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Viewpoints : Death of a Visionary : Leadership: Alfred Herrhausen was the most important banker at West Germany's biggest bank. His assassination deprives the New Europe of insight shaped by politics and philosophy, as well as finance.

December 03, 1989|DANIEL BURSTEIN | DANIEL BURSTEIN is writing a book on the future of Europe to be published later this year by Simon & Schuster. and

I mentioned to one of West German Chancellor Helmut Kohl's advisers in Bonn recently that I had been unable to obtain interviews with either Kohl or Foreign Minister Hans-Dietrich Genscher in connection with my book on the future of Europe. He looked at the list of prominent Germans who had agreed to interviews and spotted the name of Alfred Herrhausen, the chief executive of Deutsche Bank.

"Ah, Herrhausen!" he mused with reverence. "One Herrhausen is worth at least one Kohl plus one Genscher. Maybe more."

Thursday, Alfred Herrhausen was assassinated by terrorists outside Frankfurt. His name was not well known in this country, yet he may have been the most important individual in the New Germany and the New Europe being constructed before our eyes.

In an era when financial power counts more than any other kind of power in the world, the least that one could say about Herrhausen was that he was the most important banker at the most important bank in capital-rich West Germany, the country that Europeans both West and East are counting on to provide the economic muscle needed for realization of their dream of new prosperity and unity.

In West Germany, Herrhausen, 59, sought to blaze a new trail in economies of scale, building one of the world's largest banks outside Japan. He brought staid West German financial services into the modern global era. With Frankfurt-based Deutsche Bank already owning a major stake in Daimler-Benz (West Germany's largest industrial company and manufacturer of Mercedes cars), he moved aggressively earlier this year to acquire the giant aircraft and defense concern, MBB, and to merge it with Daimler-Benz.

In London on Monday, Herrhausen gave new meaning to Europe's efforts to form a single financial market by flying in to agree to buy Morgan Grenfell, one of the city's most venerable investment banking firms, for $1.4 billion. "Herrhausen swallows a bank before lunch," headlined the Financial Times in reference to the deal that symbolized the new world of borderless European financial services.

But it was in Eastern Europe where Herrhausen had the greatest impact. Many of those East Germans lined up to get their "welcome money" in the days after the Berlin Wall opened were beneficiaries of Herrhausen's personal efforts behind the scenes to ensure that cash shortages were kept to a minimum. The greatest run on banks that the world has ever seen (hundreds of thousands of East Germans got about $50 each) happened not only quietly and smoothly but without a hint of stress to the West German financial system.

While European and American politicians discuss the merits of economic aid for the Soviet Union, Deutsche Bank was the first foreign bank in Moscow to own its own building and has emerged as the most active Western financial institution there. Herrhausen arranged a $1.6-billion Deutsche Bank line of credit for the Soviets, as well as a major credit line for Hungary.

Elegant, dynamic and powerful in his appearance as well as his intellect, Herrhausen's vision was shaped by philosophy and politics as much as by finance. Criticized at times in the German press for an arrogant streak, he was nonetheless quite modest when I met him--flattering me by suggesting that he would prefer my job of interviewing and reporting on the New Europe to his own.

Herrhausen spoke his mind bluntly on that day just two months ago. As I learned of his death, I couldn't help recalling many of the things that he had said.

He told me, for example, that when asked by Mikhail Gorbachev for criticisms of perestroika , he told the Soviet leader that too many Russians, including Gorbachev himself, are talking about introducing elements of a market economy without understanding what the term even means. He then compared the Chinese reform process of starting from economic liberalization to the Soviet process of starting from political liberalization and noted that, where the Chinese were "unwilling" to take the next step toward political freedom, the Russians are "unable" to take their next step to improve the economy.

Although he wanted Deutsche Bank involved in the Soviet Union, he had no illusions about the time horizons for profitability: "It will take at least two generations. One generation is necessary to be willing to introduce freedom," he said, but it will take the next to figure out how to make economic use of its benefits.

Herrhausen was enthused about the prospects for a unified European central banking system and a common currency, which he hoped could be achieved by 2000. He said he saw no contradiction between the world's simultaneous motion toward greater centralization and decentralization, nationalism and supranational organization:

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