On 8 February 1994 The Independent published an obituary of the controversial German banker Hermann Abs by fellow banker Lord Roll.
Later that year The Economist pointed out that Lord Roll had underplayed Hermann Abs’s involvement in Nazi crimes. The magazine reported: “Abs was known to have taken part in board meetings of a poison-gas manufacturer, IG Farben, at which the use of slave labour had been discussed, and that he had been sentenced in absentia by a Zagreb court to a term of 15 years’ imprisonment for war crimes”. Here is the obituary.
Hermann Abs was not only the outstanding German banker of his time. He had become a legend long before his death [in 1994]. An anecdote current a few years ago illustrates this to perfection.
When he arrived in heaven Abs was shocked by the dilapidated state of everything. St Peter explained to him that heaven had been facing financial ruin for some time but, since he was the first banker to enter, they had not been able to get professional advice earlier. Abs offered to produce a plan, and within three days did so. The archangels greeted it with enormous admiration but had to confess that it was impracticable. They could not persuade the Almighty to accept the post of deputy chairman of the board of the newly founded Heaven plc.
The story is not surprising about a man who was not only “spokesman” of the managing board, later chairman of the supervisory board, of Deutsche Bank – the largest German bank and one of the most powerful financial institutions in the world – but who had sat on the supervisory boards of no fewer than 24 of the most important German companies – Daimler Benz, the Federal Railways, Lufthansa among them – and had been chairman of 20 of them. When in 1965 a law, referred to as the “Lex Abs”, was passed, limiting the supervisory boards anyone could sit on to 10, Abs’s positions were safeguarded until the normal retirement age.
A strong physical and mental constitution ensured that Abs could carry on actively into a high old age. Even in his late eighties he was to be seen at many German and international gatherings at which he immediately became the centre of an eager and admiring group, which constantly changed until everybody in the room had spoken to the great man.
Abs came of solid Roman Catholic Rhineland stock: on his father’s side, originally small farmers, later weavers, clothmakers and carpenters. With his father, Josef Abs, the family moved into the professional upper middle class. Josef went to the University of Bonn to study law. However, early on in his studies he went to England, where he spent two years as tutor to a Catholic family from Westphalia which shared the Abs family’s strong antagonism to the “Prussianisation” of the country.
Josef Abs’s stay in England gave him not only fluency in the language (he spoke French well, too), but also a lasting appreciation of the English character and way of life. This became a powerful influence on the young Hermann: he also had great linguistic talent and admiration for things English. The parental influence was reinforced when Hermann, in 1925, in the early days of his banking career, spent some months in London, doing a stage.
A similar one at that period in the United States, and later spells in France and again in the United States, gave him an early international interest and education. It was incidentally at that time that Siegmund Warburg, a year Abs’s junior, came to London for a stage. The two young bankers formed a friendship which lasted for the rest of their lives.
On leaving his secondary school, Abs decided, contrary to the advice of his teachers, on a business career. He entered a private bank in Bonn, founded by Louis David, a Jewish linen merchant. After this apprenticeship, which earned him an excellent testimonial, employment in a number of other private banks followed, in Cologne, in Amsterdam and finally in Berlin, where in 1929 he entered the highly regarded private banking house of Delbruck Schickler & Co, of which he became a partner six years later after the traumatic experience of the 1931 financial crash and the beginning of the Nazi regime.
In 1938 Abs joined the Vorstand (managing board) of the Deutsche Bank. That bank had been founded in 1870 and had become the largest in the country. In 1929 it merged with an older bank, the Disconto-Gesellschaft (founded in 1851), the second largest, and the merger consolidated the position of the combined bank as the largest in Germany. Abs quickly made his way in the bank, particularly as the expert on international business. But it was after the Second World War, in the 20 years from 1947 to 1967, when he retired from the managing board to become chairman of the supervisory board, and especially during the second decade of that period when he was spokesman of the Vorstand (board), that Abs reached the pinnacle of his national and international renown.
Not surprisingly for one so prominent in the German economy, Abs’s role during the Nazi period, including the war, has been much scrutinised. That he continued to be important in German finance and industry during the seven years from his joining the Deutsche Bank to the end of the war is undeniable. For this reason he has been criticised, mainly in extreme left-wing publications, as were very many others who resumed a respected career after the war. These criticisms were based either on the known role of some people from heavy industry (certainly not including Abs) in financing the Nazi movement or on a general neo-Marxist-Leninist analysis of imperialism and fascism.
