How This Cleaning Tradition in Southern Germany Lives on Today

published May 22, 2023
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collage of cleaning a building entryway
Credit: Photos: Shutterstock; Design: Apartment Therapy

If you’ve ever shared a living space with others, then you’re probably used to pitching in when it comes to cleaning shared spaces like the kitchen, living room, and bathroom. One region of Germany takes this group responsibility a step further, with apartment tenants being required to take turns cleaning the common areas of the entire building. 

Known as kehrwoche — German for “sweep week” — the tradition dates back hundreds of years. And while the approach may seem a bit extra, experts say the people who participate are used to it, and that it reflects the region’s values of cleanliness and thriftiness. 

Below, learn more about the history of kehrwoche, and how it plays out in shared living spaces today.

The History of Kehrwoche

The kehrwoche tradition originated in the 15th century as a way to keep buildings clean without spending money on hiring cleaners, says Viktorija Bilic, an associate professor of German translation and interpreting studies at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee. 

While the tradition could play out differently in different residences, Bilic says kehrwoche typically involved sweeping common spaces such as halls and stairways. Each week, a different tenant had a sign hung on their door designating their kehrwoche responsibility — and depending on how many people lived in the building, they could end up doing it several times a year.

According to Germany-based culture expert Christina Röttgers, the “sweep week” tradition is specific to the southwestern part of the country. “It’s known throughout Germany for its people being very hard-working, diligent, and rule-oriented with a strong sense of cleanliness and thrift,” says Röttgers.

Back in the 1500s, one part of the region required residents to remove trash and dirt from the streets and in front of their homes to keep their communities clean. Röttgers says one area also introduced a communal law that required residents to sweep the alleys once a week — but that law was abandoned in 1988. 

Does the Tradition Still Exist Today? 

The tradition of kehrwoche still exists in the southwest region where it was established, but it’s not an official law — instead, apartment buildings or multi-tenant homes can include it as part of their rental agreements. “Of course, a lot of [buildings] might engage a cleaner instead, but as the people are quite thrifty, this might be less often in the case of the southwestern Germany,” says Röttgers.

Bilic says when she was growing up in Stuttgart, a large city located a few hours from Munich, she remembers her parents cleaning the common spaces of her apartment building a few times a year as part of their kehrwoche duty. Depending on the weather conditions, some tenants are also assigned the responsibility of shoveling snow or raking leaves on the sidewalks outside the building. (That’s known as “large sweep week.”)

“Whoever was in charge had a sign pinned to their door, and then it might not be their turn again for 10 weeks or so,” she says. According to Röttgers, some buildings use a communal calendar in a common space rather than hanging signs on residents’ doors. 

While kehrwoche is still a thriving tradition in the Stuttgart area, Bilic says she doesn’t think it’s as common in other parts of Germany; when she went to college in Heidelberg, only an hour or so away from her hometown, people weren’t familiar with kehrwoche. “But for me, it was just a normal thing,” she says.