Geopolitics

From Jet Set To Prison Time, Advice From A Fallen German CEO

German CEO Thomas Middelhoff walks free after a three-year sentence
German CEO Thomas Middelhoff walks free after a three-year sentence
Karin Matussek

AUGSBURG — One moment you're the globetrotting head of a corporation with an army of subordinates to execute your every order, the next you're behind bars and required to file requests for items as banal as toilet paper.

While jailing executives, particularly those of global companies, is an almost unheard of occurrence in Germany, that's just what happened to Audi Chief Executive Officer Rupert Stadler last month. One of the few other corporate leaders to suffer a similar fate was Thomas Middelhoff, and he has some words of advice to adapt to the circumstances.

"You need humility, otherwise you'll crack," said Middelhoff, who led media company Bertelsmann AG and retailer Arcandor AG. "It's a process: the first reaction is inner revolt. Then there's a combat phase, then the breakdown. Only after that, you start becoming yourself again."

Middelhoff went from CEO with a rock-star allure and jet-set lifestyle to a convict who served a total of two years for misappropriating 500,000 euros worth of corporate funds for helicopter and private-jet trips, charges that he denied. It was a startling decline for one of the country's best-known managers, who rode the corporate rocket to the very top, including private jets, yachts moored in Saint Tropez and regular board meetings in New York.

His life took a dramatic turn in 2014, when Middelhoff was whisked straight out of court and transferred into a sparse prison cell the day he was convicted. He was detained even though he planned to appeal, as the judges suspected he would flee. He spent five months in preliminary detention and "when the door shut for the first time, it was a feeling as if the air had been drawn from my lungs," he said. "My head was spinning."

He will survive this without damage to his soul.

For managers used to guiding other people, being under seamless scrutiny is hard to comprehend, Middelhoff said. For each item he needed, Middelhoff had to file a written request; cell phones and computers weren't permitted at all. Meetings with lawyers meant body searches before and after each encounter, family visits were restricted to twice a month — and only for three people, a tough situation for Middelhoff, who has five children.

"When my wife came to see me for the first time, I wept," Middelhoff said. He's since documented his experience in prison in a book he began working on in jail, where he started the day at 5 a.m. reading the Bible, followed by a work-out regime that included 100 push-ups. Middelhoff spent his preliminary detention segregated from other prisoners to protect him from possible attacks. After five months, he was released on bail. When his appeal was rejected, he served the rest of his sentence working outside prison walls at a charity.

Not much is known of Stadler's daily routine behind bars, near the Bavarian city of Augsburg, where he was taken after his arrest in the early hours of June 18. Prisoners can ask to wear their own clothing and have access to TV and the prison library. They can request a separate cell, though most prefer to stay with other inmates to avoid isolation. Germany's Bild posted stock photos of a cell, complete with the daily menu, a sparse fare of potato salad and meatballs, or schnitzel with pasta.

Stadler's attorney Thilo Pfordte didn't immediately return a call seeking comment.

Rupert Stadler attending annual Audi meeting just weeks before his arrest — Photo: Armin Weigel/DPA/ZUMA

A Volkswagen veteran who ascended to the top of Audi in an almost three-decade career, Stadler held onto his job in the last three years even as accusations of his company's involvement in the diesel-rigging scandal grew. A week before his arrest, his private home was raided, but the company stood by him, saying he should be presumed innocent until proven otherwise.

While Stadler hasn't been charged, he was detained because of suspicions of evidence tampering. He is suspected of fraud and falsifying public documents in connection with the three-year diesel cheating scandal that's rocked Volkswagen since 2015, and prosecutors will continue to question the executive this week.

Stadler's arrest came as "a huge shock," VW CEO Herbert Diess told the Bild am Sonntag newspaper. While he's presumed innocent, he'd be barred from returning to the company should the allegations turn out to be true, Diess said.

Pre-trial detention typically comes with tough conditions, and prosecutors often leverage media coverage of celebrities in jail to increase pressure to cooperate, a practice that's also on display in Stadler's case, Middelhoff said.

"The real scandal is that none of his colleagues are speaking up for Stadler, and that's why I wanted to do it," said Middelhoff. "I wish him a lot of strength, and the confidence that he will survive this without damage to his soul."

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Geopolitics

Why This Sudan Coup Is Different

The military has seized control in one of Africa's largest countries, which until recently had made significant progress towards transitioning to democracy after years of strongman rule. But the people, and international community, may not be willing to turn back.

Smoke rises Monday over the Sudanese capital of Khartoum

Xinhua via ZUMA
David E. Kiwuwa

This week the head of Sudan's Sovereign Council, General Abdel Fattah El Burhan, declared the dissolution of the transitional council, which has been in place since the overthrow of former president Omar el-Bashir in 2019. He also disbanded all the structures that had been set up as part of the transitional roadmap, and decreed a state of emergency.

