Followers in Germany

Followership in Germany has been more closely studied than in any other country or culture. This applies especially during the decades after World War II, during which several eminent social scientists focused not just on Hitler, but on the numberless Germans who were his followers. Hitler’s followers included his slavish disciples and his most ardent acolytes. They also included ordinary Germans – here called Bystanders. Bystander Germans did not aggressively support the Nazi regime – though many voted for the Nazi party – but nor did they aggressively oppose it. By and large they simply went along, no matter that by the 1940s public policy had become genocidal.

That though was then. By virtually every accounting, by the 1960s the German people had undergone a transformation. Their national character had changed, different after the war than it was before the war. Among the various changes was a strong proclivity to pacifism – to the point where, even now, every time one or another politician (domestic or foreign) proposes an increase in Germany’s defense spending, the objections are as loud as they are clear.

Understandably, for the last 75 years, nearly all studies of followership in Germany have focused on Germans as political actors. After all, their willingness, in some cases their eagerness, to follow their leader, Hitler, during the 1930s and well into the 1940s had calamitous political consequences, worldwide. Moreover, as they relate to the private sector, followers everywhere have tended to be relatively quiescent. For example, during most of American history, corporate leaders led while the rest of us followed. We too, though generally more boisterous than Germans, tended to be Bystanders, with growing shareholder activism only a relatively recent phenomenon.

The more surprising, then, to discover that in the last few years some German people have prominently, and aggressively, taken on some German businesses.  There are several reasons for this, most screamingly obvious among them is that some of the largest and best known among German companies have been miserably badly led – to the point where they became not just embarrassments at home, but also abroad.

For American audiences among the most prominent of these is Volkswagen, which has yet to recover from the admissions scandal of a few years ago that cost the company tens of billions of dollars, in addition to its previously reliably good name. (The CEO who presided over Volkswagen’s deception, Martin Winterkorn, has since been indicted for fraud and conspiracy in the U.S., and for fraud in Germany.) Another German corporate behemoth that recently became something of a household name is Deutsche Bank, whose many years of financial hanky-panky with one Donald J. Trump have, at a minimum, turned into a public relations disaster. (Deutsche Bank was willing to deal with Trump long after virtually every other major financial institution was done doing business with a man they long since had pegged as a shyster.) Other German corporations are facing similar scrutiny, such as Bayer, whose share price in the last nine months dropped an eye-popping 37 %. (In 2016, Bayer, possibly to its everlasting regret, swallowed up Monsanto. It has been said that this single gulp accounts for the drop in Bayer’s share price.)

Who exactly is casting a wary eye? Followers. German followers. Germans who previously exercised no power or influence, but who in the last few years decided to flex some newly developed muscles. Who more precisely are they? They range from recently emboldened corporate (supervisory) boards, to recently emboldened shareholder activists, to recently emboldened ordinary shareholders who are finding their voice in unprecedent ways. At Bayer’s annual meeting last month CEO Werner Baumann had to put up with “dozens of tirades” directed against him, not to speak of the first ever vote of no confidence against the management team of a Dax-listed company.*

What is happening now in Germany is not dramatically different from what is happening in the United States. Just like followers in the public sector, followers in the private sector are becoming notably more involved, perceptibly more assertive. But, the fact that followers in Germany specifically are so obviously different in the present from what they were in the past, testifies to how followers everywhere are changing the rules of the game. Worldwide the consequences of these changes are far-reaching and wide-ranging – from very, very good to very, very bad.

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Guy Chazan, “Investors Take on Germany Inc,” Financial Times, May 8, 2019.

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