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.
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 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 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.
“I’m proud of what I do,” Mr. Djordjevic said. “It’s unsettling to know that in 10 years’ time my job will no longer exist.”
Mr. 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 Ms. 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 Ms. Merkel took office. And two young brothers on a North Sea island threatened by rising sea levels who do not remember a time when Ms. 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 Ms. 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 Ms. 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 Ms. 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.
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.