Published hard on the heels of the Second World War was one of the most influential books of the post-war period. Titled “The Authoritarian Personality,” it was co-authored by a group of social scientists, led by the preeminent Theodor Adorno, intent on exploring and explaining how Hitler had happened.
The book essentially concluded that there were certain personality characteristics that comprised authoritarian types. It further concluded that these types had long been prevalent in Germany, even in the Germany family, which had made the German people especially vulnerable to an authoritarian, even tyrannical, leader such as Hitler.
While Germany’s political culture now is of course entirely different from Germany’s political culture then, the image of the German leader or even patriarch as authoritarian has never gone fully out of fashion. Last week, however, it was dealt what finally might be a fatal blow.
The chairman of Volkswagen, Ferdinant Piech, was ousted in what amounted to a palace coup. Why? Because in spite of his impeccable lineage (he is a descendent of Ferdinand Porsche), and in spite of his earlier excellence as head of the car company, and in spite of his long history of winning power struggles, this time, at age 78, Piech was hoisted by his own petard. He was ousted by members of his board who finally were fed up – fed up with his high-handed and arrogant ways, fed up with having to put up with his aloofness and ruthlessness, and fed up with standing by and saying nothing while he did what he wanted to do how he wanted to do it. When Piech tried unilaterally to dump CEO Martin Winterkorn, the board rallied to the latter and ditched the former.
As soon as key shareholders and stakeholders confronted Piech to say that they had lost confidence in him, he, apparently as stunned as he was infuriated and humiliated, promptly resigned. He was, of course, not literally the last authoritarian German – but among leaders he was one of the most prominent. With Piech out of the picture the species – the German leader as authoritarian leader – is further along the way to becoming entirely extinct.