Howard Davies: Death in Frankfurt

MT DIARY: After a visit to the new European Central Bank HQ and a morbid modern art exhibit, it was a relief to return to Edinburgh for rugby, haggis and proper paintings.

by Howard Davies
Last Updated: 01 Jun 2016

In Frankfurt, death is all around. I dropped in to pay my respects to the European Central Bank, now magnificently rehoused on the edge of the city in what used to be the fruit and vegetable market. The market halls, of Bauhaus design, have been lovingly restored, with two new connected, symmetrical towers, narrowing towards the 40th floor, attached. It is one of the most inspiring pieces of modern architecture I know, with magnificent views of the Taunus Hills from the upper reaches, where Mario Draghi and his colleagues perch. The style is austere but accommodating, which might well be how they would like to describe their monetary policy.

So where does death come in? Well it turns out that the basement of the vegetable market was rented out to the Nazi government two days a week and used to assemble Jews en route to the camps. There is a convenient railway line passing by. The ECB has a thoughtful display commemorating the dark side of the building’s past on the ground floor.

Unfortunately, the brand new HQ is already too small. No one expected the ECB to expand as much as it has. Banking Union, and the so-called Single Supervisory Mechanism, has brought small armies of supervisors to Frankfurt. If banking supervision floats your boat, the banks of the Main are the place to be these days. The ECB teams oversee banks from Dublin to Piraeus and are based, curiously, in the Japan Tower downtown. But then I guess the Japanese know a lot about over-geared banks stuffed with non-performing property loans.

It is fashionable to run down Frankfurt as a place to live or visit, and it is true that German attempts to turn it into a global financial centre have not been crowned with much success so far, in spite of the magnetic attraction of the Central Bank. Arguably, that is the Americans’ fault. When decisions were made about the location of governmental institutions in the new Federal Republic in the late 1940s, the government was put in Bonn, and the Bundesbank in Frankfurt.

The Brits argued that Hamburg was the best place for a German financial centre. The turnover of the Hamburg stock exchange was greater than all the other regional exchanges combined. Foreign currency transactions were cleared there, and the city’s long Hanseatic trading traditions gave it deep roots in shipping and insurance. But Hamburg was in the British zone, and the Americans wanted the Central Bank close to their seat of power, so Frankfurt it was. And what was previously another small town in Germany has struggled to rival London ever since. The Americans did us a favour by accident, as Hamburg would have been a stronger competitor.

There is, however, more to Frankfurt than meets the eye. The museum quarter on the river is well worth a trip. Holbein’s restaurant attached to the art gallery does a tasty venison steak with a drinkable bottle of German Pinot Noir. The modern art museum is achingly fashionable, complete with rooms full of rubbish assembled by Joseph Beuys, and quite a lot of death.

One large white room appeared to be completely empty. But I have been round a few contemporary galleries in my time and am not so easily put off. Maybe the empty guard’s chair was a work of art? Maybe the absence of anything was a profound artistic statement in itself. Maybe the humidifier in the corner was actually a conceptual sculpture?

It turned out that my last hypothesis was close to the truth. I had missed a sign outside the door explaining that the humidifier was using water previously used to wash corpses in a morgue in Mexico City. So by breathing in minute particles of waste ‘our encounter with the dead is reduced to a minimum and, at the same time, carried to the farthest extreme…the result is identification with the dead: immediate unification’.

It is good to know that, in these difficult times, the burghers of Frankfurt have the funds to spend unifying me with dead Mexicans, though it is fair to say that I also spent a dozen of my very own euros to share in the experience, so I am complicit.

It was a relief to get back to Edinburgh to watch the annual life and death struggle for the Calcutta Cup. After Scotland’s encouraging displays in the World Cup, Murrayfield was buzzing. We had haggis and neeps for lunch and, just a couple of hours later, chicken for dinner. Though the chicken turned out to be stuffed with…haggis. In between times, Dylan Hartley and his chums had spoiled the party somewhat with a dour but effective display of pressure rugby.

On the morning after, we skipped the haggis breakfast and took refuge in the Scottish National Gallery. The painters are almost all dead, but the art is very much alive. Not a winding sheet or bottle of formaldehyde to be seen. There was, to cap the magnificent collection, a charismatic German curator, taking a group of primary school children on a tour. We tagged along, hoping to learn something to our advantage. In front of one Poussin painting of a biblical scene, he asked if any of them knew what it portrayed. A seven-year-old cuddling a fluffy dog diffidently suggested ‘Judith and Holofernes?’. She was not quite right, as it turned out, but hey.

We quickly realised we were out of our league and shuffled away, to avoid the embarrassment of failing to answer his next question. The often maligned Scottish education system must be doing something right.

Howard Davies is the chairman of RBS. Follow him on Twitter at: @howardjdavies

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