No specific evidence for a close relation between Abs and the regime has been produced. There are, on the other hand, a number of quite precise indications to testify to Abs’s distance from the Nazi movement. He never joined the party – indeed none of the members of the Vorstand of the Deutsche Bank did so. At a later date they had to accept the appointment of a party member to the board who, however, seems to have kept party interference to a minimum. His strong devotion to his Roman Catholic faith and contact with the Vatican buttressed his known opposition to undemocratic ideologies.
His early experience in private banking had brought him into close contact with many prominent Jewish banking families – Mendelsohn, Bleichroder, Warburg – with whom he remained friendly and many of whom he is known to have done his best to help at the time of the forced “Aryanisation” of Jewish business. One notable testimonial is to be found in the autobiography of Gottfried Bermann Fischer, who, with his wife, had taken over from his father-in-law and re-established after the war the eminent publishing house of S Fischer Verlag. Gottfried Fischer speaks of having turned in 1935 for advice to Abs, “who had a negative attitude to the new rulers”, and Abs helped to secure a relatively reasonable arrangement which enabled Fischer and his wife to emigrate.
Although Abs’s personality and experience assured him an overriding importance in the management of the bank, he encouraged the rise of the younger generation from which a remarkable group of successors at the head of the Vorstand emerged, including Karl Klasen, later president of the Bundesbank, Wilfried Guth, very much schooled in the Abs tradition of foreign business and international relations (it is an open secret that he might well also have become president of the Bundesbank but preferred not to), and Alfred Herrhausen, the victim of a terrorist assassination in 1989.
While much of the modus operandi of the Deutsche Bank is the result of standards, policies and practices which have become traditional, Abs’s reign – which lasted until 1976, though in the last nine years in the modified form as chairman of the supervisory board – left a deep imprint. This is particularly true of foreign business. Abs had strong views on policy, but had the ability to adapt them in the light of changing circumstances.
He was, for example, opposed to the setting up of branches abroad, believing in the tradition of carrying on business through a worldwide network of correspondents with whom a very close relationship had been established. Yet by the time he retired the bank already had some foreign branches to which a number have been added since. He appears originally to have been hesitant about the euromarket, yet he played a most active role in the very important place which Deutsche Bank soon acquired, and for a long time held, in this market.
The vast network of relations which he maintained at home and abroad became a characteristic of his bank and its leading men. Abs was much sought after as a formal and informal adviser: to Indonesia, the Holy See, Argentina, Brazil and international institutions such as the International Finance Corporation; and whatever indirect benefit the bank may have derived from these contacts, Abs undertook the work essentially pro bono publico. His early training had also given him a considerable knowledge of many details of the banking business and this he inculcated in his colleagues and the younger men in the bank. The combination of meticulous attention to detail with lively interest in, and knowledge of, wider affairs, particularly in the international arena, is the chief legacy which he has left to his institution.
No account of Abs’s life and work can be complete without a mention of his abiding interest in the arts and in music. He was from his early years a proficient pianist and organist and, as a native of Bonn, a devoted admirer of Beethoven. He was a patron of many musicians and ensembles and music played an important part in the celebration both of his 80th and of the bank’s 100th anniversary. For many German museums and galleries – particularly the Stadelsche in Frankfurt – he secured important contributions in money and kind. Many in London will remember his appearance, well provided with funds, at the great von Hirsch auction when he secured 16 important masterpieces for German collections.
He was anxious to help the younger generation of bankers and his advice was always seasoned with wit. I remember speaking some years ago on the same platform to the Association of Young Bankers. “When I was a young banker,” Abs said, “we were taught to ask two questions of any borrower: what is the loan for, and how will it be repaid? Today we know the answers without asking: the purpose of the loan is to repay an earlier debt, and it will be repaid by another loan.” His criticism could be sharp, but, the twinkle in the eye, the soft Rhineland accent and the benevolent chuckles meant it was accepted without rancour.
Hermann Josef Abs, born 15 October 1901, died 5 February 1994
Eric Roll, Lord Roll, died in 2005
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