January 6, 2023 - 7:00am

“I just don’t know who to vote for anymore. I don’t think it makes any difference,” grumbled a friend of mine when I met him for a beer in Berlin over Christmas. And he is not alone. Over the last year, Germans’ trust in politics and public institutions has imploded, a new poll suggests.

Of course, general dissatisfaction with politics is nothing new, but the poll suggests there has been an astonishing drop in the German public’s confidence in every single one of the institutions that govern them, from local administration to the European Union, which only 31% said they still trusted.

The biggest loss of confidence was suffered by the federal government and the Chancellor, who compared to last year’s poll lost 22% and 24% respectively and are now only trusted by around a third of Germans.

It would be easy to write these alarming figures off as the result of an extraordinarily difficult year for many Germans. Average inflation in 2022 was around 8% and this figure still hides a drastic increase in food prices which rose by a fifth. The war in Ukraine and the attendant escalation of the energy crisis have also taken their toll on living standards. The German state of Hesse reported, for example, that in 2022 its citizens paid over a third more on their energy bills and 27% more to fill up their cars.

But the sudden drop in trust in so many public institutions cannot be explained away by the economic situation. On a personal level, a recent poll suggested, the overwhelming majority of Germans saw 2022 as a positive year and look forward to 2023. Friends and family in Germany tell me they understand that global circumstances make it impossible for any government to restore the stability Germany enjoyed for so long.

Their issue is one of trust. They feel that institutions and the politicians that fill them are out of touch and have no interest in public service. A number of scandals throughout 2022 cemented this impression at all levels. The corruption allegations against senior EU politicians, dubbed Qatargate, reinforced conceptions of self-serving bureaucrats in Brussels. The German Chancellor was repeatedly linked to a multibillion-euro tax evasion scandal. And even at local level, trust was eroded in incidents such as the Berlin state elections of 2021, which were deemed invalid due to “systematic faults” and have to be repeated this year. Taken together, such incidents give many the impression that public institutions are plagued by corruption and incompetence.

Perhaps the most damaging factor, however, is communication. Politicians at all levels appear to be out of touch and, worse, they don’t seem to see this as a problem. When the conflict between Russia and Ukraine escalated at the beginning of 2022, the Chancellor kept such a low profile that even Germany’s public broadcaster ARD wondered: “Where is Olaf Scholz?” More recently he’s had to defend his Defence Minister Christine Lambrecht, whose “insensitive” New Year’s address, in which she talked about the war in Ukraine in front of a fireworks display, “only crowns her series of embarrassments,” as an opposition politician put it.

Germans have not only lost trust in their politicians but also, more alarmingly, in the institutions they occupy — at all levels from the local to the supranational. This should be a wake-up call to anyone in public office, as such disaffection always helps those who offer radical policies rather than more of the same. Germany, of all countries, should know never to take democracy for granted.

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