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Why Germany’s farmer protests are so unusual

Farmers protest in Berlin near the Brandenburg Gate on Monday. Credit: Getty

January 9, 2024 - 1:30pm

Lenin is reported to have joked that “when German revolutionaries have to capture a railway station, they first buy platform tickets at the booking-office.” Stereotypes are dangerous things, but the claim that Germans are less prone to revolutionary outbreaks than, say, the French is not entirely without merit. 

It is therefore no coincidence that the ongoing German farmer protests are worrying the coalition government. The farmers, who kicked off a week-long series of national protests yesterday, are primarily demonstrating against the reduction of certain tax exemptions, particularly in the area of diesel use for agricultural purposes. 

This economic issue, however, must be seen in a broader context. The German agricultural sector is in surprisingly good economic shape if measured by income level. In 2023, independent farmers made an average profit before tax of €82,000, and the diesel subsidies are only 5% of all subsidies — hardly a life-threatening government measure. Yet this is precisely why these protests have the potential to become a real problem for Olaf Scholz and Vice Chancellor Robert Habeck: they are not primarily economic in nature. 

By taking to the streets, farmers are amplifying a growing dissatisfaction among the German people towards Scholz’s administration. Flash surveys taken in areas affected by the protests reveal significant support for the farmers, despite the resulting traffic inconveniences. It is doubtful that this support is caused merely by concern for Germany’s agricultural sector: more likely is that it also represents a fear of yet losing another industry that has historically been important for national identity. The decay of industry and infrastructure, rising energy costs and a general sense of decline are also fuelling these protests, which may yet grow into something larger.

Both sides of the political aisle realise this, and are trying to capitalise on public anger. For example, in Saxony the Right-wing AfD is preparing meals for the protesting farmers, while Green politician Habeck has taken to Instagram to warn that the protests could be hijacked by extremists and funded by Vladimir Putin. 

So far, though, the farmers appear to have gained the upper hand. The governors of the states of Mecklenburg-Vorpommern and Lower Saxony have publicly thrown their support behind the protesters’ demands, despite being members of Scholz’s Social Democratic Party. The Chancellor himself is keeping surprisingly quiet, an indicator that he is unsure in which direction the wind will ultimately blow. As the demonstrations show no sign of ending soon, it is clear that the prior reluctance of Germans to protest in the streets has faded away. Even if they might still buy a ticket to get there.

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Katharine Eyre
Katharine Eyre
6 months ago

“The Chancellor himself is keeping surprisingly quiet..”
This is about the least surprising thing about the entire episode. Just like Merkel’s way of sitting back and letting things unfold (or get out of control, depending on which way you look at it) became a verb (“merkeln”, meaning “to merkel”), “scholzing” is now an accurate description of the Bundeskanzler’s annoying habit of standing there smirking when serious things happen.
I think he wants it to seem mercurial, like he is weighing stuff up carefully…but I think more often than not, he’s just clueless. In any case, his commitment to “scholzing” doesn’t do anything for the confidence levels the German public has in his leadership (very, very low).

AC Harper
AC Harper
6 months ago

Unfortunately such protests are no real threat to The Powers That Be. The Yellow Vests in France were no real threat either. The farmers in the Netherlands created a new political party – and that was a threat.
The risk for the German Chancellor is that he shows a reaction or over-reaction (e.g. Justin Trudeau and the truckers in Canada) which diminishes him. So “keeping surprisingly quiet” is no surprise at all.

Graham Stull
Graham Stull
6 months ago
Reply to  AC Harper

The threat is from the AfD. They are the leading political party in three of the 16 federal states and gaining rapidly in others. Remember, in the FRG states matter a lot – it is they who vote in the Parlament’s upper house.

Jeremy Bray
Jeremy Bray
6 months ago

There is an article on the BBC website Future to the effect that when 3.5% of a countries population is willing to actively bring the country to a halt to achieve their objective then they will achieve their objective more often than violent protests. I suspect the farmers do not command that critical element of 3.5% active support yet.

