The party of “the people”: co-leaders of the far-right Alternative for Germany (AfD) Alice Weidel (foreground) and Tino Chrupalla © JOHN MACDOUGALL/POOL/AFP via Getty Images

Germany’s winter of rage

Far-right parties took on the government over migration and Covid lockdowns. As energy prices start to hurt consumers, they’ve turned their attention to the war in Ukraine
September 8, 2022

In late August, Russia stopped the flow of gas through the Nord Stream 1 pipeline to the European Union at short notice, citing maintenance concerns. For German officials, who since July had already been reckoning with Russia’s reduction of the supply of gas through the pipeline, the prospect of an energy crisis took on new urgency. Speaking about the rise in energy prices, the Green politician Robert Habeck, Germany’s vice chancellor and economy and climate minister, acknowledged that consumers would feel the sting: “One doesn’t know exactly how much [gas] will cost in November, but the bitter news is that it’s definitely a few hundred euros per household.”

Alternative for Germany (AfD), the country’s populist far-right political party, jumped on Habeck’s comments. “You’re paying for his failure!” read one post on the party’s Facebook page, the text superimposed over a photo of a grave-faced Habeck. Party leaders piled on: “Our children shouldn’t freeze for Habeck’s economic war,” AfD co-leader Tino Chrupalla wrote on his own profile. Ordinary Germans will pay the price of their politicians’ decisions, they argued, implying “climate extremists” like Habeck and other Greens would rather let people shiver in their homes than ease Russian sanctions, or back down from supporting Ukraine. They announced a national protest on 8th October.

Among extreme right-wing and conspiracy-focused movements, the discussion unfolded in a similar vein. “Soon the cold police will storm into your homes with a thermometer,” wrote one of nearly 150,000 users of the Telegram channel Free Saxony, an anti-Covid restrictions group that has been categorised as right-wing extremist by Germany’s domestic intelligence service. Many there and in related movements say it’s time to take to the streets to combat what they refer to as a “climate dictatorship.”

Since its founding in 2013, the AfD has adeptly used crises, real and perceived, to mobilise voters and disproportionately shape the domestic political discourse. Over the last two years, as the pandemic eclipsed migration in the country’s political consciousness, the party’s leaders embraced criticism of government lockdown measures—and effectively joined forces with the new, and increasingly radicalised, coronavirus conspiracy protest movements across Germany.

Now, with most of Germany’s pandemic restrictions phased out in recent months, the AfD and coronavirus conspiracy movements have shifted their attention to a new topic: the rising energy prices and inflation that have hit the continent in the wake of Russia’s war on Ukraine. 

Bringing together anti-elitism, a growing focus on climate issues and longstanding sympathy for Putin, they argue that the country’s leaders are out of touch—too concerned with climate ideology and bolstering Ukraine to take care of their own citizens. As Germany gears up for a difficult winter, this messaging could galvanise these movements’ supporters in popular protests around the country—and elsewhere across Europe. 

“The AfD and the Covid conspiracy movements are now mobilising together for a so-called Wutwinter, a winter of rage,” says Johannes Hillje, a political consultant who has tracked far-right rhetoric in Germany. “The AfD uses core emotions, which are fear and rage. The rhetoric is becoming constantly more radical.”

As with many topics instrumentalised by populist far-right parties, the new focus on energy prices and inflation is based on a measure of truth: in this case, it is hard to argue with the fact that Germany, and Europe, are facing significant economic challenges in the wake of the war in Ukraine.

In July, inflation in Germany stood at 7.5 per cent, only slightly down from 7.6 per cent in June and 7.9 per cent in May. Energy prices, meanwhile, have skyrocketed: in July, they were up by 35.7 per cent compared with the previous year. These shifts mean that consumers are feeling the squeeze of higher prices, both at the supermarket and at the petrol pump.

It is also true that Germany, a country without significant natural resources of its own, allowed itself to become too dependent on Russian energy imports—a decision that the country’s officials have come to regret in recent months. Until the invasion of Ukraine in February, Russian imports accounted for 55 per cent of Germany’s total gas supply. Although the country managed to get that figure down to 26 per cent by the end of June, it will still struggle if Russia decides to cut off its gas flow entirely.

Facing the alarming prospect of an energy crisis this winter, German leaders announced a slate of measures aimed at further reducing gas usage. In July, Habeck urged Germans to cut their gas consumption, whether by taking shorter showers or not heating pools; he also proposed capping heating in public buildings at 19°C. The government said that it would allow several closed coal-fired power plants to temporarily reopen. It also considered keeping the country’s nuclear power plants in operation beyond their planned end date later this year—until Habeck concluded it would only save around 2 per cent of gas use.

