Airing out a German phobia: the killer draft

ZugluftSign on a streetcar window in Vienna.
Austrians also fear drafts!

One definition of a split second: the time it takes between opening a window on a hot train and hearing a German say the two most dreaded words in the German language: “Es zieht!” (“There’s a draft!”) In the summer on German trains, in the days before most were air conditioned, I can remember betting with friends how long it would take before a German would close the window when the train began to pull out of the station. It was usually under 10 seconds. An open window while the train was standing still was okay, but the minute air began to flow through the window as the train picked up speed, you could hear the slam of windows being shut — even if it was 90 degrees Fahrenheit (32°C) outside!

In my book When in Germany, Do as the Germans Do, I have a chapter devoted to the most common German phobias and ailments (“Killer Drafts and Kreislaufstörung“). Sarah’s recent blog (“Blowing Hot and Cold“) inspired me to revisit the topic of “killer drafts” (“…the grim reaper’s mocking breath”). Most Europeans (it’s not just the Germans) have a deathly fear of what Americans regard as a pleasant breeze. Basically, Germans believe that a draft coming through an open window or door can kill you — or at the very least can cause ailments ranging from a sore throat to pneumonia. After suffering in stuffy S-Bahn commuter trains last summer in Berlin, and being reminded that a German would rather die of heatstroke than open a window in a hot, crowded train, I wanted to try to analyze this German phobia of air in motion.

First, you run into the seeming paradox that most Germans are also fresh-air freaks. My cleaning lady in Berlin would open every door and window in the apartment while doing her bi-weekly cleaning, even on cold winter days. Yet on the S-Bahn, she would have been one of the first to close any open window. Many Germans sleep with the windows open at night (usually protected by perforated metal Rollläden shutters). In the morning they get up and air out the place (durchlüften) by opening several windows. They’ll head out to the great outdoors and subject themselves to a 30 km/h head wind by riding a bike, but if they’re sitting in a car, the slightest draft coming through a window will put them in a panic, even if it’s the hottest summer on record!

Ah, but there is one form of outdoor moving air that also scares Germans to death: der Föhn. The Alpine Föhn, known as a “chinook” or “chinook wind” in the Rocky Mountains, is a warm, dry wind blowing out of the Alps in winter. (A Föhn is also an electric blow-dryer.) Although a Föhnwind can reach speeds of up to 150 km/h (90 mph), that’s not the chief “fright factor” for most Germans. Germans believe that a Föhn can cause various maladies, including fatigue, headaches, irritability, nausea, and — most seriously — that German favorite, Kreislaufstörung (“circulatory/heart problems”). Of course, there’s a German word for this panoply of illnesses: Föhnkrankheit (“Föhn disease”). The mental effects of the Föhn have supposedly even been used as a defense for murder (die Föhn-Ausrede).

The concept of ventilation is basically unknown in Germanic culture. I’m convinced that German schools of architecture never teach anything about natural ventilation. Although there is a German word for it (belüften / die Belüftung), the term is usually used in the sense of “airing out,” as in the typical morning ritual in German households, or for a mechanical ventilation system. But the idea of natural cross ventilation is much too close to the killer draft in German minds. Modern German architecture generally works to prevent any natural ventilation by creating many closed-off units (rooms) with serious doors (that in Germanic culture remained closed). Although the German wonder known as the Kippfenster (tilting window) is ideal for allowing natural ventilation, that is usually confined to one room, and only if the air coming coming through the window is barely detectable!

As a teacher, I have often experienced modern (and not so modern) German school architecture. I’ll never forget one hot summer day in Freiburg at a Gymnasium (high school) that shall remain nameless. It was still early morning, and not that hot outside, but when I walked into that fairly new school building, it was the stuffiest, hottest, most unpleasant interior I have ever experienced since visiting the coal-fired engine room of a ship! Of course, the students got hitzefrei (no school because of the heat) later that day. If they only knew what ventilation was, the Germans could probably avoid half the Hitzeferien days they have. (Actually, hitzefrei depends on the outside temperature, which is usually lower than the inside reading.)

So, if Germans have no concept of natural ventilation, how about some air conditioning? Well, the Germanic attitude towards air conditioning is pretty much the same as for drafts: deadly. (Having endured some American freezer-like air-conditioned environments, I can sometimes agree with that point of view.) However, once rare air-conditioned autos are now fairly common in Germany. No need to open a window! An air-conditioned home or apartment is still very rare in Germany, but then so is forced-air heating. Most homes have hot-water radiant heat. No moving air (and no ventilation)!

So, what does all this boil down to? It defies real logic. Outdoor fresh air is good, but fresh air coming through a window is bad. (Is there a German wind-flow speed limit? Below 5 mph is OK?) How did our ancient ancestors go from living and surviving in drafty tents or huts to city-dwellers who can’t withstand a drafty window? One answer: by age six, if not sooner, we humans have absorbed most of the basic tenets of our culture. German six-year-olds know about killer drafts, and nothing about ventilation. American six-year-olds know about ventilation and nothing about killer drafts. That’s why an American will never really grasp the Germanic killer-draft concept, any more than a German will ever truly grasp the concept of a good draft. – HF

Other voices:
USA Erklärt: Die seltsame Angst der Germanen vor sich bewegender Luft

6 thoughts on “Airing out a German phobia: the killer draft

  1. Ah, but don’t Americans all suffer from “peanut allergy”??


    I’ve never heard of a German with this.

  2. No Americans are big on hernias. I didn’t even know what that was as I first heard it. “Don’t carry that alone, you’ll get a hernia!”
    How you get stuff from point a to point b will be an eternal mystery to me.

  3. Aah, Volker, but you have hernias too! Oh the many German friends of mine who have suffered a “Bandscheibenvorfall”. If you look it up in Leo, guess what the translation is? Hernia, or herniated disk 😉

  4. Yeah sure we got “Hernias” as well as americans get the cold from those cold wet days. And there ARE germans who have peanut allergy, it is just that “we” are obsessed with drafts in the same way -so I think anyway- that our american cousins are with hernias.

  5. I don’t think the comparison of hernias to drafts works very well. First of all, when Americans joke about getting a hernia from lifting something heavy, they are not that serious — but it could actually cause a hernia. A draft does not cause a cold, a virus does. When a German says, “Es zieht!” it’s no joke. By the same token, people allergic to peanuts have good reason to be afraid of eating them. But being afraid of drafts is far less “scientific” than being afraid of something that can actually cause a problem. Maybe there is some American phobia that equals the German draft-phobia, but it’s not related to hernias or peanuts. – HF

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