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Photo Gallery: The Untimely Death of Banking Intern Moritz Erhardt

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.

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.

Could Something Have Been Done?

Back in Hamburg, Dieterle was standing at the window on the 17th floor with his arms crossed. Hamburg's Hafenstrasse, the scene of anti-government protests in the 1980s, was nearby. Dieterle smiled while remembering his student days in Freiburg, when he protested against the policies of the former West Germany. At the time, he wrote a lawyer's phone number on his hand with a ballpoint pen, just in case he was arrested.

Those who take to the streets, motivated by rage, rub up against the system, determined to bring about change. Perhaps the heat that's generated by this friction is part of growing up, shaping young people into citizens. This is where the father and the son differed. Moritz was no coward, but he was too busy to waste time attending demonstrations.

Dieterle had been thinking about his son a lot in the last few weeks, for the saddest reason a father can have. It wasn't until a few days ago that he had the nerve to open up Moritz's laptop. He proceeded with the forensic precision of a psychiatrist as he searched for photos, like he was preparing an expert report. Dieterle has a penchant for adages by thinkers and philosophers, and when he looked inside the laptop, he realized that it was a trait he had passed on to his son. A collection of quotes he found on Moritz's computer included the following words attributed to Marilyn Monroe: "I don't want to make money. I just want to be wonderful." Dieterle thought about the sentence for a while, as if Marilyn could explain what happened to his son.

When Moritz was younger, he and his wife were unfamiliar with private universities and had never heard of WHU. The world of bankers was foreign to them, but they did know bankers had a terrible reputation. After all, there were stories in the papers almost every day about how the financial industry had changed people after the crash of 2008. But they never associated any of this with their son. In Hamburg, Erhardt said that Moritz wanted to spend a few years working hard and then do something good. Why should they have stopped him, she asked?

They couldn't afford the €30,000 ($40,500) for the bachelor's degree program, according to Dieterle. Half of Moritz's tuition was waived, and, to pay for the rest, he took out a loan from a generational fund to which WHU alumni contribute.

He completed an internship with the management-consulting firm KPMG in Frankfurt in the summer of 2012, and his semester abroad began in early 2013. He had decided to spend it in Ann Arbor, Michigan, a college town west of Detroit.

Far from Germany

On a recent Indian summer day in Ann Arbor, members of the Beta Theta Pi fraternity were tossing around a football on the lawn in front of their house, as steaks sizzled on the grill. The classrooms and lecture halls at the Stephen M. Ross School of Business were just around the corner, in a cube-shaped building made of glass, concrete and steel. The air inside felt cool and neutral.

The four months Moritz Erhardt spent at the Ross School were yet another stage on his path to the top, a trajectory everyone believed would continue. He spent a lot of his time sitting in the large cafeteria at the business school, with its black chairs and black tables, where students sit staring at the screens of their laptops.

A business school like Ross rewards traits like speed, stamina and determination, and penalizes idleness. Students put a lot of energy and money into the program, and in return, after three years, they expect to be received with open arms at many companies. If all goes well, a business school works like a catapult.

Half a dozen first-year students were sitting on a bunch of sofas on the second floor. They were 18 or 19, and they didn't look like they would ever write a lawyer's phone number on their hands. The boys were wearing well-cut suits and the girls were dressed in business attire and heels. Every few minutes, two older students in their early 20s walked up the stairs and took another candidate downstairs, into a glass-walled booth. This is where the students do practice interviews, but they seemed more like children planning to take over the world. Though, if you think about it, that's exactly the point.

A Popular Student

A few steps down the hall, Lynn Perry Wooten closed a door behind her and sat down at a conference table in a windowless room. She is a professor of strategy, management and organization. Moritz was one of her students, and she knew him fairly well. The university's PR woman was sitting next to her, holding a stopwatch. Wooten had 30 minutes to talk.

He settled in quickly at Ross, said Wooten. "Most people in my class said Moritz was a friend. They became a very close class." At the end of his stay, he told them all to come and visit him in Germany.

The program at Ross focuses heavily on real problems at companies. Wooten called it "action-based learning," adding that instruction at Ross isn't as lecture-dependent as in Germany. In one of his projects, Moritz developed a strategy for expanding an American supermarket chain into Canada.

Aware of His Weaknesses

Wooten also instructed each student to set up a user profile at Seelio.com, a career platform for students. The profile includes a "philosophy statement," in which students are supposed to write a few things about themselves.

Moritz wanted to be truthful, honest and clear. His philosophy statement, which was deleted after his death, is two printed pages long. The essay suggests a 21-year-old who was aware of his weaknesses.

"I have become a highly competitive and ambitious from early on," Moritz wrote. "Sometimes, I had a tendency to be overambitious, which resulted in severe injuries." He wrote that his father had advised him to focus his interests more effectively. "I tried to take one step at a time," Moritz wrote. He saw the world from the perspective of a competitor. Moritz wanted to slow himself down, or at least that was what he wrote.

