High Stakes Making Sense of a Banking Intern's Death

When 21-year-old student Moritz Erhardt collapsed and died this summer, he became known as a victim of financial sector overwork. But the truth may be more complicated and only one thing is certain: Erhardt was one ambitious young man.

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This year, Moritz Erhardt was a summer intern at Bank of America Merrill Lynch in London. He worked a lot and didn't get much sleep, living his life at the frenzied pace of the financial industry. His internship was almost over when, on Thursday, Aug. 15, he collapsed in the bathroom of his shared apartment. Another intern and one of the bank's vice presidents later went to his apartment and found him under the shower.

The news of the dead German student initially spread in Internet forums geared toward the banking industry. On wallstreetoasis.com, "hawkish2" wrote: "One of the best interns in IBD BAML. 3 all nighters, didn't turn up, colleagues went to find him. Heart attack." The rumor that a young banking intern had worked himself to death made its way from one BlackBerry to the next, and by Monday the Bloomberg newswire reported what everyone already knew in offices from Canary Wharf to King Edward Street. The London tabloids dispatched their bloodhounds, and on Tuesday the story was in the New York Times .

Two weeks after burying Moritz, Ulrike Erhardt and Hans-Georg Dieterle disembarked from a plane in Hamburg. Their son's 22nd birthday would have been in a few days. Erhardt said that there was no escaping the pain she felt, and that it didn't matter where she was, because she couldn't sleep anyway. She was in Hamburg because she and her husband were going on a cruise to Oslo with their daughter.

Erhardt didn't know how she managed to survive the last week. It all seemed to have blurred together in her head. In the days after Moritz's death, a camera team showed up at their neighbor's house. RTL reported on the incident and reporters from the British tabloid The Daily Mail called her on her mobile phone. She was speechless at first, then she shouted into the phone that she wanted to be left alone.

Shock and Sorrow

Now she was standing in a hotel room in Hamburg's harbor district, not far from the pier where the cruise ship was going to sail the next day. Her husband Hans-Georg and 19-year-old daughter Annalena were sitting on the sofa. Annalena still couldn't stand to hear her brother being talked about as a dead person, so she took a walk down to the water.

Erhardt is a pediatric nurse, while her husband Hans-Georg Dieterle works as a psychiatrist and executive coach -- both wanted to keep their last names after getting married. Dieterle spoke with a deep voice, reflecting for a long time before answering questions. During the conversation, he seemed calmer and more distanced than his wife, who was still struggling with the shock of what happened.

Moritz loved his mother, and he told her so often, both in letters and in person. She had a close relationship with him and was amazed by his drive, his curiosity and his bold approach to life. His father is more rational, calling Moritz a "relationship builder."

Both parents described him as a boy who practically vibrated with energy and was determined to be the best. He grew up in Staufen im Breisgau, a town south of Freiburg in southwestern Germany. He learned to ski in the Black Forest, and he played tennis and soccer. He threw himself into life with his entire being, and so it's unsurprising that he injured himself frequently. He had a scar across his right calf from a skiing accident and a torn cruciate ligament. As a child, he struggled with atopic dermatitis, and later with asthma. Erhardt says the asthma eventually disappeared.

'The Boy was Simply Gifted'

Moritz seemed to be living his life in the future: He knew what he wanted to study in university before he graduated from high school. He had an extremely high grade-point average and was the best student at Faust High School when he finished there in 2011. He received awards for his performance in English, math and French. "He didn't study a lot, but he did study very effectively," says his mother. "The boy was simply gifted," says Dieterle.

Moritz wanted to be a good son, brother and student, the perfect boy with the best life possible. He even went to two or three meetings of the center-right Christian Democratic Union's youth organization, not necessarily out of conviction but for strategic reasons. "It can't hurt to have that on your resume," he told his mother.

Although he was accepted at the London School of Economics, he chose to stay in Germany instead. He attended the WHU - Otto Beisheim School of Management near the western city of Koblenz, a private business school that produces some of the elites of the German business community.

An Elite World

WHU students, however, don't like the word elite. In recent years, a number of books and newspaper articles have described it as a school for young careerists fixated on making money. In her book "Gestatten: Elite" ("Granted: Elite") journalist Julia Friedrichs described WHU as a monoculture cosmos that breeds people who are astonishingly alike.

