Germany bewildered
In the aftermath of the European elections last Sunday, the German establishment has been trying to come to terms with radically altered political realities. Despite advance polls predicting a notable shift to the Right, the result still shook the country. Less than a third of voters stuck with the parties of the ruling centre-left coalition, and the Right-wing Alternative für Deutschland (AfD) became the second largest political force after the conservative Union. Young people in particular defied expectations, many turning their backs on the Greens and switching to the Right.

For the first time, 16- and 17-year-old Germans were allowed to vote in EU elections, something the Greens had strongly advocated as one of three parties in the governing coalition. Arguing that the "lowering of the voting age takes young people and their concerns seriously", they had no doubt hoped that these concerns would align with their own.

This Green push, published in the autumn of 2022, coincided with a global protest organised by the Fridays for Future "school strike" movement, inspired by the Swedish activist Greta Thunberg. According to organisers' own figures, 220,000 turned out in Germany (though the police spoke of tens of thousands). The media reported that most participants were young and demanded drastic change in energy and infrastructure policy.

Mistaking the activists as representative of their age group, the Greens believed the zeitgeist of the young was on their side. Yet it was obvious, even at the time, that the young protesters were anything but representative. Even a study by the Heinrich Böll Foundation, which is affiliated with the Greens, showed that two-thirds of the school pupils attending demonstrations described themselves as "upper-middle-class" or "upper-class". Working-class youngsters struggling to find employment with adequate pay or affordable housing had neither the time nor the inclination to sit around in public squares all day. They remained invisible.

Fast forward to June 2024 and a clearer picture has emerged of how seriously young people feel the progressive government is taking their concerns. One immediately noticeable factor is that the vote among 16 to 24-year-olds is extremely splintered. No single party received even 20% of the vote, and a third of the cohort voted for an array of tiny parties with manifestos ranging from demands for a federal European state (Volt) to political satire (Die Partei, or The Party).

But there has also been a significant turn to the Right. The Christian-conservative Union gained 17% of the young vote, up by five points from 2019 although still a lot lower than its overall vote share of 30%. The AfD came second with 16%, a huge increase of 11 points from the last European election and the same as the overall vote. Chancellor Olaf Scholz's Social Democrats only received 9%, while the Greens saw the sharpest fall from 34 to 11%.

One study that had predicted an increase in AfD voting among the young showed that their main worries were inflation, the wars in Europe and the Middle East, and expensive housing. Climate change featured on the list of concerns, but ranked around the middle between social division and old-age poverty. There was also a notable uptick in concerns around an increased number of refugees coming to Germany. In previous years, only a quarter of 14 to 29-year-olds said they worried about this. In 2024 the figure had risen to 41%.

It was always wrong for the centre-left to take the young for granted and assume that they were solely concerned with climate change and social justice. The economic and social pressures on young people are real and sharply felt, as are their fears for their own future and that of their country. If the government is as serious about caring for the concerns of young people as it claimed when it extended their vote, now is the time to prove it.
Katja Hoyer is a German-British historian and writer. She is the author, most recently, of Beyond the Wall: East Germany, 1949-1990.