A nation transformed in 16 years of Angela Merkel begins to move on

As Chancellor Angela Merkel prepares to leave office after 16 years, her country is among the richest in the world and a broad and contented middle class is one facet of Merkel's Germany that has been central to her longevity

By Katrin Bennhold
Published: Sep 27, 2021

Young people at a Christopher Street Day parade in the eastern city of Cottbus, Germany, Sept. 4, 2021. 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. (Lena Mucha/The New York Times)

STUTTGART, Germany — The small silver star at the tip of Aleksandar Djordjevic’s Mercedes shines bright. He polishes it every week.

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 vacation and 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 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.

“I’m proud of what I do,” Djordjevic said. “It’s unsettling to know that in 10 years’ time my job will no longer exist.”

Djordjevic is the picture of a new German pride and prosperity — and German anxiety.

As Chancellor Angela Merkel prepares to leave office after 16 years, her country is among the richest in the world. A broad and contented middle class is one facet of Merkel’s Germany that has been central to her longevity and her ability to deliver on a core promise of stability. But her impact has been far greater.

To travel the country she leaves behind is to see it profoundly transformed.

There is the father taking paid 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.

There is the coal worker in the former communist East voting for a far-right party that did not exist when Merkel took office. And two young brothers on a North Sea island threatened by rising sea levels who do not remember a time when Merkel was not chancellor and cannot wait to see her gone.

“She has known about the danger of climate change for longer than we’ve been alive,” one of the brothers told me while standing on the grassy dike that protects the small island, Pellworm, from flooding. “Why hasn’t she done anything about it?”

As Merkel steered her country through successive crises and left others unattended, there was change that she led and change that she allowed.

She decided to 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.

“She saw where the country was going and allowed it to go there,” said Roland Mittermayer, an architect who married his husband shortly after Merkel invited conservative lawmakers to pass a law permitting same-sex marriage, even though she herself voted against it.

No other democratic leader in Europe has lasted longer. And Merkel is walking out of office as the most popular politician in Germany.

Many of her postwar predecessors had strongly defined legacies. 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.

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 more than 1 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, headmaster of a high school in the multicultural city of Offenbach. “In a way we’ve become a more normal country.”

Being called a normal country might seem underwhelming elsewhere. But for Germany, a nation haunted by its Nazi past and four decades of division between East and West, normal was what all postwar generations had aspired to.

Almost everywhere, however, there was also a nagging sense that the new normal was being threatened by epic challenges, that things cannot go on as they are.

The German Dream


Djordjevic lives near Stuttgart, the capital of Germany’s powerful car industry. In 1886, Gottlieb Daimler invented one of the first cars in his garden here. These days the city is home to Daimler, Porsche and Bosch, the world’s biggest car-part maker.

Arriving home after his shift one recent afternoon, Djordjevic was still wearing his factory uniform — and, beside the Mercedes logo, the hallmark red pin of the metal worker union.

Most Daimler employees are unionized. Worker representatives take half of the seats on the company’s supervisory board.

“The success story of German industry is also the story of strong worker representation,” he said. The security, the benefits, the opportunities to build skills — all of that underpins “the loyalty workers feel to the product and the company.”

If the American dream is to get rich, the German dream is job security for life.

Djordjevic, 38, always knew he wanted to work for Daimler. His father worked there until he died. “It was like an inheritance,” he said.

When he got his first job at age 16, he thought he had arrived. “I thought, ‘That’s it,’” he recalled. “‘I’ll retire from here.’”

Now he is less sure. Like other German carmakers, Daimler was late to start its transition to electric cars. Its first pure electric model was launched only this year.

Daimler’s target is to phase out combustion engines by 2030. No one knows what exactly that means for jobs, but Djordjevic was doing the math.

“There are 1,200 parts in a combustion engine,” he said. “There are only 200 in an electric car.”

“Sustainable cars are great, but we also need sustainable jobs,” he said.

Daimler is still growing. But much of the job growth is in China, said Michael Häberle, one of the worker representatives on the company board.

Häberle, too, has been at the company all 35 years of his working life. He started as a mechanic and worked his way up to a business degree and eventually a seat on the board.

Standing in one of the factories now churning out batteries for the new EQS line of electric cars, Häberle said he hoped the company would not only survive this transformation but come out stronger on the other side.

The main question, he said, is: Will Germany?

