ROBERT HARDMAN: Will the lights go out in Germany this winter?

On a sunny day like this, hordes of children are jumping in and out of the water while pensioners dawdle up and down the slow lane. Few have noticed that this pool is a little chillier than usual.

These public baths, among the oldest in Germany’s second-largest city, Hamburg, are as popular as ever. No one seems bothered that the management have turned the thermostat down a few notches — from 28c to 25c to be precise.

What, though, will they think, as autumn gives way to winter, if the heating goes off altogether?

A couple of hours drive away, I find that the cafes are buzzing and the mood is happy enough in the pretty town of Oldenburg, near the Dutch border. But upstairs, in the grand old Town Hall, I find Mr Mayor carefully drawing up plans which, he hopes, might just help avert civil disorder this winter.

Jurgen Krogmann has his jacket off and his windows wide open. That is because he has had the air conditioning in every public building in town switched off. Now, he is looking ahead and trying to work out how to make more dramatic savings in the darker, colder months ahead.

These public baths, among the oldest in Germany’s second-largest city, Hamburg, are as popular as ever. No one seems bothered that the management have turned the thermostat down a few notches — from 28c to 25c to be precise

These public baths, among the oldest in Germany’s second-largest city, Hamburg, are as popular as ever. No one seems bothered that the management have turned the thermostat down a few notches — from 28c to 25c to be precise

‘We really need to start conserving energy now because we will need all we can get later in the year,’ says Mr Krogmann, who also sits on the board of his regional energy company, EWE.

He is the author of a punchy 30-point energy-saving plan which is now being adopted by town halls and councils all over Germany. His cumulative list of measures already includes a ban on hot water in public places, even schools.

Visit a loo anywhere in Oldenburg’s public domain from now on and you will find that there is only cold water with which to wash your hands.

No great sacrifice right now, of course, but this is just part of a very serious programme to acclimatise 83 million Germans to the fact that there is a monumental energy crisis coming down the track.

And, a few months from now, they may not merely be facing further eyewatering hikes in energy prices, just like consumers in Britain. Here in Germany, they are very worried there may be no energy at all.

And that poses serious threat of unrest, plus severe damage to Europe’s largest economy, one wholly dependent on its energy-guzzling manufacturing sector.

The principal cause is clear enough: the war in Ukraine and bad planning. For many years, the German government has built its economy on an assumption of indefinite quantities of cheap gas from Russia.

Angela Merkel may have been the darling of a gushing Western commentariat for all those years, but it is clear that her country is now paying the price for her reliance on Russian fuel in tandem with her decision to shut down Germany’s nuclear power industry.

This month, Russia has finally switched off the gas tap, citing pre-planned ‘maintenance’ issues with the Nord Stream 1 gas pipeline. If it comes back on, as planned, on July 22, it probably won’t be for long. Everyone knows that President Putin’s overarching foreign policy strategy is to promote instability across the West.

Angela Merkel may have been the darling of a gushing Western commentariat for all those years, but it is clear that her country is now paying the price for her reliance on Russian fuel in tandem with her decision to shut down Germany’s nuclear power industry

Angela Merkel may have been the darling of a gushing Western commentariat for all those years, but it is clear that her country is now paying the price for her reliance on Russian fuel in tandem with her decision to shut down Germany’s nuclear power industry

He will, therefore, use his gas supply to cause maximum havoc across Europe for as long as the West unites against his invasion of Ukraine.

Just this week, French President Emmanuel Macron — whose country also consumes large amounts of Russian gas — warned that energy is now ‘a weapon of the war’, as he urged the French to cut fuel consumption by 10 per cent.

But it is Germany which is in the biggest trouble. Prior to the Ukraine crisis, it relied on Russia for a thumping 55 per cent of its gas supply.

And what has the governing Social Democrat/Green coalition just done in the face of a Russian gas drought? Most of its members have voted to close its last three nuclear power stations in the next five months while ramping up use of the dirtiest fuel of all — coal.