In essence, he staged a palace coup against the transitional authority he chaired.


The general's actions, which included the arrest of Prime Minister Abdalla Hamdok, are a culmination of a long period of tension between the civilian and military wings of the council.

A popular uprising may be inevitable

The tensions were punctuated by an alleged attempted coup only weeks earlier. The days leading to the palace coup were marked by street protests for and against the military. Does this mark the end of the transition as envisaged by the protest movement?

Their ability to confront counter revolutionary forces cannot be underestimated.

The popular uprising against Bashir's government was led by the Sudan Professional Association. It ushered in the political transitional union of civilians and the military establishment. The interim arrangement was to lead to a return to civilian rule.

But this cohabitation was tenuous from the start, given the oversized role of the military in the transition. Moreover, the military appeared to be reluctant to see the civilian leadership as an equal partner in shepherding through the transition.

Nevertheless, until recently there had been progress towards creating the institutional architecture for the transition. Despite the challenges and notable tension between the signatories to the accord, it was never evident that the dysfunction was so great as to herald the collapse of the transitional authority.

For now, the transition might be disrupted and in fact temporarily upended. But the lesson from Sudan is never to count the masses out of the equation. Their ability to mobilize and confront counter revolutionary forces cannot be underestimated.

Power sharing

The transitional pact itself had been anchored by eight arduously negotiated protocols. These included regional autonomy, integration of the national army, revenue sharing and repatriation of internal refugees. There was also an agreement to share out positions in national political institutions, such as the legislative and executive branch.

Progress towards these goals was at different stages of implementation. More substantive progress was expected to follow after the end of the transition. This was due in 2022 when the chair of the sovereignty council handed over to a civilian leader. This military intervention is clearly self-serving and an opportunistic power grab.

A promised to civilian rule in July 2023 through national elections.

In November, the rotational chairmanship of the transitional council was to be passed from the military to the civilian wing of the council. That meant the military would cede strong leverage to the civilians. Instead, with the coup afoot, Burhan has announced both a dissolution of the council as well as the dismissal of provincial governors. He has unilaterally promised return to civilian rule in July 2023 through national elections.

Prior to this, the military had been systematically challenging the pre-eminence of the civilian authority. It undermined them and publicly berated them for governmental failures and weaknesses. For the last few months there has been a deliberate attempt to sharply criticize the civilian council as riddled with divisions, incompetent and undermining state stability.

File photo shows Sudan's Prime Minister Abdalla Hamdok in August 2020

Mohamed Khidir/Xinhua via ZUMA

Generals in suits

Since the revolution against Bashir's government, the military have fancied themselves as generals in suits. They have continued to wield enough power to almost run a parallel government in tension with the prime minister. This was evident when the military continued to have the say on security and foreign affairs.

For their part, civilian officials concentrated on rejuvenating the economy and mobilizing international support for the transitional council.

This didn't stop the military from accusing the civilian leadership of failing to resuscitate the country's ailing economy. True, the economy has continued to struggle from high inflation, low industrial output and dwindling foreign direct investment. As in all economies, conditions have been exacerbated by the effects of COVID-19.

Sudan's weakened economy is, however, not sufficient reason for the military intervention. Clearly this is merely an excuse.

Demands of the revolution

The success or failure of this coup will rest on a number of factors.

First is the ability of the military to use force. This includes potential violent confrontation with the counter-coup forces. This will dictate the capacity of the military to change the terms of the transition.

Second is whether the military can harness popular public support in the same way that the Guinean or Egyptian militaries did. This appears to be a tall order, given that popular support appears to be far less forthcoming.

The international community's appetite for military coups is wearing thin.

Third, the ability of the Sudanese masses to mobilize against military authorities cannot be overlooked. Massive nationwide street protests and defiance campaigns underpinned by underground organizational capabilities brought down governments in 1964, 1985 and 2019. They could once again present a stern test to the military.

Finally, the international community's appetite for military coups is wearing thin. The ability of the military to overcome pressure from regional and international actors to return to the status quo could be decisive, given the international support needed to prop up the crippled economy.

The Sudanese population may have been growing frustrated with its civilian authority's ability to deliver on the demands of the revolution. But it is also true that another coup to reinstate military rule is not something the protesters believe would address the challenges they were facing.

Sudan has needed and will require compromise and principled political goodwill to realise a difficult transition. This will entail setbacks but undoubtedly military intervention in whatever guise is monumentally counterproductive to the aspirations of the protest movement.

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David E. Kiwuwa is Associate Professor of International Studies at University of Nottingham

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

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