Snarled in Germany

Editorial Notebook

September 17, 2005|By Will Englund

FROM THE forest at the edge, the little yellow truck traveled down, deeper and deeper, into the pit. It passed below the serrated gray-black edges of the seam and drove and bumped deeper still, until it was at the bottom - more than 1,000 feet down - of the open-face Tagebau Hambach coal mine, an immense monument to German energy. Here there was a towering excavator, one of six. From behind his handlebar mustache, Andreas von der Linden, a member of the mine's works council, reeled off the statistics: each machine more than 100 feet high, resting on eight mammoth tractor treads, weighing 13,000 tons, requiring 40 tons of paint, designed for a crew of five, able to dig out 240,000 tons of lignite coal a day.

A soft breeze flowed, even at the dusty, barren bottom, carrying the faint smell of coal. The efficient and powerful excavator could almost have been a symbol of Germany itself - and perhaps, in that case, it should have been no surprise that it wasn't actually working.

"The board of directors has decided to run this machine without a man in back over the conveyor belt; that's why it broke down," said Mr. von der Linden. "That's a risk they chose to take."

It wasn't, most likely, a problem that couldn't be fixed. Still, the excavator wasn't working.

Germans go to the polls tomorrow, and the government they elect will have to try to answer a fundamental question: What can be done to get Germany, the world's third-wealthiest nation, in gear again? Industry has been shedding jobs and unemployment is over 11 percent (the work force at the Tagebau Hambach mine is half what was once planned for, and the excavator crews are down from five to four). The government can no longer afford to maintain social benefits at their current level, and everything costs too much.

It could have been a crucial election, but optimism is not rampant, whichever party the voters choose. The ruling Social Democrats have enacted some benefit reforms already, and they thereby succeeded in angering the industrial workers like Mr. von der Linden who form the core of the party. The Christian Democrats talk about reducing labor costs, and ending the practice that allows pay differentials for night and holiday work to go untaxed, but theirs is hardly a revolutionary platform. Neither of the two main parties is advocating bold new directions or a thorough overhaul, and in fact the unimpressed voters may split so evenly that the Social Democrats and Christian Democrats will be forced to form a wary and back-stabbing coalition government, and hope for better luck next time.

The Tagebau Hambach mine, not far from the Dutch border, opened 26 years ago, during the last energy crisis, and is scheduled to close in 2054. Mr. von der Linden energetically took a half dozen American reporters, guests of the German Marshall Fund, from the bottom of the pit upward to the crest of Sophie's Hill, already reclaimed and the site of 300 different plant species, 10 million trees in all and a herd of goats. Wind-powered turbines along the edge of the mine sliced the breeze. Germans are serious about the environment, but that's apparently going to be of little help to the Green Party, currently in coalition with the Social Democrats yet likely to be cast out into the wilderness once the votes are counted.

Power plants that serve 25 million people burn coal from Tagebau Hambach. "If this mine wasn't running you'd be in the dark," Mr. von der Linden observed. The mine wasn't running, not at that moment.

To say that it is emblematic of Germany at this moment may be pushing a metaphor too far - but not by much.

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