September 30, 2022 - 10:05am

“Bring an extra jumper, we can’t afford to heat the house properly this year,” was my aunt’s cheerful advice when I told her I’d drop by on my annual Christmas visit to Germany. She lives in Thuringia, in the former East of the country. Like her, many people there are deeply concerned about the coming winter — the mood has reached a tipping point, which is spilling into politics.

A new poll showed that the Right-wing populist party Alternative für Deutschland (AfD) would emerge as the strongest political force in the former East Germany were elections held now. 27% of people there would vote for them while only 12% of former West Germans would.

While the AfD has long enjoyed higher support from voters in the east than in the west, the latest figures still show a remarkable swing. Take my native state of Brandenburg: in the general election last year, the Social Democratic Party (SPD) under Olaf Scholz won there, gaining 30%. The AfD came in second with 18%. Now the parties are neck and neck with 24% each.

The AfD has seen a steady rise in popularity since June when the energy crisis gathered speed and Russia first began cutting its gas deliveries through the Nord Stream 1 pipeline. Electricity prices are now twice as high as they were at the beginning of the year, driven up by gas costs which have more than doubled since the end of June alone.

“This difficult time is reflected in the polls,” said the General Secretary of Brandenburg’s SPD branch David Kolesnyk, “People expect answers as to how they can get through the winter.” Such answers are promised by the AfD, whose chairman Tino Chrupalla is hoping for a ‘hot autumn’ of discontent.

His new “Our Country First” campaign demands a bundle of measures to fix the energy prices, including an end to sanctions on Russia, the scrapping of green taxes on fuel and gas, the temporary scrapping of VAT on fuels and food, as well as the full exploitation of all domestic energy resources.

This radical programme is appealing to more people in the former East because the economic situation there is much worse than in the former West. People in the former West still earn around €500 a month more than their compatriots in the former East while the costs of living is nearly the same. Pensioners get €176 less.

Unemployment has also always been higher in the east. Now that energy prices are beginning to erode local businesses there, they have begun to cut working hours or lay off staff. My aunt, who works in the car industry, has been asked to take all of her remaining annual leave. Following that, her hours will be reduced in an effort to save the company.

As livelihoods erode at startling speed, Berlin seems to be slow to respond. Many people in east Germany feel forgotten and belittled. Meanwhile, the AfD has built a local network of party activists who organise protest marches and events in the places where anger is building up. In contrast to the ruling coalition in Berlin they get their messages across, loud and clear.

The government has already committed €100 billion to help deal with rising energy prices, and it is currently debating how and if they should invest up to €200 billion more. But, so far, the plans have taken too long to have a tangible effect on the ground.

Chancellor Olaf Scholz promised Germans: “You’ll never walk alone.” It was a message intended to reassure all his citizens that nobody will be left behind this winter. It will take more than words to convince those planning for a cold Christmas that he means it.

Katja Hoyer is a German-British historian and writer. She is the author, most recently, of Beyond the Wall: East Germany, 1949-1990.