Officials announced an ambitious plan to build up the country’s newly established gas reserves ahead of the winter, aiming for 90 per cent by 1st December.  By early September the reserves were 84 per cent full, several weeks ahead of schedule; but even at 100 per cent, estimates suggest this will only cover Germany’s total energy costs for two to three months. 

German chancellor Olaf Scholz has said the federal government will do what it can to offset the extra costs facing families: “You’ll never walk alone,” he declared in July. But the impact on people’s wallets has already been noticeable.

The AfD argues that the country’s out-of-touch leaders are too concerned with climate ideology

Far-right leaders argue the economic crunch facing German consumers could have been avoided if Germany had either maintained closer collaboration with Russian leaders, opened the controversial Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline or reversed course earlier on coal and nuclear energy. They blame Germany’s predicament on ideological choices made by those in power, particularly the Greens. “If the federal -government had kept channels of communication with Russia open, we wouldn’t have had many of the problems we have today,” Alice Weidel, co-leader of the AfD, recently told the German broadcaster ARD.

In many ways, this focus on energy prices and inflation fits perfectly in the populist, nativist playbook central to these parties’ and movements’ appeal to voters. At its core, populist rhetoric boils down to one basic argument: that there exists a true, pure “people” and only one party can speak for them and represent their interests. Populists essentially say that a country should put the welfare of its citizens—“the people,” or “us”—ahead of helping “them,” in this case meaning Ukraine. The AfD has made this explicit in its recent appeals to supporters: one post featuring images of top government officials reads: “They’re afraid of the people! We stand on your side!” The far left, while still critical of the government and planning its own demonstrations, has distanced itself from this language and the far- and extreme-right protests.

Over the last few years, populist far-right parties across Europe have been adept at turning major topics on the political agenda to their advantage, fitting them into this rhetorical framework. The AfD, for its part, has relied on some form of that core messaging since its founding in 2013: in the beginning, as chancellor Angela Merkel said Germany had “no alternative” in its approach to the eurozone crisis, the party based its identity on opposition to the euro while arguing it represented the financial interests of Germans against southern European countries needing bailouts.

In 2015 and 2016, when more than a million refugees arrived in Germany, the party instrumentalised migration to gain momentum: running on the slogan “Our Country, Our Homeland,” AfD leaders purported to protect the “German way of life.” During the pandemic, criticism of government Covid restrictions—a “coronavirus dictatorship,” some called it—again played on this theme of “the people” standing up to an out-of-touch government working against their will.

Ultimately, the newfound focus on energy prices—which comes coupled with intense and broader criticism of the Greens—is merely a continuation, or an acceleration, of a rhetorical -evolution that was already well underway. As the Greens have gained traction—taking up key government positions last year as part of their coalition agreement with the Social Democrats and the FDP—and with climate-related policies more prominent overall, AfD leaders are warning that “Green ideology” is a danger to the lives and incomes of Germans. “The AfD has been criticising the energy transformation for quite a while, because they deny the manmade climate crisis,” Hillje says. “The AfD’s narrative on the energy transformation is that it is an ideological project, which will only lead to higher prices.”

Lightning rod: Robert Habeck, the Green vice chancellor,  has become a frequent target of Germany’s far-right parties © Florian Gaertner/Photothek via Getty Images Lightning rod: Robert Habeck, the Green vice chancellor, has become a frequent target of Germany’s far-right parties © Florian Gaertner/Photothek via Getty Images

Lightning rod: Robert Habeck, the Green vice chancellor, has become a frequent target of Germany’s far-right parties © Florian Gaertner/Photothek via Getty Images

Much like during the pandemic, the argument centres on the idea of “freedom” or “democracy” versus an out-of-touch “dictatorship”: a government intent on taking away its citizens’ right to decide for themselves how high to turn up the thermostat or how fast they can drive on the Autobahn. As one AfD post recently said: “Cold showers can’t compensate for a completely misguided policy of sanctions and energy transition.” 

Of course, such rhetoric is most effective when a country is facing a crisis, whether real or manufactured. Ruth Wodak, a professor of linguistics at the universities of Vienna and Lancaster and an expert on far-right rhetoric, says the current situation is a perfect example of how in times of insecurity (economic or otherwise), such messages can easily find resonance among certain parts of the population. “When people feel very insecure, it is easier to mobilise them and to give them a simple narrative which they can believe in,” she tells me. “During the pandemic, and now again in respect to the climate crisis, there is a rise in insecurity and uncertainty.”

It is also difficult to ignore the role of Russian disinformation in fuelling such narratives. The AfD has generally been friendly towards Moscow, and its party leaders have maintained formal and informal ties to Vladimir Putin and his allies. Pia Lamberty, co-director of the Berlin-based think tank CeMAS, says that stance makes these groups a particularly good fit for disinformation, since Russia wants to sow discord among the electorates of European democracies. 

