• Vie. Jul 12th, 2024

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Bayer: The pharmaceutical company behind Leverkusen’s success – and its difficult past


Under head coach Xabi Alonso, Bayer Leverkusen have won the Bundesliga and are on the cusp of winning the DFB-Pokal and Europa League — and of completing that treble unbeaten.

This could be one of the great campaigns in European football history, but Leverkusen are unusual in more ways than this.

Founded in 1904 as a multi-sports club for employees of the local Bayer pharmaceutical company, they are funded by the same company. That historic relationship means they are one of two teams (alongside Volkswagen-owned Wolfsburg) to have an exemption from German football’s 50+1 rule, which stipulates a club’s majority shareholding must remain with its members.

Leverkusen, the city, was built to serve the company. Today, the football team remains a wholly-owned subsidiary of Bayer, with a presence in more than 80 countries and revenues in 2023 of €53billion (£45bn; $58bn).

But that connection can also be difficult. In the early part of the 20th century, it created Heroin and sold it commercially. Bayer was also integrated into and reincorporated from IG Farben, a company which contributed substantially to the Nazi war effort. This group used forced labour during the Holocaust while Bayer was accused of human experimentation.

Cutter Laboratories, owned by Bayer since 1974, was one of the firms which made Factor VIII, a blood-clotting protein used to treat haemophilia. Its use in the UK has been examined as part of the government inquiry into how more than 30,000 people were infected by contaminated blood treatments during the 1970s and ’80s, prompting a “wholehearted and unequivocal apology” from Prime Minister Rishi Sunak on Monday, who called it “a decades-long moral failure”.

In the present day, a company it owns has attracted controversy. Before it was acquired by Bayer, Monsanto, the U.S. agrochemical manufacturer, was among several firms to make Agent Orange, the damaging herbicide used during the Vietnam War.

Bayer, though, is more substantial than its past or that spotlighted present. The company, which was founded in 1863, invented Aspirin. It continues to make significant contributions to the prevention and treatment of serious illness, to agricultural sustainability and to the culture of remembrance necessitated by the Second World War.  Through grants and a web of shared networks, its foundation supports gender and pay equality within scientific research and promotes social innovation in many disadvantaged communities. It has a rich legacy in sport, too, in which — of course — Leverkusen are the biggest beneficiaries.

It is not a simple relationship to evaluate.


Leverkusen have won the Bundesliga and are on the cusp of a treble (Ina Fassbender/AFP via Getty Images)

Bayer was originally a dyestuff manufacturer. After the First World War, it combined with five companies, forming IG Farben, which was headquartered in Frankfurt.

IG Farben no longer exists. It was seized by the Allies after the Second World War and broken back up into constituent parts — with Bayer being reincorporated in 1951.

In 1947, 23 of IG Farben’s company directors were put on trial at Nuremberg for war crimes. Nine were found guilty. Prosecuting, Telford Taylor described them as “the men who made war possible”.

IG Farben produced the synthetic fuel and rubber that energised the Nazi war machine. It employed tens of thousands of slave labourers in the production of its almost infinite array of metals, chemicals, explosives and gases. One of its subsidiaries, Degesch, supplied Zyklon B, the gas used by the Nazis to execute millions in extermination camps during the Holocaust.

Eva Mozes Kor was nine years old when she and her twin sister, Miriam, arrived at Auschwitz in 1944. Over the next nine months, before the camp was liberated, Eva and Miriam were subjected to medical experiments and research. Miriam died in 1994 after a lifetime of illness resulting from the under-development of her kidneys. In 1999, Eva brought a class action lawsuit against Bayer, claiming it had “monitored and supervised those experiments and used them as a form of research and development for its corporate benefit”.

According to the court filing, “Bayer provided toxic chemicals to the Nazis… some of those experiments involved injecting concentration camp inmates with toxic chemicals and germs known to cause diseases to test the effectiveness of various drugs made by Bayer.”

The case, when consolidated with others around the Nazi regime, led to a settlement — without any admission of liability — from a collective of German industry. Bayer was one of the first companies to contribute towards a $5billion (then £3bn) fund for the Remembrance, Responsibility and Future Foundation, a Federal organisation in Germany established in 2000 to compensate victims of National Socialism.


