Hans Merkle

Eulogy for Hans Merkle

It is a great honor to be asked to deliver a speech in memory of one of the most remarkable men I have known. It is a daunting task as well. For those in this room who knew Hans Merkle, nothing I can say will be able to reflect his complexity and inspirational quality. For those who did not have the opportunity to encounter his extraordinary combination of dedication and authority, any description of him will, in this age of standardized norms, seem out of scale.

Hans Merkle was a man of seeming paradoxes. He was my friend, yet he rarely spoke a personal word to me. One knew one could always rely on him, yet he would have considered statements to that effect as an elaboration of the self-evident or a derogation from the nature of friendship. Merkle was an inspiring leader who moved people by his aura without having to insist on the prerogatives of hierarchy. Even while achieving enormous success in business (it is no exaggeration to describe him as the most influential German businessman for two decades), he spent much of his free time reading and developing an astonishing erudition in philosophy, history, even poetry – all without a university degree. He displayed this staggering knowledge only rarely in conversations; Hans Merkle would have considered that as so much unworthy ostentation. “One must never say all one knows,” he noted in his speech, “Service and Leadership” (Dienen und Führen).

The range of Merkle’s interests is reflected in the titles of his speeches and essays: “The Art of Prediction;” “Man, Machines, and Technology;” “Rights and Duties in the Republic;” “Service and Leadership;” “Elites and How to Encourage Them;” “Profession as Experience;” “A Critique of Technology;” “Virtue and Trust,” among many others. How many modern managers would have thought of writing an essay on the meaning of Caesar going to the Capitol on the day he was assassinated even though he had received many warnings? Did it reflect the virtue of trust in republican institutions or the sin of arrogant self-confidence challenging republican norms?

Merkle’s essentially philosophical essays did not deal with the issues directly related to his company. But they do explain its extraordinary success under his leadership, growing from sales of DM 2 billion in 1964 when he took over the reins, to DM 21.2 billion in 1985, and to DM 60 billion in the year 2000. And the smoothness of the transition after he stepped down as chairman shows that Merkle achieved his highest aim of raising management beyond the personal and imparting to his successors the standard of meticulous attention to detail, insistence on a striving for perfection and, above all, on an ethic of decency and a selection based on character, which I consider the hallmark of Bosch.

I met Hans Merkle 24 years ago at a dinner of Chase Manhattan Bank’s International Advisory Board, which took place in a New York museum. Sigmund Warburg had urged Merkle to introduce himself to me. That, however, proved easier said than done. Merkle did not want to impose himself, while I waited for him to approach me. Finally I introduced myself. And Merkle’s first words to me were: “You should know that I worked in a responsible position in a military ministry in Berlin. I did not like the Nazis, but I served my country during the war. If that bothers you, you should have nothing to do with me.”

That night at the museum laid the basis for permanent respect. For it was clear that Merkle wanted nothing less than to obscure the past. He once said that people who deny their history also reject their future. But the appropriate lessons had to evolve in the realm of conscience of the individual and of his society and not in comments to foreigners. Merkle took many actions to make clear where he stood, including the activities of the Bosch Foundation in Israel. But, true to his signature style, he never publicized them.

Hans Merkle was infinitely solicitous of his friends but became embarrassed when one acknowledged his concern as if that would destroy its moral significance as an act of grace. On the occasion of my being made honorary citizen of Fürth, the town in which I was born, Merkle appeared, having driven over two hours to get there. Only later did I learn that it had been the first day of radiation treatment for the illness that ultimately claimed his life and that he had come straight from this exhausting procedure to a formal ceremony and a boisterous lunch.

So when one writes or speaks about Hans Merkle, one deals with the incarnation of intangibles. To him, the central quality of a society or of any organization was trust (Zuversicht). Confidence results less from deliberate policy than from the intuitive acceptance of personalities who inspire by example rather than articulateness. He quoted with approval a line from Alfred Tennyson: “And trust me not at all or all in all.” The ultimate requirement of leadership was, as Merkle would quote Peter Drucker, to earn trust: “Trust is the conviction that the leader means what he says.”

Merkle always meant what he said. In his view, leadership was service; it avoids self-satisfaction during periods of success and provides inner strength to persist in times of adversity. It consists in equal parts of delegating credit for achievement while assuming responsibility for failure. The chief executive must not only outline a direction but inspire its execution. And he must never rest on what has been achieved. Thus Merkle ended his speech at Bosch’s centenary celebration summing up the achievements of the past 100 years with a warning against complacency: “We at Bosch know our worth. But this consciousness does not entitle us to lean back in our chairs in self-satisfaction. We see our challenge not in reaping what we have sown but in sowing what will be reaped tomorrow.”

