Jürgen Resch, the managing director of Environmental Action Germany, says he’s the target of many lawsuits. A manufacturer of plastic bags, for example, is demanding he pay €2.7 million ($3 million) in damages for lost profits.
He faced another legal hurdle recently when the Berlin Regional Court was supposed to rule on a petition for a temporary injunction filed by Daimler to prevent him from publishing a letter from the automaker.
"I've been threatened a number of times,” he said. “But if Daimler were to prevail in this lawsuit, it would have extensive negative consequences for the work of environmental and consumer protection organizations."
In the courtroom, he said there was much more than a letter at stake, namely the rights of 80 million Germans whose interests his environmental organization represents. And in his eyes, these people are threatened by corporations.
Mr. Resch has transformed the DUH environmental organization into what is likely Germany’s most powerful environmental lobby group.
It’s Mr. Resch's standard approach. He seeks to inflate the importance of his environmental group, which is known by its German acronym DUH, making it appear bigger and more powerful than it is. He believes this is the only chance he has to prevail against the German auto industry.
Recently, he said Opel also used so-called defeat devices to reduce the effectiveness of emissions control systems, similar to the ones used by Volkswagen that sparked the Dieselgate scandal. Opel had said the emissions control system was fully functional within a certain range for the model in question. But Mr. Resch says his measurements revealed exceptions.
In a sense, he's Germany's professional prosecutor. He has been DUH’s managing director since 1986. In 30 years, he has transformed the environmental organization, based in Radolfzell on Lake Constance in southern Germany, into Germany’s most powerful environmental group.
As a consumer protection organization, DUH can directly admonish corporations when consumers’ rights are in jeopardy. The group generates more than €2 million in annual revenues. Although DUH is only one of 78 consumer protection groups registered with the Ministry of Justice, Mr. Resch and his team probably file more lawsuits than any other nonprofit organization. Of 1,500 lawsuits a year, about 400 actually end up in court. He claims DUH loses only 4 percent of its cases.
As a consumer protection advocate, he has battled industrial corporations since the early 1980s, when he found that birds were dying near Lake Constance from exposure to the plant pesticide Endrin, which at the time was used in fruit production.
Mr. Resch went to a meeting of experts at the Federal Biological Research Center and slammed a bag containing frozen common buzzards onto the table along with a bottle of the pesticide.
"This is enough to kill 300 people," he said.
Endrin was banned a short time later, and Mr. Resch had discovered his life's work. In the ensuing years, he has tangled with the nuclear industry, oil companies and giant firms such as BASF and Lindl.
Adversaries have also included Volkswagen, Porsche and Daimler, though there was a time when Mr. Resch was a welcome partner for the auto industry.
He believes that for years automakers deliberately circumvented emissions regulations, made false statements about fuel consumption and installed software in their vehicles designed to thwart emissions testing stations, while the government did nothing.
In the late 1990s, for example, he teamed up with German automakers to organize a campaign for unleaded gasoline, with multinational oil companies as the adversary.
Later, DaimlerChrysler hired DUH to annotate the automaker’s environmental report from 1995 to 2005, but the partnership ended abruptly about 10 years ago. The official reason was the company had tried to interfere with DUH's uncensored annotation of the company’s environmental reports, and it had also treated the partnership as a "payroll job," Mr. Resch said.
A campaign for soot-particle filters, which Mr. Resch had just launched at the time, probably also played a significant role in the situation. DaimlerChrysler, for its part, blamed the deal’s termination on his "misleading" criticism of the company's environmental report.
All communication ended and it would take almost 10 years for the two sides to even acknowledge each other again. It happened on September 18, when the world learned of the Volkswagen diesel-emissions scandal, and Mr. Resch started making references to what he called the "industrial-political complex."
He believes that for years, automakers deliberately circumvented emissions regulations, made false statements about fuel consumption and installed software in their vehicles designed to thwart emissions testing stations.
He said that although the government has laws and regulations to prevent this from happening, it did nothing. It was out of deference to the overly powerful industry, which also controls the media, he said. The victim of this conspiracy, according to Mr. Resch, is the consumer.
The test results recently released by the German Federal Motor Transport Authority support Mr. Resch's contention. Soon after, it was revealed that virtually all German carmakers produce models with excessive emissions levels and will have to recall hundreds of thousands of vehicles, Mr. Resch issued a press release attacking the German government.
He demanded "an end to cozying up to the auto industry and the consistent application of established law."
It's the battle of a lifetime against the most powerful adversary he has ever faced. Hardly a day goes by when he's not in the media.
Of course, the German auto industry isn't exactly pleased by his accusations. To contain the damage, automakers, most notably Daimler, approached him to schedule a meeting for December 2, 2015.
At the urging of Wolfgang Scheunemann, the head of global technology and environmental communications at Daimler until 2004, and the founder of the German Corporate Social Responsibility Forum, Daimler spokesmen Jörg Howe met with Mr. Resch in Radolfzell.
They discussed emissions levels and DUH's measurements. Mr. Resch told his story, and Mr. Scheunemann, who Mr. Resch describes as a "close friend for decades," seconded. In the end, the two agreed to continue the conversation, this time with Daimler R&D Chief Thomas Weber.
Mr. Scheunemann was to make the arrangements.
But the meeting never happened. The carmaker and the DUH had diverging interests when it came to the content of the meeting. Daimler wanted to unveil its latest diesel technology, while Mr. Resch wanted to talk about the mistakes of the past. After some back-and-forth, the meeting was finally cancelled. Since then, the "bridges have been burned," said Mr. Scheunemann.
