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Dark Towers

Deutsche Bank, Donald Trump, and an Epic Trail of Destruction

By David Enrich
18-minute read
Audio available
Dark Towers by David Enrich

Dark Towers (2020) is a heavily researched look into the ignominious rise and devastating fall of Deutsche Bank. Over the course of 150 years, the bank helped build the American railroad system, funded Nazi genocide, schmoozed Russian oligarchs, and had a hand in the election of President Donald Trump. When Deutsche executive Bill Broeksmit killed himself in 2014, he came to symbolize the destructive power of the bank’s institutional greed.

  • People who work in finance
  • Anyone still mad about the government’s Wall Street bailout
  • Stock market watchers

David Enrich is the finance editor for the New York Times. Previously, he led a team of investigative finance reporters in London and New York for the Wall Street Journal. He has won several awards for journalism, and his previous book, The Spider Network, was shortlisted for the Financial Times and McKinsey Business Book of the Year Award.   

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Dark Towers

Deutsche Bank, Donald Trump, and an Epic Trail of Destruction

By David Enrich
  • Read in 18 minutes
  • Audio & text available
  • Contains 11 key ideas
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Dark Towers by David Enrich
Synopsis

Dark Towers (2020) is a heavily researched look into the ignominious rise and devastating fall of Deutsche Bank. Over the course of 150 years, the bank helped build the American railroad system, funded Nazi genocide, schmoozed Russian oligarchs, and had a hand in the election of President Donald Trump. When Deutsche executive Bill Broeksmit killed himself in 2014, he came to symbolize the destructive power of the bank’s institutional greed.

Key idea 1 of 11

From its founding, Deutsche Bank set a precedent for dealing with unscrupulous characters and nefarious institutions.

In September 1883, a train full of dignitaries pulled into Gold Creek, Montana. Waiting to meet them was Henry Villard, a German immigrant turned railroad tycoon. Villard’s company had built part of the transcontinental railroad, and he was in Montana to nail in the ceremonial last spike. Also present to witness the proceedings was the richly dressed German banker Georg von Siemens. His 13-year-old bank, Deutsche, had bankrolled the railroad.

Despite the pomp, Villard’s business was in shambles. Weeks after the ceremony, it defaulted on its loans, and its investors – including Deutsche – lost their money. But Villard, who had used the borrowed money to build a lavish mansion in Manhattan, refused to accept blame for the debacle. 

The key message here is: From its founding, Deutsche Bank set a precedent for dealing with unscrupulous characters and nefarious institutions.

Having skulked back to Germany, Villard made friendly overtures to Siemens. Despite the money he’d lost on Villard’s reckless railroad ambitions, Siemens received him. The two became close friends.  

Three years later, in 1886, Siemens sent Villard back to the United States to sniff out potential investments on behalf of Deutsche Bank. For a time, things went well, and Deutsche became a major funder of the US railroad network. But Villard’s nature couldn’t be suppressed; predictably, his new company went bankrupt. Even more predictably, Villard ducked the blame.

Despite Villard’s failings, Deutsche continued to grow, buoyed by European industrialization. By 1913, it was the sixth-largest bank in the world. 

When Hitler came to power in 1933, Deutsche became the chief financier for the Nazi regime. The bank was in charge of converting gold stolen from Holocaust victims – including fillings extracted from people’s teeth – into cash. Deutsche also financed the construction of Auschwitz, the notorious concentration camp, as well as the factory that produced Zyklon B, the poison gas used in the camps’ death chambers.

After the war, Deutsche Bank’s ruined Berlin headquarters fell under British command. Because Germany still owed Britain reparations from World War I, it was in Britain’s interest for a strong German bank to resuscitate the economy. Although the bank’s wartime director, Hermann Abs, had been convicted of war crimes, Britain let him off with a light sentence. By 1956, he was running the show at Deutsche once more. 

In 1970, the year of its centenary, Deutsche was German through and through. It had built two massive towers that dominated Frankfurt’s skyline, nicknamed “Debit” and “Credit” by locals, and invested in all the top German companies.

In the coming years, this was to change dramatically.

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