As Germany heads into an election that will see Angela Merkel step down after 16 years as chancellor, she leaves behind a country profoundly changed — and anxious about changing more.
By Katrin Bennhold
Photographs by Lena Mucha
STUTTGART, Germany — The small silver star at the tip of Aleksandar Djordjevic’s Mercedes shines bright. He polishes it every week.
Mr. Djordjevic makes combustion engines for Daimler, one of Germany’s flagship carmakers. He has a salary of around 60,000 euros (about $70,000), eight weeks of vacationand a guarantee negotiated by the union that he cannot be fired until 2030. He owns a two-story house and that E-class 250 model Mercedes in his driveway.
All of that is why Mr. Djordjevic polishes the star on his car.
“The star is something stable and something strong: It stands for Made in Germany,” he said.
But by 2030 there will be no more combustion engines at Daimler — or people making combustion engines.
parental leave in Catholic Bavaria. The married gay couple raising two children outside Berlin. The woman in a hijab teaching math in a high school near Frankfurt, where most students have German passports but few have German parents.
successive crises and left others unattended, there was change that she led and change that she allowed.
phase out nuclear power in Germany. She ended compulsory military service. She was the first chancellor to assert that Islam “belongs” to Germany. When it came to breaking down her country’s and party’s conservative family values, she was more timid but ultimately did not stand in the way.
Konrad Adenauer anchored Germany in the West. Willy Brandt reached across the Iron Curtain. Helmut Kohl, her onetime mentor, became synonymous with German unity. Gerhard Schröder paved the way for the country’s economic success.
Ms. Merkel’s legacy is less tangible but equally transformative. She changed Germany into a modern society — and a country less defined by its history.
She may be remembered most for her decision to welcome over a million refugees in 2015-16 when most other Western nations rejected them. It was a brief redemptive moment for the country that had committed the Holocaust and turned her into an icon of liberal democracy.
“It was a sort of healing,” said Karin Marré-Harrak, the headmaster of a high school in the multicultural city of Offenbach. “In a way we’ve become a more normal country.”
lingering inequality between East and West three decades after reunification is still evident, even though taxpayers’ money has flowed east and things have gradually improved. With the government planning to phase out coal production by 2038, billions more in funding are promised to help compensate for the job losses.
But as Mike Balzke, a worker at the nearby coal plant in Jänschwalde, put it: “We don’t want money — we want a future.”
Mr. Balzke recalled his optimism when Ms. Merkel first became chancellor. Because she was an easterner and a scientist, he expected her to be an ambassador for the East — and for coal.
Instead, his village lost a quarter of its population during her chancellorship. A promised train line from Forst to Berlin was never built. The post office shut down.
Mr. Balzke, 41, worries that the region will turn into a wasteland.
That anxiety runs deep. And it deepened again with the arrival of refugees in 2015.
Two Fathers and Two Sons
was up in arms, but only a decade later, it has become the new normal.
Ms. Merkel never backed same-sex marriage outright, but she allowed lawmakers to vote for it, knowing that it would go through.
Mr. Winkler left the party again in 2019 after Ms. Merkel’s successor as conservative leader, Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer, disparaged same-sex marriage. But he acknowledged his debt to the chancellor.
On June 30, 2017, the day of the vote, he wrote her a letter.
“It is a pity that you could not support opening marriage to same-sex couples,” he wrote. “Still, thank you that you ultimately made today’s decision possible.”
Then he invited her to visit his family, “to see for yourself.”
She never replied. But he and his family used to live just around the corner from Ms. Merkel, who never gave up her apartment in central Berlin. They would see her occasionally in the supermarket checkout line.
“There she was with toilet paper in her basket, going shopping like everyone else,” Mr. Winkler’s partner, Roland Mittermayer, recalled. Even after 16 years, they are still trying to figure the chancellor out.
“She is an enigma,” Mr. Winkler said. “She’s a bit like the queen — someone who has been around for a long time, but you never feel you really know her.”