It is also hoping that its dismally underperforming wind turbines might finally get some decent wind.

Should this strategy fail, as seems entirely likely, Germany will face a stark choice: endure a disastrous winter or grovel to a tyrant. Right now, the jury is out.

There is nothing quite like a few days here in Germany to realise just how parochial British politics have become of late. It started with the pandemic when every nation looked inwards.

Britain convinced itself that everywhere else — especially New Zealand or Taiwan or, yes, Germany — was doing so much better. Since then, the energy debate — ‘heating or eating?’ — and the broader ‘cost of living crisis’ have routinely been framed as some sort of dastardly Tory plot, exacerbated by Brexit and Boris Johnson.

Indeed, to listen to Labour and the usual Remainiac suspects, you would imagine that Britain is uniquely doomed to hardship and failure.

There is just one problem with that theory. Viewed from where I am this week, Britain is looking decidedly robust. Just ask a man like Hans-Christian Lange, trade unionist, former adviser to Chancellor Helmut Kohl and author of a 2021 book on German elites.

It is a subject he knows well since Kohl happened to be his uncle. ‘The German elites love sacred ideals: the European Union or acting as a force for peace,’ he tells the Mail. 

‘That’s why they show exaggerated glee about Boris Johnson and his failure. Because Johnson had a different vision, that of a self-sufficient Great Britain, independent of Brussels. The German elites should no longer wag their fingers at others, but take the UK as a role model.’

His conclusion: ‘Great Britain is reasonably prepared for hard times; Germany is on the verge of collapse.’

Many Germans are also a little astonished that Britain is sitting on vast untapped reserves of oil and gas which we refuse to touch for fear of falling short of our ambitious green emissions targets.

Yet Germany — where the green brigade are actually in government — is now burning even more coal and has just lifted its opposition to importing gas sourced through fracking. Perhaps the bobble-hatted bedwetters of the Insulate Britain movement could come here and obstruct an autobahn the next time they want to make a point about climate change.

I have come to Germany to see how bad things are. Superficially, the situation appears calm on the German High Street. We are in what you might call the phoney war phase. Interestingly, Germany is suffering from exactly the same irritating problems besetting Britain.

The next time a splenetic Europhile tries to blame all our woes on Brexit, point out that the queues at Hamburg airport security yesterday — snaking out of the terminals and down the spur road — were worse than anything at Heathrow or Gatwick.

Point out that Germany now faces frequent shortages of commodities such as cooking oil, to the extent that one restaurant in Bavaria is now offering customers a litre of beer in exchange for a litre of oil.

‘People think it’s funny and are happy to bring their oil over,’ says Erik Hoffmann, manager of Munich’s Giesinger-Brau, who faces a schnitzel crisis because his ‘suppliers can no longer get the oil’.

The outlook worsened yesterday following warnings that the next German football season could be in jeopardy. Imagine how the Little Englanders would dress that up in Britain.

The next time a splenetic Europhile tries to blame all our woes on Brexit, point out that the queues at Hamburg airport security yesterday — snaking out of the terminals and down the spur road — were worse than anything at Heathrow or Gatwick

The next time a splenetic Europhile tries to blame all our woes on Brexit, point out that the queues at Hamburg airport security yesterday — snaking out of the terminals and down the spur road — were worse than anything at Heathrow or Gatwick

According to a report in Bild, a single floodlit Bundesliga match consumes as much power as six families of four use in a year. There have already been threats to switch off all floodlights in the city of Dresden.

Meanwhile, smaller clubs may struggle to afford the electricity bill anyway.

‘The energy prices are exploding so much that we are basically driving clubs into bankruptcy,’ warned Hermann Winkler of the Northeast section of the German Football Association.

Some, of course, will be reminded of a famous German expression for rejoicing at the misfortune of others. Given much of the smug commentary here — mocking the stupid Brits for electing a ‘clown’ as Prime Minister — it is not hard to feel the odd pang of schadenfreude.