“This is a narrative that really worries me, because Russia has an interest in destabilising democratic societies via disinformation and undermining solidarity with Ukraine,” Lamberty, whose organisation tracks the rhetoric of extreme-right and conspiracy-focused movements on social media, tells me. “So I think they’re going to feed that more and more in the fall, hoping that societal opinion will change towards Russia, or towards not supporting Ukraine.”

Thus far, at least, the rhetoric seems to have had little impact on overall support for Ukraine among the German population. In a mid-August poll for the broadcaster ZDF, 71 per cent said Germany should continue to support Ukraine despite higher energy prices. However, there is concern that the more tangible the war’s impact gets in the everyday lives of German citizens, the more fragile that support—already a huge departure from the country’s past foreign policy—could become.

Germany isn’t the only country in Europe where populist far-right parties and Covid conspiracy movements are using energy worries to shore up support. For those in political opposition, like the AfD, the topic provides ample fodder to criticise governments for allowing prices to rise. For those in government, such as Viktor Orbán’s Fidesz in Hungary, it’s an opportunity to bill themselves as staunch defenders of national interests against EU elites.

In neighbouring Austria, the populist far-right Freedom Party (FPÖ) has taken a similar approach to the AfD. Citing the country’s inflation statistics, FPÖ leaders have alleged that the government is prepared to sacrifice its citizens’ welfare to stick to its promises on Ukraine. “How high must that rise before the government finally takes steps toward relief?” FPÖ politician Harald Vilimsky tweeted, calling for Austria to leave the EU sanctions regime and for its leaders to place price caps on food, gas and energy. Next to an image of an empty boat with hands reaching up out of the water, one viral image reads: “Now it’s about the Austrians!” Another FPÖ politician, Dominik Nepp, posted a news story about the Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelensky and his wife Olena, saying: “For this glamorous couple, the EU wants to let Austrians freeze.”

In Hungary, Orbán, who won a fourth consecutive term and another parliamentary supermajority this April, pushed a message that energy and financial security for Hungarians were his focus. “I’m not accountable before the Lord for the people of Ukraine, but for the people of Hungary,” Orbán said this spring. “Hungarian policy is neither Ukrainian-friendly nor Russian-friendly: it’s Hungarian-friendly.” He said he wouldn’t allow support for Ukraine to “destroy our national community,” whether through Hungarian soldiers fighting in the war or “the ruination of Hungary’s economy.” 

In Germany, the rhetoric from the AfD and other far-right movements will likely intensify. As energy price hikes hit more consumers, these politicians will undoubtedly continue to accuse their respective governments of abandoning “the people” when they need them most. The AfD’s support in the polls has ticked up slightly recently, reaching 12 per cent—the highest it’s been since the start of the pandemic.

The rhetoric, however, doesn’t stay at the political level; conspiracy movements have already begun mobilising in the streets. Across Germany, some of these groups are organising weekly “walks” (Spaziergänge) to protest against the government’s handling of the energy situation. These protests are especially prominent in Germany’s east, where the AfD has long capitalised on economic disparities and comparatively low wages and pensions to stoke resentment. In a region where rising prices hit consumers harder—and one with a long tradition of far- and extreme-right mobilisation—the potential for protest is high.

Hillje, the political consultant, says the new focus on energy and inflation could further fuse the AfD and the anti-lockdown protest movement. “Even stronger than during the pandemic, the AfD could now become the parliamentary arm of this movement,” he tells me. “In fall and winter, I expect the rhetoric to become even more aggressive, including calls for violence.”

By August, Hillje’s prediction had already proven accurate. In the Free Saxony Facebook group, a video did the rounds depicting a fake kidnapping of Habeck: it shows a tied-up man with a sack over his head lying on the back seat of a car. It was supposed to be an advert for an event in early August in the east German city of Heidenau, where activists planned to stage a fake “trial” for Habeck. (The event was cancelled.)

What happens this autumn and winter—whether protests are contained within a small but vocal minority—depends in large part on how the -German government manages energy prices, and whether officials can -convince the population they are doing their best to mitigate the impact. In the mid-August poll, 58 per cent of those asked said the government wasn’t doing enough to support them in the wake of steep price rises. If people continue to feel that way, more Germans may become receptive to -populist and conspiracy-minded narratives.

Officials, for their part, seem to understand what’s at stake. “If the price increases hit many people hard and we also experience a strong coronavirus wave in the fall, then there’s the potential for mobilisation and radicalisation,” the interior minister, Nancy Faeser, said recently. “Then populists and extremists will smell their chance.”