Alex Lekas
Alex Lekas
6 months ago

In monetary terms, the subsidy may not be a huge deal but govt’s have this habit of not stopping – today, it’s this 5% of subsidies; tomorrow, it’s 5% or more of some other subsidy. One might ask whether all the subsidies amount to the agricultural version of corporate welfare, but that’s another matter for another time.
The protests give the impression of a no-confidence vote of sorts. Growers in Germany know what’s happened in the Netherlands, and they’re aware of how the eco-loons are attacking farming. I think there will be more such activities in more places as people catch on to what’s happening around them and how their lives are being upended by a very few for no particular benefit to anyone but the very few.

Paul Curtin
Paul Curtin
6 months ago

In the end they have looked over the border at the insanity of closing down private farms (held for four generations plus) in the Netherlands and the equal insanity of the Irish national herd of 300,000 being culled, (because cows fart apparently), and they see this as the beginning of the thin wedge towards them being next.
Today it’s a financial penalty then soon it’ll be made into a tool to make it economically infeasible to make a living. Watch this space.
Townies/middle class greenies implementing policies about which they know nothing?
Or more insidiously policy to drive out small farmers and hand it all over to the big global concerns.
I suspect the latter.

Hugh Bryant
Hugh Bryant
6 months ago
Reply to  Paul Curtin

The great tragedy here is that pastoral agriculture is vastly better for the environment and wildlife than the alternatives. A single cowpat can support millions of insects and wildflowers. Soybean production, by contrast, generally results in the effective sterilisation of large areas and the eradication of small rodents and snakes as well as insects.

I wonder if the climate zealots are really considering the unintended effects of their single minded focus on emissions.

Mrs R
Mrs R
6 months ago
Reply to  Hugh Bryant

Cowpats and other manure also enriches and fertilises the soil. Monoculture is killing our soil and reducing it to dust that requires massive amounts of chemicals in order to make it fertile.

Doug Pingel
Doug Pingel
6 months ago
Reply to  Paul Curtin

>>Cows farts>> I think the offending emissions are burps from the other end.

Peter Johnson
Peter Johnson
6 months ago
Reply to  Paul Curtin

Trudeau has started this in Canada talking about regulating nitrogen (in Western Canada of course) prompting the Premier of Saskatchewan to tell the Federal government that their employees will be arrested for Trespass if they go on farmers land to test without permission. You really don’t need to be too conspiratorial minded to wonder if creating food insecurity is the actual goal of all this.

Julian Farrows
Julian Farrows
6 months ago

This is all about purposefully reducing food supplies.

Martin M
Martin M
6 months ago
Reply to  Julian Farrows

Is it? In whose interest is it to do that?

Julian Farrows
Julian Farrows
6 months ago
Reply to  Martin M

Those who believe that fewer humans will save the planet.

Every progressive cause is designed with this in mind.

Martin M
Martin M
6 months ago
Reply to  Julian Farrows

So, your position is that “progressives” actually want to starve people? That doesn’t seem likely to me.

Christopher Barclay
Christopher Barclay
6 months ago
Reply to  Martin M

Who said anything about “progressives”?

Jeremy Bray
Jeremy Bray
6 months ago
Reply to  Martin M

Fair comment. I always prefer stupidity as an explanation rather than conspiracy, although sometimes conspiracy is actually the explanation.

laurence scaduto
laurence scaduto
6 months ago
Reply to  Martin M

I suspect that some understanding of all of this is in the answer to the question: Why is Bill Gates buying up huge tracts of farmland in the Mid-West?
The powers-that-be have been awfully quiet about the massive acreage that will be needed for all those photo-voltaic cells. Maybe their motivation is just that simple.

Daniel Lee
Daniel Lee
6 months ago

Europe is finally waking up to realize that the EU and its relentlessly progressivist, environmentally hysterical, unelected bureaucracy is the shadow behind the national governments and is both parasitical and increasingly despotic.

UnHerd Reader
UnHerd Reader
6 months ago

The frogs in the net zero cook pot are starting to notice the heat and they don’t like it.