December 19, 2023 - 4:00pm

German farmers are angry. Thousands of them descended on Berlin on Sunday and Monday, their tractors forming long queues in front of the Brandenburg Gate. They came to protest against austerity measures, warning leaders in the capital that there would be a “very hot January” with protests “of a kind the country has never seen before.” 

Chancellor Olaf Scholz’s government is already in deep trouble. Its budget was recently ruled unconstitutional by the courts, blowing a €60 billion hole in the public purse. In the frantic search for savings, agriculture has been earmarked for an annual cut of nearly a billion euros. Farmers will no longer receive subsidies on agricultural diesel and tax exemptions for agricultural vehicles. Gisela Lörke, a dairy farmer from southern Germany, said this would cost her around €5,000 a year, “which is a huge sum when you only make €30,000 overall”.

If the government thought it could quietly get away with this because only 1.2% of Germans work in the agricultural sector, it was very much mistaken. The demonstration on Monday gives a glimpse of what is to come: loud and effective protest, with central Berlin effectively brought to a standstill as 6,600 farmers rolled into the capital in 1,700 tractors. 

The situation was certainly heated yesterday. Minister for Food and Agriculture Cem Özdemir addressed the crowds, intending to strike a conciliatory tone. “I know you have come here to Berlin with enormous anger,” he began, but was drowned out when people continued to boo, shout, whistle and ring cow bells. Joseph Holz, one of the farmers in the crowd, called him a “hypocrite” who “strangles German agriculture”.

The government would also be wrong to assume that the protest was only about the latest cuts. From the outset, Monday’s demonstration was deeply political, with people calling for early elections and an end to the coalition government.

The ramifications go far beyond agriculture. The three-way coalition is already strained due to key policy differences. Now, several ministers clearly have grave concerns about the cuts in agriculture and, as discipline breaks down, many feel they no longer have to uphold the facade of unity. 

Özdemir himself is one of the sceptics. Contrary to many of his fellow Green Party colleagues, he accepts that farmers have no choice but to use diesel for their vehicles and that it makes little sense to punish them for that. “Politics can’t overrule physical limits,” he said, as he attacked the government’s decision. Even Scholz’s fellow Social Democrats criticised the measure, with one party colleague saying the decision would hit the more rural east of the country particularly hard. 

As the government draws mounting criticism from within and outside its ranks, others are waiting in the wings to benefit. The Bavarian economy minister Hubert Aiwanger, of the Right-wing Free Voters, called for Özdemir “and the rest of the gang” to resign. In an earlier post on X, he claimed that “every good-for-nothing gets more support from the coalition than our farmers.”

Such rhetoric is likely to be well received as the farmers’ anger reflects the wider public mood in Germany. Pressure on the government will continue to mount as farmers state that they see the austerity measures as a “declaration of war” and that they mean to fight back. 

If the government goes ahead with the cuts, the result may well be higher food prices, a breakdown of the coalition, support for populist parties and continuing disruption on Germany’s streets. When German farmers say “too much is too much. It’s over now!” they speak for many, possibly even for the government too.

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