Holocaust survivor Eva Mozes Kor (Janek Skarzynski/AFP via Getty Images)

Bayer’s history is on its website, which acknowledges IG Farben’s production of synthetic rubbers that were vital to the war effort. It accepts that the company depended on thousands of slave labourers, many of whom died as a result of working in inhumane conditions. There is now a monument to those victims next to Bayer’s headquarters.

In 2023, the company founded the Hans and Berthold Finkelstein Foundation. Hans Finkelstein was a laboratory manager at IG Farben. Despite becoming a protestant as a child, the passing of the Nuremberg laws meant he was classified as a Jew. After being forced by Nazi authorities to leave the company, he committed suicide in 1938. Berthold, his son, was enslaved into forced labour at the same company his father had worked for but would survive the war.

The foundation aims to support research and remembrance projects “on the crimes of the National Socialists — especially on the subject of Nazi forced labour and IG Farben”. Johannes Finkelstein, Hans’ grandson, gave Bayer permission for the family name to be used and serves as a member of the foundation’s advisory council.


In 1897, Bayer’s chemist Felix Hofmann created Aspirin. The same year, the company successfully produced a modification to morphine that could be used to treat coughs and respiratory and muscular diseases in adults and children — Heroin.

Bayer began to mass produce and sell it in 1898. With particularly high instances of tuberculosis at the turn of the century, there was great demand. Heroin was shown to be more effective than codeine or morphine. It was even prescribed to treat addiction to those drugs.

However, as early as 1899, reports warned that heroin dosage had to be increased to remain effective. By 1902, warnings were being issued about the drug’s habit-forming properties. In 1903, the French physician Jean Leynia de La Jarrige warned that prescribing the drug risked turning patients into “heroinists”. He also observed that withdrawal from heroin was more painful than morphine and that, rather than reducing addiction, prescribing the drug was creating more addicts.


An advert from 1900 (Getty Images)

Heroin’s manufacture was intended to serve the medical community, which quarrelled about the drug for many years after. Nevertheless, soon after the drug was first sold and prescribed, its value became apparent to criminals and smugglers, helping to spread heroin and its addictive properties around the world.

Asked about that process, Bayer said: “Over the decades, ‘heroin’ went from being a protected trademark to a generic term, a fate that befell numerous trademarks. Bayer made repeated efforts early on to combat this misuse of the trademark to avoid being mistakenly associated with drug trafficking — unfortunately without success. Incidentally, Bayer stopped Heroin production in 1940, which was already very small at the time.

“As a company, we have always dealt with the subject of heroin openly and transparently. For example, Dr Michael de Ridder used the historical sources in our company archives in his research into the history of heroin. His publication ‘Heroin — From Medicine to Drug’ is still considered the standard work on this subject today.”


Monsanto is an American agribusiness firm. In June 2018, Bayer acquired it for $66billion — the biggest transaction in the German company’s history.

Pre-merger, Monsanto was among several U.S. companies to manufacture Agent Orange, the herbicide used during the Vietnam War, which left parts of the region contaminated and a legacy of associated illnesses in the local population.

Until the late 1970s, Monsanto also produced polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs), which are used to insulate electrical equipment. U.S. Congress banned PCBs in 1979 after they were shown to cause cancers and to be a major pollutant, yet many products containing PCBs remained in workplaces and schools. As late as 2010, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, in conjunction with the City of New York and the New York City School Construction Authority, was running pilot schemes evaluating the best strategy for reducing exposure to PCBs in school buildings.

In December 2023, in a case brought by seven former students and volunteers at the Sky Valley Education Centre, near Seattle, it was claimed that PCBs made by Monsanto had leaked, contributing to neurological, neurophysiological, endocrine and autoimmune issues. The company claimed it had warned the school about the dangers. A Washington State jury awarded $857million in damages. This will be appealed. A verdict on another case to do with the same centre, which saw three former teachers awarded $185m for exposure to PCBs, was overturned on appeal earlier this month. Other appeals on other cases to do with PCBs are ongoing.

Another significant issue for Monsanto — and now Bayer — concerns its glyphosate herbicides.