The Post-Merkel Generation
Six hours northwest of Berlin, past endless green fields dotted with wind farms and a 40-minute ferry ride off the North Sea coast, lies Pellworm, a sleepy island where the Backsen family has been farming since 1703.
Two years ago, they took Ms. Merkel’s government to court for abandoning its carbon-dioxide emission targets under the Paris climate accord. They lost, but then tried again, filing a complaint at the constitutional court.
This time they won.
“It’s about freedom,” said Sophie Backsen, 23, who would like to take over her father’s farm one day.
Sophie’s younger brothers, Hannes, 19, and Paul, 21, will vote for the first time on Sunday. Like 42 percent of first-time voters, they will vote for the Greens.
“If you look at how our generation votes, it’s the opposite of what you see in the polls,” Paul said. “The Greens would be running the country.”
Pellworm is flush with the sea level and in parts even below it. Without a dike ringing the coastline, it would flood regularly.
“When you have permanent rain for three weeks, the island fills up like a bath tub inside the dikes,” Hannes said.
The prospect of rising sea levels is an existential threat here. “This is one of the most important elections,” Hannes said. “It’s the last chance really to get it right.”
“If not even a country like Germany can manage this,” he added, “what chance do we stand?”
Christopher F. Schuetze contributed reporting from Berlin.
Carmakers have been promising to scrap the internal combustion engine, and now it’s the truckmakers’ turn. But the makers of giant 18-wheelers are taking a different route.
Daimler, the world’s largest maker of heavy trucks, whose Freightliners are a familiar sight on American interstates, said last week that it would convert to zero-emission vehicles within 15 years at the latest, providing another example of how the shift to electric power is reshaping vehicle manufacturing with significant implications for the climate, economic growth and jobs.
The journey away from fossil fuels will play out differently and take longer in the trucking industry than it will for passenger cars. For one thing, zero emission long-haul trucks are not yet available in large numbers.
And different technology may be needed to power the electric motors. Batteries work well for delivery vehicles and other short-haul trucks, which are already on the roads in significant numbers. But Daimler argues that battery power is not ideal for long-haul 18-wheelers, at least with current technology. The weight of the batteries alone subtracts too much from payload, an important consideration for cost-conscious trucking companies.
online presentation Thursday, Daimler executives announced a partnership with Shell to build a “hydrogen corridor” of fueling stations spanning northern Europe. For shorter-haul trucks, Daimler announced a partnership with the Chinese company CATL to develop batteries, and partnerships with Siemens and other companies to install high-voltage charging stations in Europe and the United States.
Trevor Milton, resigned last year facing accusations he had made numerous false assertions about the company’s hydrogen fuel-cell technology.
Nikola at least demonstrated how eager investors are to put their money into hydrogen trucks. Another example is Hyzon, a maker of fuel cells based in Rochester, N.Y., that has begun offering complete trucks and buses. In February, Hyzon was acquired by Decarbonization Plus Acquisition Corporation, a so-called SPAC that raises money before it has any assets.
Tesla unveiled a design for a battery-powered semi truck in 2017, which the company has said it will begin delivering this year. Tesla, Scania and some other truckmakers are skeptical of hydrogen technology, which they regard as too expensive and less energy-efficient.
The traditional truckmakers like Daimler and Volvo have some advantages over the start-ups. Truck buyers tend to be practical hauling firms or drivers who carefully calculate the costs of maintenance and fuel consumption before they make a decision. Managers of big fleets may also be reluctant to take a chance on a manufacturer without a long track record.
President Biden has been promoting electric vehicles, but has not yet defined what that means for the trucking industry.
Trucking companies, which have depended on diesel for most of the last century, will have to revamp their maintenance departments, install their own charging or hydrogen fueling stations in some cases, retrain drivers and learn to plan their routes around hydrogen or electric charging points.
