me encounter new wonders, let me unfold anew from the old.”

Großer Zapfenstreich

Angela Merkel watches the Großer Zapfenstreich held in honour of her 16 years as Chancellor on December 2nd, 2021. Photo: picture alliance/dpa/AFP POOL | Odd Andersen

The veteran leader, who once said her dream back behind the Iron Curtain had been “to see the Rocky Mountains, drive around in a car and listen to Bruce Springsteen,” has been tight-lipped about what she’ll do next.Her choices reflected Merkel’s ability to “send messages better with gestures than with words”, the German Süddeutsche daily wrote.

But she has said she pictures herself reading and maybe taking “a little nap”.

The military ceremony, known as a “grosser Zapfenstreich”, has its origins in the 16th century and is the highest tribute paid by the German army.


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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.

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

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. 


“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