Seilschaft (Germany)

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Seilschaft 🇩🇪
Germany map.png
Location: Germany
Definition: Lit. ‘rope alliances’, crony networks in business and politics
Keywords: Germany Europe EU Elite Euphemism Ties Network Influence
Clusters: Domination Motivational ambivalence Co-optation Patron-client networks
Author: Dieter Zinnbauer
Affiliation: Transparency International, Germany
Website: Profile page at LinkedIn

By Dieter Zinnbauer, Transparency International, Germany

Seilschaft (plural Seilschaften) is a German term denoting an informal network. Literally, it means ‘rope-team’ – a small group of Alpine mountaineers who, when scaling a mountain, tie themselves together with a single rope in order to support and secure one another against falling off the rock-face. Used in its informal sense, however, the term carries highly negative connotations of cronyism, unfair advantage and undue influence, typically with the purpose of advancing the careers of the network members. While the term originated in Germany, it has spread to the English-language academic literature to denote corruption, patronage and the abuse of informal political networks.

The early, figurative use of the term can be observed in German scholarship, media and everyday language, primarily to describe small cliques in companies, bureaucracies or political parties whose members seek jointly to advance their careers, often by corrupt means. Seilschaften gained prominence in the wake of regime changes such as the defeat of the Nazi regime in 1945 and, from 1989, the collapse of the German Democratic Republic. In both cases, the term was used to describe the tenacious persistence of old-boy networks in public administration, politics and business, and the efforts of such networks both to carry over some of their clout into the new regime, and to protect one other from being ousted or indicted as a result of the roles they had played under the old order (Karsten and vonThiessen 2006; Asch 2007; Häusserman 1998; 2016)[1][2][3].

In German academia, the concept has also found some traction in studies of post-Soviet transition countries, for example in relation to Russia, Poland, Romania and Ukraine (Pleines 2005 and 2006)[4][5], and in some instances with regard to manifestations of machine politics in the USA (Welskopp 2010)[6] or of corruption in China (Heberer 2013)[7].

Use of the term remains common in the mass media in contemporary Germany. A popular Danish TV drama (Borgen), that documents the rise and political machinations of a Danish prime minster, is for example distributed in Germany with the subtitle Gefährliche (dangerous) Seilschaften. In real life, too, certain networks of highly ambitious German politicians have been dubbed the Andenpakt (Andean Pact) and the Zugspitzkreis (Zugspitz Circle). Both of these much discussed Seilschaften follow the mountaineering metaphor and are named after a particular mountain range or mountain. In both cases, too, it is noteworthy that the reference to a rope-party is not only ascribed by the media, but is also promoted by the groups’ own founders and members, perhaps to reflect some of the mythological aura of ambition and risk-taking of Seilschaften in a competitive political landscape.

Perhaps the most prominent German manifestation is the ‘Similauner,’ a select network of top German business managers who meet twice a year on mountain trips that serve as bonding events (Manager Magazin 2012)[8]. Outside German-speaking countries the notion of Seilschaften has also found some, albeit as yet limited, use in the political science literature, particularly with regard to the organisation of political and economic power in the former Soviet Union and Eastern Europe (McCauley and Carter 1986; Albrecht 2000: 225) [9][10]. The first use of the term in the English-speaking political-science literature is commonly attributed to T.H. Rigby and his colleagues in their work on the organisation of political leadership and power in the former USSR (Rigby 1981 and 1986; Jözsa 1983: 135; Albrecht 2000: 225; Ledeneva 2013: 33)[11][12][13][14][15].

Specific definitions in the literature on governance vary, but common attributes that are typically associated with Seilschaften (for example, Emrich et al. 1996)[16] and that also fit well with the mountaineering metaphor include: -Small: unlike most informal networks, Seilschaften are typically small in size, as are the related mountaineering groups. -The aim is the way to the top – climbing the mountain and climbing the career ladder. -Powerful leadership and trusting followers are key resources: a charismatic leader abuses his official position to dish out special favours, protection and career promotions to network-members in exchange for loyal following and support that validate his own power, much as a rope-leader takes responsibility for his climbing team. -Interdependent alliance of fate: members are tied to one another since collusion in corrupt activities such as undeserved promotion makes everyone vulnerable to being called out and everyone a potentially dangerous traitor. So on the mountain: if a single member acts recklessly, he or she can drag down the entire party. -Conspiratorial, secretive character: Seilschaften are typically shrouded in secrecy, their power and influence are rumoured to be considerable and at times imbued with legendary qualities, yet they operate behind the scenes, much as a small group of climbers whose heroic race to the summit takes place in the loneliness of the mountain far from public view. -More than an interest-based alliance: Seilschaften are usually believed to be underpinned by a strong collective identity, bonding experience and friendship often based on a shared geographic origin (the same city or region) and/or a shared educational or professional background (same alma mater, business-school or military training). These are reinforced by initiation rites and tests of courage just like those endured by a group of mountaineers whose risky, heroic ambitions and joint exposure to extreme mental and physical challenges forge a strong group identity and bonding experience.

