German billionaire Adolf Merckle killed himself today. His family stated that he was depressed by the state of his business empire (which includes shares in Volkswagen) in the current economic crisis.

Adolf Merckle

Adolf Merckle

Adolf Merckle killed himself in Ulm, Germany on Tuesday by standing in front of a commuter train. He was 74 years old.

According to Forbes Magazine, Merckle was the world’s 94th-richest person in 2008. He was the head of a business conglomerate which included a large investment in the German automaker Volkswagen. In recent months, his conglomerate faced huge losses due to the collapse of Volkswagen, whose shares have sharply declined since October. Reuters estimated Merckle’s losses from his Volkswagen investment at 400 million euros or about $539 million.

A family press release stated: “The desperate situation of his companies caused by the financial crisis, the uncertainties of the last few weeks and his powerlessness to act, have broken the passionate family entrepreneur and he took his own life.”

He was married and a father of four children.

Much like American automakers, Merckle unsuccessfully sought government backing to help support his empire. However, his efforts were met with a public backlash and ridicule in the German press. One German newspaper called him “The Billionaire With No Pockets.”

In addition to Volkswagen, Merckle’s empire included pharmaceuticals, foundries, refineries and ski equipment manufacturers. His empire reportedly earns approximately 30 billion euros ($40.5 billion) in annual sales.

It is difficult to believe that a man with the fortitude to live through World War II and build such an empire would simply give up because of this financial crisis. But perhaps this man’s suicide just shows how powerless we all are in the face of this global collapse.