In March 2015, a report by the International Agency for Research on Cancer, part of the World Health Organisation, concluded that “the herbicide glyphosate and the insecticides malathion and diazinon were classified as probably carcinogenic to humans”.

In 2014, a school groundsman, Dewayne Johnson, was diagnosed with non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma. In a case filed in California, Johnson’s lawyer claimed a link between his client’s cancer and RangerPro, a Monsanto herbicide containing glyphosate, and that the company was aware of a potential risk. A jury awarded him $289m in damages in 2018.

Following its takeover, Bayer appealed the verdict several times, reducing the damages to $21m.

In March 2019, a second trial involved Edwin Hardeman, a homeowner who had used Monsanto’s Roundup, another glyphosate-based herbicide, on his property. He was awarded $80million in damages, later reduced on appeal to $25million.

Most recently, in January 2024, a jury in Pennsylvania awarded John McKivison $2.25bn in damages. McKivison had also been diagnosed with non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma, which he said developed after using Monsanto’s Roundup herbicide on his property for 20 years.

Bayer has expressed its intention to appeal.

In 2020, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency said glyphosate is “not likely to be carcinogenic to humans”. In November 2023, the European Commission renewed its approval of glyphosate after not identifying “critical areas of concern”.


Roundup weed killer (Scott Olson/Getty Images)

Bayer says it “stands fully behind the safety of our glyphosate products” and “has great sympathy for anyone who suffers from disease and we understand their search for answers. At the same time, the extensive body of science continues to show that our products are not responsible for the illnesses alleged in this litigation”.

According to Bayer, 113,000 of the 170,000 claims have been resolved or deemed to be ineligible.


An older issue has just reared its head again.

Factor VIII, a blood-clotting protein used to treat haemophilia, was manufactured in the United States by several companies including Cutter Laboratories, which has been owned by Bayer since 1974.

Factor VIII was groundbreaking in allowing patients to live normal lives, yet its manufacture involved collecting blood plasma from tens of thousands of donors. In the U.S., where it was legal to pay donors for plasma, many donations came from communities at greater risk of infection from Hepatitis C and HIV. The screening of samples was poor and testing for the AIDS virus did not yet exist.

In 1982, Cutter Laboratories discovered that chimpanzees used in its testing were displaying HIV-like symptoms. In early 1984, the company joined others in the industry in producing a safer, heat-treated version of their product. But the original was still available until 1985 in some parts of the world. The UK kept prescribing it until late 1985.

In 1997, Bayer and three other producers of Factor VIII agreed to pay $600million in compensation to settle litigation brought by thousands of haemophiliac patients in the U.S. — the four companies did not admit wrongdoing as part of the settlement.

Contaminated Factor VIII from a number of companies was also imported into the UK, resulting in what has been described as the biggest treatment disaster in the history of the National Health Service. Since the 1970s, around 1,250 patients who were treated with Factor VIII developed both HIV and Hepatitis C, while two-thirds later died of AIDS-related illnesses. Between 2,400 and 5,000 people developed Hepatitis C on its own.

The British Government announced an enquiry into the infected blood products in 2017. Its report was published on May 20, saying that victims had been failed “not once but repeatedly” by doctors, by the NHS, by safeguards and by the government.

In response to questions about Cutter Laboratories and Factor VIII, Bayer told The Athletic that it had “no new findings or statements on the subject of the legal disputes that were concluded many years ago”.


The process of ‘vergangenheitsbewaltigung’ — literally, coping with the past — is ongoing. “It’s always a conversation and it’s always a fight to make sure it’s happening,” said Kit Holden, a German-English author and journalist.

With big German companies, including Bayer, that must always be the case.

“There’s a tendency from outside to assume this is about guilt and pointing fingers, but in reality, it is more about German society and institutions facing their past head-on. Most have started to address their history in the last 20 or 30 years,” Holden added.

“There is a lot out in the open. That is just part of German business culture and the culture of the Federal Republic. Most of those companies did have a role in that part of history. It’s generally accepted now that they all have to look that in the face.

“But the very nature of vergangenheitsbewaltigung is that it continues. It’s not a guilt complex, but a conversation. That conversation has to develop from generation to generation.”

Many prominent German companies and organisations have a past entangled with the atrocities committed during the Second World War.