The problem is that there are 60 hours in a normal workweek at Ross. Overloading students is part of the concept. Moritz learned to be efficient, goal-oriented and fast. He had no opportunity to slow down. "In addition to just being very intelligent, Moritz had a strategic mindset, as he was able to communicate his knowledge and analyze business problems and opportunities," said Wooten. He earned high grades and, once again, attracted attention as one of the top students.

"I believe that I specifically as a person will have more success when trying to achieve a single overarching objective," Moritz wrote in his philosophy statement. "In concrete terms, my primary goal consists of the pursuit of continuous improvement and the desire to strive for excellence."

Coming Back Home

In Hamburg, Ulrike Erhardt sat in the hotel room with her back to the window while her husband was downstairs smoking a cigarette. She was silent for a moment, and then she said that she was thankful that Moritz came to Staufen one more time after leaving Ann Arbor, instead of doing an internship in France. Moritz spent six weeks at home, sometimes cooking pasta with shrimp or ground beef for his parents and his sister.

Moritz was warmer and more affectionate when he came back from the United States, said his father when he returned from downstairs. At the same time, Moritz was worried about his performance at WHU. He thought about resigning as class spokesman, because he felt that it was too much additional work. "I could have top grades in every subject if I didn't have the job as class spokesman," he said.

Moritz was his own greatest rival. He enjoyed competition, but it's unclear what motivated him. Where did his ambition come from? His mother looked to the right on the sofa and said, with a smile, that it certainly wasn't from her husband.

The two seem to be the ideal parents, a typical German family. They didn't push their son; he pushed himself. Should they have tried to moderate Moritz? How much control would he have allowed them to have?

Not a Good-Natured Animal

In early July, Moritz packed two suitcases and flew to London. The offices of Bank of America Merrill Lynch are in the eastern part of the city, in a seven-story building near St. Paul's Cathedral. The teams to which Moritz was assigned works in open-space offices on the fourth and fifth floor. Moritz was already familiar with the bank, because he had spent a week there as spring intern in the previous year. "I already have 20 friends in London," he told his parents.

An investment bank is not a good-natured animal. It takes toughness to work there. But Moritz had enough ambition, charm and perseverance for a busload of interns. He got what he wanted, but he may not have realized that it takes time to get on top.

Much of an analyst's work at an investment bank consists in writing PowerPoint presentations, which his boss may or may not show to clients. The analyst, who is at the bottom of the hierarchy of the open space office, compiles company profiles, researches numbers and gathers data on competitors. The starting salary for a first-year analyst at Merrill Lynch is £45,000 (about €54,000), plus a variable bonus, which is about £20,000 this year. No one doubts Moritz would have been offered one of these jobs.

This summer, about 40 young men and women began their internships in the investment division. Moritz rented a room in a shared apartment in Claredale House, a student dormitory 25 minutes by bus from the bank.

By all accounts, Moritz was one of the summer's most popular interns. "Mama, the city is fantastic," he raved on the phone. Moritz felt good, because he knew people he trusted, mostly Germans, who lived in London. He also knew two WHU graduates at Merrill Lynch. He worked long hours, and on Fridays he celebrated at London clubs, he told his mother. He didn't have a steady girlfriend, but he was popular with women. "It was obvious that he was having fun during his time in London, and that he was proud to be working in the financial industry," a colleague later wrote.

'Moritz, You Look Pale'

Erhardt saw her son for the last time on Skype on the afternoon of Sunday, Aug. 11. She didn't like the way he looked.

"Moritz, you look pale. Are you getting enough sleep?"

"Yes, Mama," he replied.

He was in a hurry, because he wanted to buy some shoes before going back to the bank. There was only one week left in his internship, but he said that he couldn't talk about what he was working on. He asked his mother to help him with an application for a scholarship, and then the conversation ended.

After that, Moritz wrote three emails from London, the last two on Tuesday and Wednesday -- both at about 5 a.m. His parents say they know that he didn't get home until about 5 a.m. on Thursday, either. Although none of this proves he was at the bank at those times, it does suggest he was overworked.

An Unresolved Death

Moritz died on Aug. 15. The urn containing his ashes is in a cemetery near Staufen. It had been seven weeks since their son died, and yet Dieterle and his wife still knew surprisingly little about the circumstances of his death. Still, they didn't want to speculate why he died. The post mortem report hasn't been entirely made public yet. Early results suggest Moritz had an epileptic seizure, but that doesn't explain much.

People who knew Moritz say that he had had at least two epileptic seizures in recent years. One theory is that his body was weakened by lack of sleep, that he had a seizure in the shower stall, lost consciousness and drowned under the running water. But that theory is unproven, and the bank is not commenting on their intern's working hours. Erhardt said she would like to know about the nature of the project Moritz had been working on so much. But the bank hasn't commented on that, either.

If it is true that Moritz worked too many night shifts, why was did no one take him aside and send him home?

What do the parents feel? Rage?

"Absolutely not," said Dieterle. He said that he was deeply touched by how efficiently, professionally and quietly the people at Merrill Lynch in London and Frankfurt took care of everything. He used the word "warmth" several times. He said that when he entered Moritz's room at Claredale House for the first time, after his son's death, it was surprisingly clean and tidy.

Translated from the German by Christopher Sultan