In his style of leadership, Merkle confronted the root dilemma of modern society: how, in a period of rapid change, to bridge the gap between a society’s experience and its possibilities, between the preservation of what is valuable and the space needed for the emergence of the new? Societies grow attached to the familiar, but leaders must point toward what does not yet exist. Even if ideas or concepts originate with one or a few individuals, they must be internalized by those who execute them and become, as it were, their own convictions. The role of leadership is, in a sense, lonely, but the execution cannot be solitary; it must reflect a consensus. Democracy is therefore a mandate of modernity. The vitality of a society depends crucially on the interplay between the inspiration of the individual and the translation of it into the commonplace of the society or of the enterprise.

A democracy whose leaders rely only on exploiting the mood of the moment will soon drift without direction and end in dictatorship. But, equally, leadership conceived as the expression of the arbitrary of an individual will turn power into a demonic enterprise. For that reason, a well-conceived concept of national interest is less an assertion of power than a limitation of it.

Hans Merkle feared an unprecedented form of tyranny as potentially inherent in the modern technological world. Permit me to quote from his essay, “The Demonism of Power:” “It is conceivable – and perhaps we have an obligation to face it – that the demonism of power in the future cannot be related to the individual any longer. Power becomes increasingly anonymous but no less dangerous for the free evolution of humanity. Falsification of concepts is the first step toward the development of concentrations of power of a new kind – impersonal, intangible, almost ghostly; one is reminded of Kafka. And because society so emasculated will not be able to deal with social processes without some mechanism, social tasks will be assigned to organs of a new kind. The despotism of tyrants will be replaced by the despotism of the apparatus.”

Therefore, the individual’s fulfillment must not be subordinated to the demands of politics, and politics must not be defined as the sole, or even the principal, purpose of social life. The ultimate goal of political life should not be imposition of a ubiquitous, interchangeable norm but to promote independence in enterprises and for individuals. Wherever it is forgotten that political duties are, in the end, based on political rights and that these rights must be revitalized in each period, politics turns into manipulation.

Real conservatives – among whom Merkle counted himself – are not opposed to progress; on the contrary, they create the condition for progress by preserving the foundations on which to build and by warning of those steps urged in the name of progress that lead into an abyss.

The executive is tested above all when adversity strikes. A prescient quote from Merkle from 1975 may be appropriate: “Too extended periods of unrestrained growth spoil both managers and workers, distort a sense of proportion, erase distinctions, and weaken the sense for the essential, for the necessary, for the possible. They obscure the peril that threatens every society and every economy which prevails too easily without having to prove itself. If the wind changes and storms threaten, the hour of ultimate testing has come; then we will learn who can read the weather map and who is able to navigate against the wind.”

This is why for Merkle – as already for Robert Bosch – the fostering of talent was a primary preoccupation. The founder of the company had laid down in the guidelines of the Bosch Foundation, to which he had refused to give his name in keeping with the Bosch tradition of anonymity (it was so named only after his death by Merkle), that one of its principal goals was to prepare society for the adaptation of thought processes and procedures to the changes subtly latent in all societies. Foremost among these was the free and unhindered development of the human personality.

These fragmentary summaries of the thoughts of a remarkable man explain what I would describe as the “Bosch style:” total reliability, an unflagging sense of service, a dedication always to function at the frontiers of knowledge, a notion of profit based on energetic enterprise and insistent competitiveness with the proceeds always available to the common good. “To belong to the elite,” wrote Merkle, “brings with it duties rather than rights. To be sure, the performance demanded of leaders should not and does not remain unrewarded. But the goal of the effort must never be material reward. Elites should not define themselves by ruling but by serving – or better, they rule best by serving. Those who belong to the real elite do not insist on being called elites. Those who do insist on it do not belong.”

This explains the seemingly anonymous, almost impersonal, and yet, in its ultimate sense, deeply individual style of Hans Merkle. For his work to be meaningful, it could not be the expression of a personal preference; this would undermine its moral significance. It had to be a reflection of a higher obligation which evoked the sense of duty. Merkle would quote from Max Planck: “The ultimate good of which no power in the world can deprive us is a pure way of thinking (reine Gesinnung) which finds its expression in a conscientious carrying out of one’s duties.” To which Merkle added: “No more can be expected of us but also no less.”