But Mr. Kedzie said that emission-free trucks also had some advantages. Fuel costs for battery-powered vehicles are much lower than for diesel trucks. Maintenance costs may be lower because electric vehicles have fewer moving parts. Drivers like the way electric trucks perform — an important factor at the moment when there is a driver shortage in America.
Many companies that ship a lot of goods, like Walmart or Target, are trying to reduce their carbon footprints and taking an interest in zero-emission trucks. “There are a lot of potential benefits” Mr. Kedzie said.
Daimler says its aim is to make battery-powered short-haul trucks that can compete on cost with diesel by 2025, and long-haul fuel-cell trucks that achieve diesel parity by 2027.
“In that very moment when the customer starts benefiting more from a zero-emission truck than a diesel truck, well, there’s no reason to buy a diesel truck anymore,” Andreas Gorbach, chief technology officer for Daimler’s trucks and buses division, said during the presentation Thursday. “This is the tipping point.”
Around the world, auto assembly lines are going quiet, workers are idle and dealership parking lots are looking bare.
A shortage of semiconductors, the tiny but critical chips used to calibrate cars’ fuel injection, run infotainment systems or provide the brains for cruise control, has sent a shudder through the automaking world.
A General Motors plant in Kansas City closed in February for lack of chips, and still hasn’t reopened. Mercedes-Benz has begun to hoard its chips for expensive models and is temporarily shutting down factories that produce lower-priced C-Class sedans. Porsche warned dealers in the United States this month that customers might have to wait an extra 12 weeks to get their cars, because they lack a chip used to monitor tire pressure.
The French automaker Peugeot, part of the newly formed Stellantis automaking empire, has gone so far as to substitute old-fashioned analog speedometers for digital units in some models.
consumer electronics, which tend to be more lucrative customers.
German economic research institutes warned in a joint report this month.
Today in Business
The crisis has exposed not only how dependent the car industry is on a few suppliers, but also how vulnerable it is to disruptions. Supply chain managers shuddered last month when an early-morning fire knocked out production at a factory owned by Renesas Electronics in Hitachinaka, Japan, north of Tokyo. Renesas is a crucial supplier of chips used to monitor brake functioning, control power steering, trigger airbags and in many other tasks.
Storms in Texas earlier in the year temporarily forced the shutdown of three semiconductor factories. And Taiwan is in the midst of a severe drought, analysts at IHS Markit warned in a recent report. Chip manufacturing requires large amounts of very pure water.
Even without a pandemic and supply chain disruptions, the auto industry is in turmoil. In the United States, sales have been basically flat since the early 2000s. Profit margins are slim. Some big automakers may not survive the shift to electric cars.
“If I were a chip manufacturer I wouldn’t start investing in a new plant unless I got free money from the government,” said ManMohan S. Sodhi, who teaches supply chain management at the business school at City,University of London.
Ford Motor said Wednesday that it would keep several U.S. plants idle longer than expected because of the chip shortage.
The auto industry has been paralyzed by supply chain disruptions before. Mr. Källenius recalled an episode when a hurricane struck Puerto Rico and shut down production at a factory that, to his surprise and pretty much everyone else’s, was the only source of a coating essential to some kinds of auto electronics.
Automobiles have tens of thousands of parts and so many layers of suppliers and sub-suppliers and sub-sub-suppliers that even carmakers have trouble keeping track of every component’s provenance.
The economics of the industry are such that only suppliers with the highest volume survive. Smaller suppliers tend to die out because they can’t produce parts or materials as cheaply as the big players, leaving the industry dependent on one or two manufacturers of high-pressure fuel lines, for example, or a certain specialized plastic.
The current semiconductor shortage may not be the last. The auto industry’s need for semiconductors is expected to explode in coming years because of autonomous driving features and the increasing popularity of electric vehicles, which are more reliant on software than internal combustion engines.
Mr. Källenius said, though, that the most sophisticated chips were not the ones currently giving him headaches. “We are missing the most simple of chips, that maybe only cost cents or dollars,” he said. “That’s holding us up from building a product that costs $75,000.”