German Language Blog

The German culture of cleanliness: Putzfimmel and Kehrwoche Posted by on Jul 6, 2014 in Culture, Language, Traditions

Everyone I know who’s been to Germany has commented on what a clean country it is. Germany is stereotyped as being clean, anyway – although how much of this is a stereotype, and how much of it is the simple truth?

There are two words in the German language that suggest Germany has a culture of cleanliness. These words do not exist in English. Does that mean that the stereotype of Germany being a clean country is true? I will leave that for you to decide! Here is the first word:

Putzfimmel (der).

What is the meaning of Putzfimmel?

If somebody has a Putzfimmel it means they have an obsession with cleaning.

What does Putzfimmel literally translate as?

Putzfimmel is made up of the words Putz (from putzen: to clean) and Fimmel (obsession; fixation)

How would you use it in a sentence?

“Harry Styles hat einen echten Putzfimmel” – Harry Styles has a real Putzfimmel. According to this article, anyway.

What is the nearest English equivalent?

I would say “Clean-freak”, although this refers to the person themselves, rather than the mania for cleaning. Sometimes people who clean a lot get referred to as being obsessive compulsive, but OCD is an illness, whereas having a Putzfimmel is not.

In short, there is no direct translation. Despite this, I think we can all think of someone we know who has a Putzfimmel. It is not specific to German culture. However, the next word I want to share with you is much more specific to Germany’s ‘culture of cleanliness’.

That word is Kehrwoche (die).

What is the meaning of Kehrwoche?

This is essentially a cleaning week for residents of communal apartment blocks in Germany. It originated in Schwaben (Swabia) in 1492, as part of the Stuttgart municipal law, which reads:

“Damit die Stadt rein erhalten wird, soll jeder seinen Mist alle Wochen hinausführen, (…) jeder seinen Winkel alle vierzehn Tage, doch nur bei Nacht, sauber ausräumen lassen und an der Straße nie einen anlegen. Wer kein eigenes Sprechhaus (WC) hat, muss den Unrath jede Nacht an den Bach tragen”.

(“To ensure that the city stays clean, everyone should remove their dirt (…) from their own street corner every 14 days, although only at night. Those who do not have a restroom (WC), must bring their waste to the stream.”)

The modern-day Kehrwoche works as follows:

Each week, it is a different resident’s turn to carry out tasks such as:

Sweeping the floors and stairs
Mowing the lawn
Sweeping the street outside the building
Taking out the rubbish bins on the right days
Mopping the cellar
Cleaning the windows
Shovelling snow
Watering plants

This is to maintain the cleanliness of communal buildings in a fair, orderly manner, by splitting the duties between all residents.

When it is your turn for Kehrwoche, you’ll see a sign like this appear at your door (note: this is an old-fashioned sign; they come in all sorts of designs!):


In dieser Woche ist die Reihe an Ihnen: This week, it’s your turn. Photo from WiseWoman on Wikimedia Commons under CC BY-SA 2.0

You might have a sign like this, which tells you exactly what you have to do. You may also have the responsibility of a kleine Kehrwoche or a große Kehrwoche. The kleine Kehrwoche involves tasks that can be done fairly quickly, such as taking the rubbish out, while the große Kehrwoche involves things like mopping and sweeping, and requires more time and effort. These tasks are done on rotation, so that the workload is evenly distributed.

Deciding to forego your duties during Kehrwoche has much more serious consequences than having your German Nachbarn look down on you for all eternity; you might also be breaking your Mietvertrag if you do not participate in Kehrwoche. In short, cleaning is a serious business in Germany!

What does Kehrwoche literally translate to?

Kehrwoche is made up of “Kehr” from the verb kehren (to sweep) and “Woche” (week). Literally, it means “sweep week”.

How would you use it in a sentence?

“Diese Woche ist Kehrwoche” – This week is Kehrwoche.

What is the nearest English equivalent?

There isn’t one! If we had one, we’d call it a Cleaning Week.

Personally, I think Kehrwoche is a great idea. I live in a 3-storey apartment building in England. We do not have anything like Kehrwoche here. Every so often, the council come round and tell people to move their stuff from the communal areas. They also cut the grass outside from time to time. But other than that, nothing is done to maintain the communal areas in and around our building.

Although it’s not ever that messy in our building, when there is some rubbish on the stairs, or cigarette butts piling up in an empty plant pot, nobody wants to tidy up after anyone else. There is very much an unspoken attitude of “pick up your own stuff; I’m not your maid”. The people who are tidy resent clearing up after those who are messy – and those who are messy don’t care, anyway. That means the same piece of rubbish can be lying around for ages before somebody finally takes it away. There is a guy who lives upstairs who sometimes sweeps the entire building during the night, when everyone else is asleep. He does it because he can’t stand living in a messy building.

I’d love having Kehrwoche here – and I’m sure my Nachbar from upstairs would, too.

Would you?

Some vocabulary:

To sweep – kehren

To clean – putzen

To mow – mähen

Rental agreement – Der Mietvertrag

Neighbour – Der Nachbar

Rubbish bin – Die Mülltonne

Window – Das Fenster

Bucket – Der Eimer

Street – Die Straße

Stairs – Die Treppen

Floor – Der Boden

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About the Author: Constanze

Servus! I'm Constanze and I live in the UK. I'm half English and half German, and have been writing about German language and culture on this blog since 2014. I am also a fitness instructor & personal trainer.


  1. Jessie_Irishman:

    I can very well relate with both the terminologies 🙂 But thanks for the clarification, I somehow knew they were related with cleanliness but not the exact difference. Thanks for brushing my knowledge…glad reading!

  2. Don’t tell him Pike:

    ‘Kehrwoche’ is very interesting, here in Wales women (some time ago I must admit) used to sweep out their houses onto the front step, then sweep that and the path onto the pavement then clean the pavement in front of the boundaries of their house into the gutter, so not just a German thing.