"I approached Mr. Resch as a sign of dialogue. After the meeting, I really thought we had found a constructive foundation," Mr. Howe said.
There are those who believe that Mr. Resch never intended to attend the follow-up meeting, but was merely testing Daimler to see how far it would go.
"From the very beginning, Mr. Resch's tone was such that we eventually sharpened our tone," Mr. Howe said. One thing is clear, he added: "Much of what Mr. Resch says is interpretation. We aren't familiar with the underlying data from his tests. We would never hear the end of something like that."
Mr. Resch isn't very popular with the other auto companies, either. "It won't surprise you that we do not share the opinions of Mr. Resch that you quote," a BMW spokesman wrote to Handelsblatt. "Pithy overstatements" are not conducive to an objective discussion, he added.
Other auto industry representatives say DUH is trying to place the entire industry under general suspicion, but using unverifiable data to do so. It is certainly legitimate for lobbying groups to fight for public attention, the representatives noted, "but Mr. Resch lacks a sense of proportion," one of them said.
An expert on the automotive industry describes the relationship with Mr. Resch as "troubled" and believes his choice of words is dangerous. For instance, the term "industrial-political complex" is derived from the rhetoric of the RAF terrorist group, which spoke of a "military-industrial complex," the expert said, advising Mr. Resch to pursue linguistic "disarmament."
In fact, he added, DUH is an "activist group" that has turned punishing corporations into its business model.
"And the things Mr. Resch said about Daimler Chief Executive Dieter Zetsche are just outrageous," another insider said.
Still, Mr. Resch's approach is successful. At the end of a lecture he gave on the emissions scandal last month at Zeppelin University, a man in the audience said: "I'm shocked by the sheer scale of the problem. How does the industry get away with this trickery?"
Mr. Resch looked at him, almost with pity in response to such naivety. After his presentation, the DUH director's departure was delayed by a small crowd full of questions: Is my car a polluting machine? Can I still trust my Daimler dealer? What should I do now?
But even if he has nothing good to say about the individual companies, Mr. Resch does promise that "diesel engines can survive" if the auto industry fully cleans up the emissions scandal, existing vehicles are recalled to fix the problem and better emissions technology is used in new cars.
This doesn’t sound at all like the environmental activists who have staged protests at German nuclear sites in the past, for example. It's less militant and inflammatory, and more down-to-earth and optimistic – the kind of rhetoric many people can identify with.
In person, Mr. Resch isn't very ideological at all. He likes Tom Waits, takes taxis when he's in a hurry, wears a suit and tie, has managed to tame his white hair and has a dark timbre to his voice. When he speaks, it isn't with the hysterical screeching of a naïve environmental missionary, but with the calm of a university professor.
Asked whether he's ever camped out in a tree or chained himself to train tracks in protest, he replied: "Do those stereotypical environmentalists even exist anymore?"
The DUH is also a pragmatic organization. To secure its funding and boost projects, Mr. Resch is increasingly entering into partnerships with industry. For instance, he fought with German bottled water producers over the bottle deposit, and he battled producers of soot particle filters over the introduction of environmental zones.
"We are a lobby, we are a party and we enter into alliances of convenience," he once said.
The DUH website reads: "In a dialogue with companies and environmental politicians, we develop opportunities for sustainable ways of doing business and for environmentally friendly products."
The DUH is a pragmatic organization. To secure its funding and boost projects, Mr. Resch is increasingly entering into partnerships with industry.
He now derives a third of his €9 million budget from partnerships, and another third comes from donations, even from some of the companies the DUH has gone after. Foundations and public institutions provide the remainder of the funding. The organization now has 90 employees, more than twice as many as it had 10 years ago. It also has a nationwide campaign machinery, which Mr. Resch controls in a businesslike and practiced manner.
Is it possible that he isn't an agitator at all, as the auto industry sees him, but merely a professional campaigner? Reactions to the name Resch are now significantly more relaxed at the Association of the German Automobile Industry (VDA) than they were 10 years ago.
Back then the head of the VDA, Bernd Gottschalk, told Handelsblatt: "In our view, Mr. Resch has a remarkable ability to exploit the substantial tendency toward hysteria in our country for his political ends. And as we have learned repeatedly, he is not squeamish in his choice of methods."
Today VDA spokesman Eckehart Rotter says that there has been a "cultural shift" at the association. "The days of ideological trench warfare are over. We are not involved in any sort of confrontation here," Mr. Rotter said. In fact, the VDA and the DUH meet regularly. Mr. Resch and a VDA representative recently spent and an hour and a half discussing issues on German public broadcasting radio station.
Perhaps it is this ambivalence, this love-hate relationship, the passionate desire for the demise of his adversaries that make Jürgen Resch so interesting and vocal. But perhaps it is also merely the respect for his ability to make everything seem more momentous than it is. Ever since the struggle over unleaded gasoline, the auto industry has known "that Mr. Resch is capable of running campaigns," says power broker Scheunemann. It almost sounds as if he were describing an athletic competition.
Back at the Berlin Regional Court, where this story began, a favorable verdict on the Daimler letter came a few hours after Mr. Resch's plea. For now, Mr. Resch has won and the auto company has lost – at least in this case. The principal proceeding is still pending, but he isn't thinking about that at the moment.
"I will release the letter on the Internet immediately," he said cheerfully. "This was a very important victory, not just for me and my organization, but for society as a whole."
Jürgen Resch thinks big.
Simon Book is part of Handelsblatt's investigative reporting team and works for the newspaper's "Names" section on the top personalities and celebrities of the day. To reach the author: [email protected]