From the perspective of practical governance, the term Seilschaft has a contemporary and important ring. Its metaphorical quality lies in its denotation of a set of corrupt practices that are much more subtle, reciprocal and multi-dimensional than the transactional bribery practices that have traditionally been the focus of most anti-corruption work. The concept of Seilschaft grants intuitive access to many elements in the bricolage of shared ideas and identities, interlocking social relations, conducive organisational dynamics, aligned political calculus, and economic (inter)dependencies that combine to imbue small bands of economic and political elite-networks with outsize influence on policy-making at both ideational and practical levels. As such, the notion of Seilschaft speaks to issues of kleptocracy, policy and regulatory capture – structural and transformational corruption risks that are rapidly assuming a central focus in both practical and scholarly work on political and economic governance.


  1. Karsten, A. and von Thiessen, H. (eds) 2006. Nützliche Netzwerke und korrupte Seilschaften. Göttingen: Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht
  2. Asch, R. 2007. ‘Besprechung von Karsten, A. und von Thiessen, H: Nützliche Netzwerke und korrupte Seilschaften,’ Vierteljahrschrift für Sozial- und Wirtschaftsgeschichte 94: 484-85
  3. 2016. ‘Seilschaft’
  4. Pleines, H. 2005. Ukrainische Seilschaften. Informelle Einflussnahme in der ukrainischen Wirtschaftspolitik, 1992-2004. Münster: LIT Verlag
  5. Pleines, H. 2006. Der politische Einfluss der Kohlelobbies in Polen, Russland und der Ukraine: eine vergleichende Politikfeldanalyse. Working paper No 80, Forschungsstelle Osteuropa an der Universität Bremen.
  6. Welskopp, T. 2010. Amerikas große Ernüchterung: Eine Kulturgeschichte der Prohibition. Paderborn: Schoeningh
  7. Heberer, T. 2013. Korruption in China: Analyse eines politischen, ökonomischen und sozialen Problems. Berlin: Springer
  8. Manager Magazin. 2012. ‘Der letzte Männerbund,’24 August
  9. McCauley, M. and Carter, S. 1986. ‘Introduction,’ in: M. McCauley and S. Carter (eds). Leadership and Succession in the Soviet Union, Eastern Europe, and China. Armonk: M.E. Sharpe: 1-15
  10. Albrecht, U. 2000. ‘Organised Crime as a New Threat to Societies in Transition,’ in: J. Rotblat (ed.), Confronting the Challenges of the 21st Century. Proceedings of the 49th Pugwash Conference on Science and World Affairs. London: World Scientific Publishing
  11. Rigby, T. 1981. ‘Early provincial cliques and the rise of Stalin,’ Soviet Studies 33(1): 3-28
  12. Rigby, T. 1986. ‘Was Stalin a disloyal patron?’ Soviet Studies 38(3): 311-24
  13. Jözsa, G. 1983. ‘Political Seilschaften in the USSR,’ in T. Rigby and B. Harasymiw (eds), Leadership Selection and Patron-Client Relations in the USSR and Yugoslavia, London: George Allen & Unwin, 139-17
  14. Albrecht, U. 2000. ‘Organised Crime as a New Threat to Societies in Transition,’ in: J. Rotblat (ed.), Confronting the Challenges of the 21st Century. Proceedings of the 49th Pugwash Conference on Science and World Affairs. London: World Scientific Publishing
  15. Ledeneva, A. 2013. Can Russia Modernise? Sistema, Power Networks and Informal Governance. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press
  16. Emrich, E., Papathanassiou, V. and Pitsch, W. 1996. ‘Klettertechnik für Aufsteiger. Seilschaften als soziales Phänomen,’ Kölner Zeitschrift für Soziologie und Sozialpsychologie, 48: 141-55