BMW, Mercedes, Porsche and Audi all used forced labourers from concentration camps. Volkswagen manufactured weapons. Deutsche Bank provided construction loans for Auschwitz. It is a long list and many football clubs appear on it, too.

Uli Hesse, the author of Tor! The Story of German Football, is still uncertain how to view these organisations. In football terms, the notion of Bayer Leverkusen as a sports team — one with an identity separate from Bayer the multinational company — has been normal for as long as Hesse can remember.

“I grew up with Bayer Leverkusen as a big famous sports club, but not in football. They were very good at basketball. They had a lot of very good track and field athletes. When I look back at Bayer Leverkusen, especially in the 1970s and 1980s, most of the German athletes who went to the Olympics came from Bayer Leverkusen. That’s what they were known for.”

It still is. Bayer has 22 different clubs in Germany, with more than 40,000 members. The company provides substantial funding to disability sports, both through its foundation and as a sponsor of Germany’s National Paralympics Committee. In 2023, it was one of eight brands recognised within Laureus’ Sport for Good Index.

Football is different, though; attachment to organisations is viewed much more cynically. Abroad, there has been much more appreciation for what Alonso and his players have achieved, but there are still reservations at home, especially among supporters of the traditional clubs, who often accuse Bayer of being “plastic”.

This is an “outdated” view, according to Kevin Scheuren, who lives in Bonn, in North-Rhine Westphalia, and has been a Leverkusen fan all his life. He is a club member and a season ticket holder at the BayArena.


The BayArena during Saturday’s game (Stuart Franklin/Getty Images)

“The club came into the Bundesliga in 1979 and has not been relegated since,” he said. “You can argue that money hasn’t been a problem, but it’s not like we spent €500million. Many stars were made in Leverkusen.

“If people want to be negative about it, it’s OK — if people want to be positive about it, that’s OK, too. We know who we are and I’m proud of our fan scene — and we don’t see ourselves as bigger or less than any other club.”

Leverkusen enjoy Bayer’s patronage and the stability that comes from its wealth, but their wage bill is only the fourth highest in the Bundesliga and roughly a quarter of what Bayern Munich spend.

But is the Bayer name and its inferences difficult at times?

“If people want to criticise Bayer for what Bayer did in the past, they should,” said Scheuren. “And they should take that criticism. But I don’t see myself as a supporter of Bayer; I see myself as a supporter of the football club that this company has. I’m not a fan of the company — I don’t need to be.

“I chant ‘Bayer’ but I mean my club, I mean my guys on the pitch and not the guys sitting in the offices. I see myself differentiating it a little more. I sometimes wish people would do that more with their criticisms.”

When asked about the modern controversies, Fernando Carro, Leverkusen’s CEO, says he is proud of the Bayer association.

“We will always be bound together by our history,” Carro tells The Athletic, “and by the founding of our club from Bayer employees in 1904. One hundred and 20 years of heritage. So our Bayer DNA is always shared. We see our contribution as a football club in sporting success, in strong brand awareness for Bayer and in being a solid ambassador for local and global communities.”

Carro says he has never felt any negativity.

“I only can tell you that our team has never felt more supported than it has in the past few years by Bayer and that we’ve never felt any negative effect from our historic ties. The opposite even.”

Cody has spent much of his life living and studying in Germany, but he is originally from California and lives in Denver, Colorado. For privacy, he has asked that we do not use his surname.

Cody is used to accusations of Leverkusen being a “plastic club” — he shrugs it off — but has the Bayer brand ever impinged upon his fandom?

“Honestly, no”, he says. “In the U.S., we have a different relationship with our sports owners. A lot of owners in the U.S. are notoriously bad guys. They’re in the mortgage business or they move teams or whatever. So, I feel like here we separate the two — the owner and the team.”

Increasingly, football asks fans to make distinctions between the team on the pitch and the resources that put it there. In this case, the separation is much broader. And yet, because Bayer is the first name to ever be engraved on the Meisterschale, the Bundesliga trophy, the influence feels more literal.

But the Bayer name is too big to have any single association. Its history and its present have too many dimensions to be contained within a football story.

(Top photo: Getty Images)


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