1. Skip to content
  2. Skip to main menu
  3. Skip to more DW sites

More and more German mayors want to quit

April 14, 2024

Across Germany, nearly 11,000 mayors shape local politics. Most of them work on a voluntary basis. Now, facing increased threats, many of them are thinking of resigning.

Frank-Walter Steinmeier addresses a group of people in Berlin
Frank-Walter Steinmeier spoke with around 80 local mayors in Berlin earlier this weekImage: Britta Pedersen/dpa/picture alliance

They represent the face of politics on the ground — but local politicians in Germany are increasingly in danger.

That was enough reason for German President Frank-Walter Steinmeier to recently warn that "democrats must not simply shrug their shoulders and accept it" when mayors and local politicians, as he put it, "no longer address certain controversial topics, delete their social media accounts, or even resign their office or mandate in order to protect themselves and their family from hostility."

Steinmeier made these remarks on April 11, when he and the Körber Foundation invited more than 80 honorary mayors to Berlin to discuss the concerns and needs of local politicians, who in Germany often work unpaid.

Ahead of the event, which was held under the slogan "Democracy Begins Locally," the Körber Foundation commissioned a survey from the research institute Forsa, which found that 40% of mayors in small towns said they or people close to them had been insulted, threatened or physically attacked because of their work. In an earlier Forsa survey conducted in 2021, the figure for full-time elected officials was as high as 57%.

Henriette Reker
Henriette Reker, the mayor of Cologne, was attacked by a right-wing extremist in 2015Image: Thomas Banneyer/dpa/picture alliance

As a result of this experience, more than one in four mayors have considered withdrawing from politics. Not only that, almost two-thirds of respondents reported an increasing discontent among citizens in their municipality. Some 35% see right-wing extremism as a major challenge for their community in the coming years.

Just under one in five reported an increase in anti-democratic tendencies in their area. That figure rises to one in four in eastern Germany, where three state elections are to be held this September.

Increasing attacks on local officials

Michael Müller felt the increased risk in his hometown of Waltershausen in Thuringia, where an incendiary device was set off outside his house in February.

Müller, a member of the center-left Social Democratic Party (SPD) still can't believe it. On the night of the crime, his car was set on fire in front of the house, and the fire spread to the facade of his family home, where he lives with his two children. All managed to escape unscathed, but the case is now being investigated for attempted murder.

Müller doesn't believe it was a coincidence that just a few days earlier he had called for a demonstration against right-wing extremists.

He views such threats with great concern, because "many people think: Is it worth sacrificing my free time for this society that threatens me in return?" At some point, he fears, "there will be fewer and fewer people who sacrifice their free time and work as city councilors, local councilors or mayors."

A representative study carried out as part of the organization Competence Network against Hate on the Net confirms similar findings for online debate: the more brutal it becomes, the more people withdraw from online discourse.

Politician's killing an 'alarm bell' for Germany

The precedents are alarming. Henriette Reker, the mayor of Cologne, narrowly escaped death in 2015. One day before the election, a fanatical right-wing extremist stabbed her in the neck.

Andreas Hollstein, mayor of the town of Altena, was also stabbed in the neck by a refugee hater in 2017.

The murder of Walter Lübcke, a local district president in Kassel, central Germany, by a right-wing extremist in 2019 shook many people in Germany. The wider public learned what some local politicians had to endure: gallows set up in their front garden, an animal carcass left in the letterbox, hate mail highlighting a child's home address and school.

Elected representatives fight back

Wiebke Sahin-Schwarzweller, mayor of the town of Zossen, Brandenburg, is a member of the Free Democratic Party (FDP). She told DW that she had been openly threatened during her 2019 election campaign. "My husband, who is of Turkish origin, was also the target of slander," she said.

Unlike top politicians, local politicians don't have armored limousines or personal security at their disposal. But Sahin-Schwarzweller is fighting back nonetheless: she has been in constant contact with Steinmeier on the issue since 2018, and has been pushing hard to raise awareness.

That work resulted in the Stark im Amt portal, which offers support to local politicians. Public prosecutors, police stations and authorities have now been sensitized to the issue.

A woman wearing a red coat stands outside a red brick building
Wiebke Sahin-Schwarzweller, the mayor of Zossen, has faced many threatsImage: Bettina Stehkämper/DW

In March 2022, the federal government presented 10 measures from the action plan against right-wing extremism, which included the protection of elected officials and a new, nationwide contact point for local politicians, due to be launched this summer.

Marcus Kober from the German Forum for Crime Prevention is jointly responsible for its implementation. "Counteracting the feeling of having to deal with this alone is a very important first step," he told DW. The second step is then to clarify whether it is a criminal offense, which authority is responsible and to identify the services available in what is now a relatively well-developed help system.

For Kober, the municipal representatives urgently need protection. After all, they take the rap for all decisions at the state or federal level. For him, they are the main engine of the democratic system. In other words, if it stutters, then democracy is in danger.

This article was originally written in German.

While you're here: Every Tuesday, DW editors round up what is happening in German politics and society. Sign up here for the weekly email newsletter Berlin Briefing.