There was a time when he took his country’s export prowess for granted. But now, he said, “Germany is in a defensive crouch.”

A German Hijab


Germany’s car industry helped fuel the country’s postwar economic miracle. And immigrants fueled the car industry. But they don’t really feature in that story.

They were known as “guest workers” and were expected to come, work and leave. Until two decades ago, they had no regular path to citizenship.

Among them were the grandparents of Ikbal Soysal, a young high school teacher in the city of Offenbach, near Frankfurt, whose father worked in a factory making parts for Mercedes.

Soysal’s generation of immigrant Germans do feature in the story of Germany today. Not only do they have German passports, many have university degrees. They are doctors, entrepreneurs, journalists and teachers.

Germany’s immigrant population has become the second largest in the world, behind the United States. When Merkel came into office in 2005, 18% of Germans had at least one parent who was born outside the country. By now it is 1 in 4. In Soysal’s school in Offenbach, 9 in 10 children have at least one parent who emigrated to Germany.

Many of the teachers do, too.

“When I started teaching here, all teachers were Germans with German roots,” the head teacher, Karin Marré-Harrak, said. “Now, nearly half of them have diverse roots.”

Soysal, a Muslim, always wanted to be a teacher, but she knew it was a risk. There had never been a high school teacher with a headscarf in her state.

So when she was invited for her first job interview, she called ahead to warn the school.

It was 2018. The secretary consulted with the headmaster, who promptly reassured her, “What matters is what’s in your head, not what’s on your head.”

She got that job and others since.

It wasn’t always easy. “The students forget about the headscarf very quickly,” Soysal said. But some parents complained to the head teacher.

Once, a student asked Soysal’s advice. The girl was wearing a headscarf but was unsure about it. “If it doesn’t feel right, you need to take it off,” Soysal told her.

For her, that is what freedom of religion, enshrined in the German constitution, is all about. “The thing is, I am German,” she said, “so my headscarf is German, too.”

The Alternative to merkel


Leaving Offenbach, the next stop is Hanau. It was here, in February last year, that a far-right gunman went into several bars and shot nine mostly young people who had migrant backgrounds.

The backlash against the diversification and modernization that Merkel has overseen has turned increasingly violent. Germany suffered three far-right terrorist attacks in less than three years. The ideological breeding ground for that violence is in many ways embodied by a party that chose its name in opposition to the chancellor.

Merkel often justified unpopular policies by calling them “alternativlos” — without alternative.

The Alternative for Germany, or AfD, was founded in 2013 in opposition to the bailout of Greece that Merkel’s government engineered during Europe’s sovereign-debt crisis. When she welcomed more than 1 million refugees in 2015 and 2016, the party adopted a noisy anti-immigrant stance that catapulted it into Germany’s parliament.

The AfD is marginalized in the country’s West. But it has become the second-strongest party in the former communist East, the place where Merkel grew up.

Politically at least, Merkel’s Germany is more divided between East and West than at any other point since reunification.

In Forst, a once-prosperous textile hub on the Polish border that lost thousands of jobs and one-third of its population after the fall of the Berlin Wall, the AfD came first in the last election. Downtown, shuttered factories and smoke stacks still dot the skyline.

The 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.”

Balzke recalled his optimism when 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 one-quarter of its population during her chancellorship. A promised train line from Forst to Berlin was never built. The post office shut down.

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


Merkel’s decision to welcome the refugees was one reason Balzke stopped voting for her. But for plenty of other people, the opposite was true.

Mathis Winkler, a development aid worker in Berlin, had never voted for Merkel’s party. As a gay man, he was appalled by its narrow conservative definition of family that until only a few years ago excluded him, his long-term partner and their two foster sons.

But after Merkel became the target of far-right anger during the refugee crisis, he joined her party in solidarity.

Merkel pushed her own base on several fronts. On her watch, legislation was passed that allows mothers and fathers to share 14 months of paid parental leave. The conservative wing of her party was up in arms, but only a decade later, it has become the new normal.

Merkel never backed same-sex marriage outright, but she allowed lawmakers to vote for it, knowing that it would go through.

Winkler left the party again in 2019 after 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 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,” Winkler’s partner, Roland Mittermayer, recalled. Even after 16 years, they are still trying to figure the chancellor out.

“She is an enigma,” 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 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% 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?”

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