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Of The Oakland Press
No one has called for a holiday, but this weekend officially marks the birth of the automobile industry.

For the record, it was 125 years ago that an inventive German named Carl Benz applied for a patent from German officials on Jan. 29, 1886, for a vehicle driven by a small engine. “This marked the birth of the automobile. Mercedes-Benz has since had around 80,000 pioneering inventions patented,” the automaker notes on its website.

Moreover, while some historians might disagree, Daimler AG is fully prepared to support its claim to laying the foundation for the modern automobile industry that reaches every corner of the world today. It can back up its claim with the patent, which was eventually issued to Benz by German authorities and launched Mercedes-Benz. “There is a little bit of Mercedes in every car built in the world today,” Daimler AG chief executive officer Dieter Zetsche observed during an appearance at the recent North American International Auto Show in Detroit.

This weekend, Zetsche is hosting a gala event at the lavish new Mercedes-Benz museum in Stuttgart.

The guest list included figures from the world of politics, economics and society to German Chancellor Angela Merkel. The event is to be the starting point of a jubilee year with multiple activities centered on the motor car’s 125th anniversary. “The invention of Daimler and Benz changed the world for the better — and it will continue to do so,” Zetsche said recently.

As it has built some of the world’s most famous motor cars, Mercedes-Benz itself has survived war and revolution and the political division of Germany.

In fact, the company’s history is thoroughly intertwined with the history of the 20th and 21st centuries, having supplied vehicles and airplanes to the German military throughout World War I. The main street through its manufacturing complex in Sindelfingen, outside Stuttgart, was once used to test aircraft during World War I.

In the post-war years, as the German economy fell apart, Mercedes was more or less forced to merge with another German vehicle manufacturer founded by the Daimler family. When the German economy began to prosper again, Mercedes-Benz began to thrive once more, and it had already established what has proven to be an unshakable reputation for building cars of exceptional elegance and quality, which were sought after by kings, queens and even revolutionaries.

However, no matter how powerful its engines had become, Mercedes-Benz could not outrun Germany’s unhappy history. Adolph Hitler was a huge Mercedes-Benz fan and the link to Hitler has haunted the company for years, eclipsing the fact that a significant part of the company’s management was removed for being either out-and-out anti-Nazi or demonstrating insufficient loyalty to Hitler’s murderous regime.

As the company returned to its roots after surviving the bloody collapse of the Nazis, it began building elegant, eye-catching luxury cars, such as the Gull-Wing, which is now a collectors’ piece. It also tried to help atone for Germany’s wartime atrocities by paying reparations to the slave laborers forced to work in its plants and appeals of the former laborers — some Jewish — to become a regular feature of the company’s annual shareholders meeting into the 21st century.
After the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989, what was then Daimler-Benz was instrumental in the rebuilding of the center of Berlin, which had been left empty by the Cold War. Daimler has since sold to other investors but Potzdammer Platz has become the shopping district favored by real Berlin residents, both from the East and West side of the city, since it opened for business in the late 1990s.

The one post-war misstep was the merger with Chrysler, which later had to be undone at an enormous cost to the German automaker. But it’s now clear that one of the key reasons the merger failed was because of the intense desire of the combined company’s German managers to maintain Mercedes-Benz’s unique character during the merger. But Chrysler also benefits even now from technology left behind by Mercedes-Benz. Sergio Marchionne’s long-shot bid for Chrysler was, in part, launched because he was interested in the technology Mercedes had left behind in Auburn Hills.
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