Successful entrepreneur and concerned citizen, maverick and pioneer of the social market economy: in his biography of Robert Bosch, Peter Theiner paints a portrait of one of Germany’s most successful industrial magnates of the 20th century. Today, his life’s work is continued by the company and the foundation into which he breathed life. In an interview, Theiner provides insight as to why Bosch, his mind-set, and his impact are once again relevant in today’s world.
Robert Bosch – one of Germany’s most successful industrial magnates of the 20th century and a pioneer of the social market economy – passed away 75 years ago. Bosch was a politically active citizen and the issues for which he advocated included social equity, relations between Germany and France, and the unification of Europe. The new biography by Peter Theiner titled Robert Bosch: Unternehmer im Zeitalter der Extreme (entrepreneur in the age of extremes) is further proof that Bosch’s way of thinking has returned to the forefront. The biography tells Bosch’s story against the backdrop of his economic, sociopolitical, and cultural environment. His legacy, which gave rise to the Robert Bosch Stiftung in 1964, is based on the assumption that he, as an entrepreneur and a citizen, also had a duty to assume social responsibility. The biography’s author, Peter Theiner, holds a doctorate in history and directs the special area History of Philanthropy at the Robert Bosch Stiftung.
Mr. Theiner, why is Robert Bosch, along with his way of thinking and his impact, still important today?
We’re all familiar with the idea that the future needs heritage – and this is especially true for foundations. And the public also has a right to know where we, as a charitable organization, come from – they demand transparency. Because heritage is a part of our identity.
Taking on the Robert Bosch biography was a spiritual adventure for me. He was a true citoyen, a citizen who was politically engaged in an age of extremes, as one prominent British historian so aptly characterized his lifetime. His professional career centered on freedom and self-determination, the quest for values, curiosity and innovation, social cohesion and esprit de corps, entrepreneurial ambition and social equity, and the ability and readiness to think outside the box as well as to resist totalitarian temptations in the political world. So it would seem that the historical personality of our founder is extremely relevant!
Did you learn anything as part of your research for the biography that surprised even you?
Well, I wasn’t starting completely from scratch. Every historian has a duty to carefully take other historians’ findings into account. Robert Bosch and the company he founded, as well as the foundation to a certain extent, have been the subject of quite a bit of research. Consider the works of Joachim Scholtyseck, Johannes Bähr, and Paul Erker, for example. And the Robert Bosch company archives have made available exquisite documentation for anyone who is interested in history. In addition to isolated findings with regard to political connections and interrelations, I was taken aback by the tenacity with which Robert Bosch followed his own principles. Trying to reconstruct this in detail was an amazing mental journey through significant periods of recent German history – above all the story of the German Southwest.
From time to time, I was also able to see the person and the world he lived in from a different perspective. Just take his nickname “Father Bosch” – this is how he was spoken of and written about while he was still alive. It was a sign of respect – but you have to take a closer look. This description does not necessarily mean that he was a typical patriarch, as one occasionally reads: jovial and generous, patting backs, all while staying fairly authoritarian and, at the same time, benevolent with those on their best behavior. His corporate social policies were extremely liberally conceptualized and implemented. He wasn’t looking to engender gratitude, humility, and adherence to his political opinions; much more, he was out to honor achievement and enable inclusion, but not to shape philosophies. This was quite extraordinary in his time. He was an exceptional case and was therefore dubbed “the red Bosch.” Of course, this was a targeted attempt to lampoon a maverick entrepreneur. An expression of this unbridled liberal approach was the famous company library, which was ultimately “cleansed” during the reign of the Third Reich: it was home even to Marxist classics – really quite extraordinary for a company library. So the people were welcome to read books that predicted the ultimate downfall of the entrepreneur. They called it the self-financing of civic self-criticism. In other words, it was supporting publications that fundamentally questioned the citizen and his or her role. But Robert Bosch – and this fact stands out and is key in his decision-making – had the utmost trust in the ability of his employees to make their own judgments.
Robert Bosch was one of Germany’s most successful industrial magnates of the 20th century and a pioneer of the social market economy. Today, his company and the foundation are continuing his life’s work. How would you describe a Robert Bosch of the 21st century?
Robert Bosch would not have considered himself a role model or imagined himself becoming a historical benchmark. And historians are careful when it comes to taking lessons from historical events: we cannot derive any practical knowledge from history. But dealing with historical processes, structures, and individuals can provide us with a certain amount of knowledge for historical perspective. The Robert Bosch biography has a lot to offer in this respect. As an entrepreneur, he was extremely ambitious and goal-oriented. But he was not going to maximize profits at any cost. He saw that his company was embedded within a liberal and social constitutional nation. To a certain extent, this was the utopian ideal that he felt a duty to uphold and that he obligated the management of his growing company to uphold.
Sharing was an integral part of this corporate image, which explains his charitable activities and the corporate social policies that were very forward-thinking for their time. As an entrepreneur and founder, he did not view himself as the master of the house. Instead, he was the bearer of duties and obligations. Sometimes he was quarrelsome and pugnacious, but he also had a keen eye for his own limitations as a person and a business owner. He sought compromise in the face of deadlocked conflict, both within his company as well as in government and society. This was also true with regard to international exchange. He was a pioneer of globalization and therefore – but also for ethical reasons – an advocate for international relations. In doing so, he was a literal benefactor of relations between Germany and France and of the unification of Europe. When I began preparation for the book, I had no idea that his views regarding European politics would soon become so painfully relevant once again.
Robert Bosch. Unternehmer im Zeitalter der Extreme
Eine Biographie (German language version)
by Peter Theiner, published by C.H.Beck