In this spirit, I want to say a few words about the contribution that Hans Merkle and some members of his generation – at least one of whom is here tonight – have made to the rebirth of Germany and its relationship to the international community in the aftermath of the Second World War.

Biographers make much of my German birth. And it is, of course, true that one’s environment shapes one’s attitudes even in difficult times (which is why I still take an active weekly interest in the four Bavarian football clubs in the Bundesliga – although Fürth is regrettably in the second Bundesliga). But my real connection with Germany stems from the end of the war. I arrived here with the army of occupation in 1945 after a seven-year absence. Few of you present will remember the devastation, desolation, and spiritual despair of those months; it belongs to the formative experiences of your fathers and grandfathers. There is no time now, and this is not the occasion, to review the political evolution of more than half a century – though it seems like only yesterday to me.

I want to pay tribute to those who had the moral courage to start again, to rebuild their country, and to bring it back to the community of nations by the very qualities I have called the Bosch attributes: reliability, steadiness, enterprise, and an abiding commitment to democratic values. Governments of both major parties established a steady policy tied to the democratic West. In the process, America and Germany together went through two Berlin crises, the building of the Wall, and finally reunification. Occasional disagreements in tactics have never undermined the underlying unity of purpose.

And just when, on both sides of the Atlantic, the end of the Cold War had evoked a seemingly endless debate about the continuing validity of the democratic partnership, the terrorist attack on New York and Washington has returned the democracies to fundamentals. Too many of us had been seduced by the siren song of the end of history, of the reduction of politics to psychiatry and social work, and of the predominance of narrow national concerns. We have learned that there are incompatible values rampant in the world around us and that there are those so eager to destroy our civilization that they will sacrifice their lives to do so and will not recoil before the murder of innocent civilians. It has obliged the West to relearn what it had nearly forgotten: that in its unity and solidarity resides its ultimate strength. So I want to take this opportunity to thank our German friends here for the many expressions of support and compassion that reached us from all over Germany and for the highly appreciated demonstrations of solidarity from the German government.

None of this would have surprised Hans Merkle. He was born in what was then Baden, now Baden-Württemberg, but he incarnated some of the best values of the Prussian ethos. One of these is, “Always be more than you seem to be” (mehr sein als scheinen). Applied to Merkle and adapting it to one of the quotes I mentioned earlier, I would rephrase his own basic maxim this way: “Always say less than you know and always do more than you say.”

For all I have said, Merkle’s posture of aloofness did not reflect a lack of deep feeling. On the contrary, it was wrested from a deeply passionate nature. He obscured this aspect of his personality because he did not wish to impose his sentiments even on his friends. Like one of the heroes of classical drama, Merkle took on himself the battles to which he thought destiny had called him. Those of us whom he honored with his friendship therefore felt as if we had been admitted into a chivalrous order.

The emotions from which Merkle’s aristocratic conduct had been wrung can be seen in a letter he wrote in November 1944, when his hometown of Pforzheim had been destroyed in the war: “Fate would not pass this town by. But for me this place is not of brick and mortar; it is founded on quite a different kind of building block that cannot be reduced to rubble so long as the heart does not allow it. And the heart will not acquiesce. It clings to old scenes, to hills and trees, and to the memory of many days which were gifts of God and of youthful dreams. For, in the end, ideas are stronger than men and more long-lasting.”

A few months after his death, Merkle’s daughter Monika and Dr. Scholl did me the honor of accompanying me to Hans Merkle’s grave on a still, verdant hillside, shaded by trees overlooking the city of Pforzheim which had risen from the ashes, rebuilt by men and women whose dreams overcame their reality.

After that occasion, Monika graciously let me see the letter I have just read to you. I thought then how lonely a life this caring man imposed on himself, how much of the travail of others he took on himself, and I wondered whether some of us might have broken through this solitude by an act of grace.

But then I reflected that Hans Merkle lived just as he wanted. Duty was his companion, honor his imperative. He expressed this best in his essay, “Virtue and Trust:” “Confidence in the future – that virtue of the soul, as the French put it – must be fought for every day. It involves permanent exertion, a coming-and-going; yet, as we travel a path so strewn with stones, a God occasionally consoles us with a smile.”

Hans Merkle inspired many of us in traveling these stony paths and thereby vouchsafed this world an occasional smile from a God.