But we should resist that temptation. For if Germany succumbs to a social and economic meltdown (or, in this case, a freezedown), then we will all be the poorer.

‘People need to understand that Germany has a special problem,’ Jurgen Krogmann in Oldenburg tells me. ‘The stability and economic strength of Germany is important for the whole continent.’

It is why he has drawn up this 30-point plan, detailing which public facilities can switch on their heating or lighting and when. In other parts of Germany, some local authorities have already restricted hot water and even traffic lights. Given that energy prices have already soared, it is not popular.

‘Since the start of the Ukraine war, there have been shortages of flour, sometimes toilet paper, noodles, cooking oil — these sort of things. But at the same time there has been an increase in prices,’ says Alicia Knaur, 27, who works at Oldenburg’s Ratskeller restaurant.

She pays €800 a month for her shared flat, of which €300 is for energy, almost double the amount at the start of the year and it is due to rise again. Her solution?

‘I do think that Germany needs to now stop spending money sending arms to Ukraine. Germany is in a very tricky situation because it wants to help in a crisis, because of its history in Word War II. But now people here really have serious financial problems and these need to be addressed.’

For if Germany succumbs to a social and economic meltdown (or, in this case, a freezedown), then we will all be the poorer

For if Germany succumbs to a social and economic meltdown (or, in this case, a freezedown), then we will all be the poorer

It’s a view that is gathering momentum. Last weekend, the leader of Bavaria’s centre-Right CSU, Markus Soder, warned: ‘Aid for the Ukraine is important. But, of course, we have to take care of our people in Germany first and foremost.’

For scholars of German politics, such as Professor Marcel Fratzscher, the president of Berlin’s Institute for Economic Research (DIW), this sort of ‘Germany first’ rhetoric is very significant.

‘That shows a clear order of priority. I would expect to see a more negative view as winter comes but it seems that Putin is succeeding sooner rather than later,’ he tells me, adding that he fears for EU cohesion once winter shortages start to bite.

His best-case scenario is that Germany will top up its storage tanks (now two-thirds full) with more Russian gas; that the state will secure just enough alternative supplies for the winter, aided by four new huge floating North Sea gas terminals; that it will be a mild winter; and that ‘we have a soft landing rather than a recession’.

Professor Fratzscher’s worst-case outlook is that Russia refuses to resume the gas flows; that the storage tanks run out; that pensioners start freezing to death while companies halt production lines and lay off staff; that unemployment rises by more than half a million; and Germany enters a recession.

Other pundits talk gravely of major civil disorder, of a winter of cold showers and extra jumpers. It is hard to envisage this as I head for Hamburg, where the city’s 30 public swimming complexes are drawing bumper summer crowds.

Michael Dietel, a spokesman for Baderland, which runs them all, explains that public baths are not a form of leisure but a central part of German life. ‘We have had one politician saying that we are a luxury, like chocolate,’ he says. ‘But swimming is an essential.’

Lowering the temperature and shutting the energy-intensive salt baths right now hardly smacks of a crisis. But shutting the doors altogether certainly would.

Ultimately, Germans will have to decide how far their duty to the Western coalition against Russian brutality outweighs their own needs. Rationed hot water is one thing. Job losses and hypothermia is another.

I should add that I meet plenty of people who do not want to cede Putin a single inch and are firmly behind presenting a solid Nato front.

Sitting in the Spitzen Gebel in Bremen, I receive an earnest lecture from Volcker, 53, who owns a local freight firm. He starts loudly reciting Churchill: ‘Just remember — “Never surrender!” ’

Nearby, I meet pensioner Gudrun Hermann who tells me: ‘We went through terrible winters after the war with no heating. We can do it.’

No one is denying that this winter will be a bleak one in Britain, too. But perhaps we might also acknowledge that we are not quite the basket case we tend to think we are — and try to avoid jokes about schaden-froid.

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