This is the story of Deutsche Bank’s rise and fall. It is about the men who transformed a sleepy German lender into what was, for a time, the largest bank in the world, but who also set the stage for the ensuing catastrophe. It is about one well-intentioned and honest man who tried to save the bank but couldn’t save himself, and about his son, who embarked on a quest to understand his father’s demise. And it is about the consequences—dead people, doomed companies, broken economies, and the forty-fifth president of the United States—that Deutsche Bank wrought on the world.
Deutsche Bank has long been the villain of international finance — quite a feat in an often murky industry not exactly suffering a shortage of shady, ominous villains — but they really outdid themselves when they joined forces with Donald Trump. Unraveling a Gordian knot of people and transactions — or perhaps that’s giving these pukes too much credit, and it’s really just more of a knotted-up rat king — New York Times financial editor David Enrich does a classic follow-the-money to highlight the links between the world’s dirtiest bank and Donald Trump. And what a match made in hell they are.
Enrich highlights key moments in Deutsche’s history that created the greedy, unethical mentality that led to their financing Trump when he was a notoriously bad, if not patently ridiculous, lending prospect. This history includes its founding as a somewhat backwoods German bank that never lost its desire to shake these less-than-glamorous roots and become a major world financial power. And, most relevant at the moment, Enrich traces how Deutsche’s financial support of Trump directly contributed to his ability to run an ultimately successful presidential campaign.
Another defining event covered here is the 2014 death in London of former Deutsche banker Bill Broeksmit, one of three recent suicides of high-profile Deutsche executives (although one, David Rossi, who allegedly jumped from his office window in Siena, Italy, is extremely suspicious). Broeksmit’s son, Val, presciently copied his father’s computer files immediately after his death and thus became a major source of information both about what Broeksmit had been working on and was worried about, and consequently a significant source for the book.
Enrich fills in further details with background on major players in the bank’s history (most declined to be interviewed) and commentary from those willing to speak on record. The darkest figures here do remain somewhat abstruse, but the facts, transactions, and paper trails are indisputable so the story we get is clear, and disturbing, enough.
I don’t think there was a single page that didn’t feel revelatory in some sense. Not in a good sense. Most of the time, this was just a big old bummer. Perhaps not surprisingly, it all comes down to money, power, and unbridled greed. There’s a lot of complicated maneuvering here, but the driving forces aren’t complicated at all: “When a Deutsche employee asked a colleague why the bank was willing to take such a large legal risk, the response came back: “Because we’re that greedy.”
But I have to admit, as outrageously evil as Deutsche Bank is, I’ve willfully avoided learning too deeply about them because I kind of needed them (it’s hard to work in any branch of finance, even a relatively peripheral one like I do and not interact with them in one way or another). Enrich references some “biographies” of the bank which seem worth checking out, as Dark Towers presents the most important and telling moments of Deutsche’s history which formed its corporate identity and shaped its very bad behavior, but there’s much more going on. But if you’ve read any of those, this may not be quite as revelatory.
Still, it’s highly readable and completely accessible. His explanations of certain financial products and how Deutsche manipulated them even helped me understand elements of my own work better. And you wouldn’t think a financial crime story would be a stay-up-late page-turner but this is.
It’s populated by an endless parade of supervillainous types, with Enrich fleshing out their menacing backstories. There have been so many bad forces that have coalesced over the years in Deutsche Bank that it’s almost hard not to see something near-supernaturally threatening in its titular twin tower headquarters in Frankfurt, nicknamed “Debit” and “Credit” (“Soll” and “Haben” in German). Consider Deutsche’s darkest (open) secret:
World War II and the Holocaust would have happened without the bank, but its participation allowed the Nazis to improve the ruthless efficiency of their military campaign and their quest to cleanse Europe of Jews. And it was not an accident. Deutsche was involved because of decisions made by the bank’s leaders for reasons of expedience, if not ideology.
So their badness started early, by bankrolling Auschwitz and lying about it for years, with plenty of shocking moments to come, bringing us to the present and the unscrupulous lenders who, against all reason and common sense, lent huge sums of money to Trump and his family for flimsy real estate and construction projects.
Deutsche executives would quip that whoever initiated the Trump relationship must have had some sort of head injury.
Guess what: he did!
This isn’t all about Trump, but when he pops into the narrative it’s always eyebrow-raising, because there’s just no way around how astonishing it is that he was ever considered a desirable client, let alone given the breaks he was. Enrich has a running gag throughout with the jabs he takes at Trump, so this isn’t exactly unbiased, but it is very cleverly and creatively insulting, providing some needed levity. Here’s his reference to Trump Tower: “where another rich man, needing to prove himself to the world, would live in comparable gaudiness.” Or my favorite, an impression from a Bear Stearns banker with better morals than anyone at Deutsche: “Trump’s pitch wasn’t awful, but the idea of doing business with a default-prone circus barker was less than enticing.”
His colleagues thought he was crazy; what kind of man was so loyal to a faceless institution that he would pass up untold riches to do the right thing?
Rosemary Vrablic, a private banker in wealth management, is the central figure responsible for Trump and the Kushner family’s unprecedentedly glowing relationship with Deutsche. She managed to sell Trump’s rickety business propositions based on his star power (?): “Vrablic’s bosses had been star-struck; the allure of doing business with The Donald had overridden any self-preservation instincts.”
Are they all on glue? A point Enrich makes repeatedly is that Deutsche Bank’s mentality would be to sell their mother’s kidneys if it meant they could make more money in the short term while further securing their brand and presence, but what is this magical, mystical allure Donald Trump allegedly possesses? Are we all looking at the same person? Does being on a reality show really make people so starstruck? Apparently.
In addition to keeping him financially afloat long enough to make a path to the presidency, Trump’s Deutsche connections continue to pay off, most recently through Anthony Kennedy’s retirement from the Supreme Court, an event unfortunately, unbelievably supported by the Trump/Kushner lties with the bank. “Deutsche Bank in previous decades had helped stabilize Trump’s floundering business. Now—indirectly, through past relationships and loans—it had helped stabilize his floundering presidency.”
Where this falters a bit is through one of the main sources, Bill Broeksmit’s son, Val. Val doesn’t come across as exactly sympathetic — he’s a real person and not a character, so that’s not surprising, but he’s just kind of unpleasant to spend time with. He “felt like a prisoner” while staying at $50k/month Sausalito rehab. His life wasn’t always a cakewalk but there’s little introspection into his behavior, it’s just presented as is so we’re left to wonder what to make of it and why it’s included.
He also gets a bit heavy-handed with metaphoric imagery – like Deutsche’s downtown Manhattan building getting destroyed on 9/11 and serving as easy metaphor for the “lethal mess” that would soon “lurk within” Deutsche Bank. All this shit is dark enough without the melodrama.
Still, this was completely fascinating, if also completely chilling, and worth knowing for as depressing as it is too. So much of this has happened in the shadows, it helps to drag as much of it into the light now as possible. And if it can do anything to tarnish the image of a certain default-prone circus barker, even better.
After decades of making expedient, easy choices with the single-minded purpose of maximizing immediate profits, Deutsche had internalized a painful lesson: Its long-standing inability to say no—to clients, to shareholders, to testosterone-fueled traders and managers—was potentially lethal.
Dark Towers: Deutsche Bank, Donald Trump, and an Epic Trail of Destruction
by David Enrich
published February 18, 2020 by Custom House