Will A Beautiful Summer Follow Germany’s Winter of Rage?

Eric Langenbacher

Senior Fellow; Director, Society, Culture & Politics Program

Dr. Eric Langenbacher is a Senior Fellow and Director of the Society, Culture & Politics Program at AICGS.

Dr. Langenbacher studied in Canada before completing his PhD in Georgetown University’s Government Department in 2002. His research interests include collective memory, political culture, and electoral politics in Germany and Europe. Recent publications include the edited volumes Twilight of the Merkel Era: Power and Politics in Germany after the 2017 Bundestag Election (2019), The Merkel Republic: The 2013 Bundestag Election and its Consequences (2015), Dynamics of Memory and Identity in Contemporary Europe (co-edited with Ruth Wittlinger and Bill Niven, 2013), Power and the Past: Collective Memory and International Relations (co-edited with Yossi Shain, 2010), and From the Bonn to the Berlin Republic: Germany at the Twentieth Anniversary of Unification (co-edited with Jeffrey J. Anderson, 2010). With David Conradt, he is also the author of The German Polity, 10th and 11th edition (2013, 2017).

Dr. Langenbacher remains affiliated with Georgetown University as Teaching Professor and Director of the Honors Program in the Department of Government. He has also taught at George Washington University, Washington College, The University of Navarre, and the Universidad Nacional de General San Martin in Buenos Aires, Argentina, and has given talks across the world. He was selected Faculty Member of the Year by the School of Foreign Service in 2009 and was awarded a Fulbright grant in 1999-2000 and the Hopper Memorial Fellowship at Georgetown in 2000-2001. Since 2005, he has also been Managing Editor of German Politics and Society, which is housed in Georgetown’s BMW Center for German and European Studies. Dr. Langenbacher has also planned and run dozens of short programs for groups from abroad, as well as for the U.S. Departments of State and Defense on a variety of topics pertaining to American and comparative politics, business, culture, and public policy.



The mood in Germany right now is as bleak as a Berlin winter. Things are indeed not going so well in this “winter of rage” (Wutwinter). The economy contracted by approximately .3 percent in 2023. Although it is predicted to grow slightly in 2024, it is last among G7 countries in growth. High interest rates, high (but now falling) inflation, lack of public investment due in part to the debt brake, concerns over energy prices and provision, and rattled export markets are all persistent challenges. Approximately 700,000 people migrated to Germany in 2023, on top of the record 1.4 million who arrived in 2022. The country now has a record 85 million people, but the issue once again tops the list of voters’ concerns.[1]

All of these developments have led to several disruptive consequences. On one hand, a wave of protests has enveloped the country over the last year. Most recently, farmers, deeply unhappy with the implementation of an EU law to cut diesel subsidies, have been shutting down highways and cities with their tractors and dropping loads of manure around towns. There have also been massive protests against the radical right and the Alternative for Germany (AfD) in response to reports about a secret meeting last year discussing the mass deportation of immigrants. And this is after the wave of disruptive actions by environmental activists (Last Generation) and numerous pro-Israel and pro-Palestinian protests after Hamas’s October 2023 attack on Israel and the subsequent Israeli military response in Gaza. The heavy-handed official response especially toward pro-Palestinian protests has also been widely noted and criticized. Mention should also be made of various strikes—most recently train drivers, but also teachers, Lufthansa employees, and bus drivers. Under the surface, wage negotiations have become much more contentious in light of flat wages and inflation.

On the other hand, there has been a pronounced fallout on the political level. Most commentators have homed in on the surge of support for the populist right-radical AfD. Having received just over 10 percent of the vote at the 2021 Bundestag election, over the last year its support has doubled to 20-22 percent according to polls. Nevertheless, the party is down 2-4 percent in the most recent polls, perhaps as a result of the anti-right wing protests. In eastern German states like Saxony and Thuringia, which will hold state elections later this year, the party is polling first at 35 and 31 percent, respectively. But we should not forget the strengthened center-right Christian Democratic and Christian Social Union (CDU/CSU) at over 30 percent nationally, or the upstart Bündnis Sahra Wagenknecht at 5-7 percent in polls and the connected death spiral of the Left Party at 2-3 percent.

There has been infighting among the three parties, the budgetary straightjacket of the debt brake/balanced budget amendment, and an inability to speedily address inflation, energy prices, and interest rates.

As important as it is to understand the parties that are up, it is just as crucial to understand the parties that are down. In fact, the three governing parties are in perilous shape at 14-16 percent for the Social Democrats (SPD), 12-14 percent for the Greens, and 4 percent for the Free Democrats (FDP). Together, the coalition parties command under one-third of voters’ support—perhaps the lowest level of support ever for a government in the Federal Republic. According to Forschungsgruppe Wahlen, only 28 percent of Germans assess the government positively (66 negatively). No government minister has a positive personal assessment except for Boris Pistorius, the defense minister, who actually leads the ranking ahead of Hendrik Wüst, the minister-president of North-Rhine Westphalia and a possible chancellor candidate in 2025, and CDU leader Friedrich Merz. Chancellor Olaf Scholz is particularly underwater with the worst personal ranking, except for AfD leader Alice Weidel, with only 30 percent positively assessing his work as head of government (66 percent negatively).

There are myriad reasons behind the government’s current struggles. There has been infighting among the three parties, the budgetary straightjacket of the debt brake/balanced budget amendment, and an inability to speedily address inflation, energy prices, and interest rates. Specific policies such as speeding up the adoption of heat pumps and introducing a more generous welfare payment (Bürgergeld) have not been universally popular. Other factors beyond the government’s control—Russia’s ongoing war against Ukraine, the Gaza-Israel conflict, and a more protectionist international economic environment—have also exacerbated the situation. Finally, Scholz’s aloof, hands-off leadership style appears increasingly problematic. As one commentator puts it, “He has repeatedly left controversies to fester and allowed his ministers to clash, only intervening when the political damage has already been done.”

Despite all these tensions, it is unlikely that there will be any major shakeups at least until the summer, after the much-anticipated European Parliament elections in the first week of June. Even then, there might be a cabinet shake-up, but replacing Scholz is highly unlikely given fissures within the SPD and the low likelihood of an extremely rare vote of confidence. Scholz would have to decide to step down, and he has given no such indication. Early elections are highly unlikely. The next Bundestag election is only nineteen months away, after all. The governing parties would be decimated if voting happened now, and the CDU/CSU probably want more time to solidify support. All mainstream parties want to wait and see if the AfD weakens further in the face of protests and heightened scrutiny by various authorities.

And maybe the strike and protest wave will soon pass. Anger eventually dissipates. Perhaps rising economic growth (about 1 percent in 2024) and falling inflation (3.1 percent from 6 percent in 2023) will improve the country’s mood. The European Central Bank could cut interest rates this year. Russia’s war in Ukraine could end and the Israel-Gaza conflict could be resolved. Biden could beat Trump. Even if all of this does happen, however, will it be enough to achieve a beautiful German summer after this bleak winter of discontent? And will it be enough to re-elect the current government in just a year and a half?

[1] Politbarometer Februar I 2024, Forschungsgruppe Wahlen e.V., https://www.forschungsgruppe.de/Aktuelles/Politbarometer/ (accessed February 17, 2024).

The views expressed are those of the author(s) alone. They do not necessarily reflect the views of the American-German Institute.