Standing at the counter in the Korova Bar, not far from a square called Burgplatz in Vallendar, where WHU is located, 21-year-old Alexander Hemker, was wearing a hoody with the WHU logo on it, rimless glasses, jeans and sneakers. "We're not a homogeneous mass of people," he said. Hemker is the spokesman for the bachelor class of 2014 and was friends with Moritz Erhardt. But he didn't want to talk about Moritz. After being badgered by journalists in recent weeks, he and other students decided that they would only answer questions about him in writing.

Hemker spoke about his life, but warily. Almost everyone at WHU had a business idea before coming to Vallendar. Hemker founded an anti-bullying club at his school in Hamburg. He had been studying business economics and management here for the last two years, and spent a semester abroad in Kuala Lumpur, which he described as an interesting experience. On one occasion, he said, he was asked to critique a book, written by his Malaysian professor, which portrayed capitalism as a great affliction and Islam as the cure. He wrote a very honest critique, said Hemker. He sounded like a candidate for the diplomatic corps.

Work Hard, Play Hard

He said that days at WHU often begin early and end late. He had attended a lecture on capital market law at 8 a.m. that morning and now, at 11 p.m., he was about to sit down at his desk and study.

WHU demands a lot of its students, but it also gives them a great deal in return. Students who go there join a community of like-minded people. At the beginning of the academic year, older students organize a scavenger hunt for new students. The students also spend their fair share of time drinking and partying on campus or in town, rewarding themselves for all the hard work. At graduation, each student receives a thick, red book containing the names, email addresses and private numbers of all alumni, a valuable tool in the job search.

When Moritz entered WHU, it felt like a magical planet to him. He found a shared apartment not far from Burgplatz and, in 2011, he began a bachelor's degree program in business management. He was no longer the high flyer he had been at home, now that he was surrounded by people as quick and alert as he was. It was fantastic, but it was also daunting because of the added pressure -- it would be more difficult to be a top student.

Children, Trying to Take Over the World

The morning after the Korova Bar meeting, Alexander Hemker met up with Max -- student spokesman for the bachelor's degree class of 2015 -- and Konstantin -- the spokesman for the master's degree class -- in the Goethe Room at the university. After some hesitation, they had decided to show the campus to a reporter. But they were still skeptical, said Max.

It wasn't easy to pigeonhole these three young men. Their sentences sounded like the sentences of adults, reasonable and sophisticated, and yet they still looked like overgrown children. They organize dinners with people from Credit Suisse, wear suits and ties during internships and refer to first-semester students as "Quietschies." They are a puzzle.

They said that students need discipline and self-control to survive at WHU. "You can get it all done, as long as you organize your time effectively," said Max. "We learn how to deal with pressure here," said Konstantin. They walked down the steps into a vaulted cellar where bankers and management consultants host evening "networking dinners" and alcohol is served. The floor was still a little sticky from the previous night's dinner.

A Tight-Knit 'Family'

During the tour, the young men often used the word "family." Team spirit and adaptability are rewarded at WHU, while criticism tends to be frowned upon. In their obituary, the students praised the exemplary commitment with which Moritz "championed the interests of the university and its members."

In a picture taken during his time at WHU, Moritz is standing with his arms crossed, wearing a striped shirt, a tie and suspenders, and with a lot of gel in his hair. He looks like Gordon Gekko, a fictional character from the 1987 film "Wall Street." The photo has been reprinted again and again since his death. But Hemker said that it was taken at a theme party, and that the theme was "nerds."

But none said anything about Moritz. Max later wrote an email to SPIEGEL explaining that they had decided not to comment on Moritz anymore, not even in writing. He and his fellow students wanted to "close this emotional chapter," he explained.

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carlos565 10/11/2013
1. High stakes
Superb journalism!
arockymountaingoat 10/12/2013
2. Reason
"At graduation, each student receives a thick, red book containing the names, email addresses and private numbers of all alumni, a valuable tool in the job search." This. This is why the school is a monoculture cosmos.
spon-facebook-1299840128 10/12/2013
3. Strange story
Overachiever dies of exhaustion, was working for a soulless, money-driven bank, bank keeps quiet about his working conditions and their discretion is somehow good. His peers have nothing to say about him because... it's a distraction and they're too concerned about their careers.
Inglenda2 10/12/2013
4. Very sad, but not unusual
The death of a young man who wanted to be one of the best is tragic. But in a world where who you know, is more important than what you know, hard work does not always bring success. The so-called burnout syndrome hits some of the most promising employees in Europe. At the same time, whether in industry, commerce, or politics, leaders are to be found who have no other qualification, than to be the children of wealthy parents.
verbatim128 10/13/2013
5. Making Sense?
Tragedies usually don't make sense. But if you must attempt, you ought to look at what inspired the tragedy.
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