So you might expect to meet a broken man. Yet Middelhoff, who is 65, seems anything but. He arrives bang on time, cheerful and polite. "It’s so strange," he tells me more than an hour into lunch, "but internally I’m stronger than I was beforehand. I have the feeling that I’m in a really thrilling stage of my life."
He has a new partner, is writing a novel and has plans for another book. He is also campaigning for judicial reform. "My American friends also tell me: private equity, venture capital — you’re still good at this." But that, he says, is only an option once he finishes the books he has in mind.
He had suggested to meet at Klötzer’s Kleines Restaurant, a well-established, family-run place in Bielefeld, northwestern Germany. Middelhoff moved to the small, unpretentious city in 1989. It is close to Bertelsmann’s headquarters in Gütersloh, a sleepy town that is also home to the household-goods giant Miele.
Klötzer’s is located down a quiet side street in the centre of town. The menu is an eclectic mix of down-to-earth regional cooking as well as Asian and Mediterranean cuisine. Fines de claire oysters and Canadian lobsters are offered alongside kale with smoked sausage and Viennese schnitzel.
Is this one of his favourite places? "Well, I’ve eaten here maybe two or three times over the years," he replies. "It’s just that the choice of nice restaurants in Bielefeld is limited."
Middelhoff has visibly changed from the high-octane internet evangelist who was a frequent flyer on Concorde, known for his arrogance and ego. The most obvious difference is how haggard he is. He lost 20kg in jail, and has only recovered a few since his release shortly before Christmas.
He’s wearing a casual shirt, a beige cardigan and a pair of brown corduroy trousers. He dismisses the standard western managerial dress code — a dark suit, a pristine white shirt and an elegant tie — as a "suit of armour", consigned to the past.
He places a small pill box next to his cutlery. "I’m on 12 different drugs these days," he says. In jail, he developed the rare autoimmune disease chilblain lupus, which attacks the vital organs. Middelhoff claims the disease was caused by constant sleep deprivation during his first month in prison, when he was put on suicide watch.
He describes how wardens woke him up every 15 minutes at night to check if he was alive. This was disputed by the authorities but Middelhoff says the official prison record obtained by his lawyers includes detailed documentation of the nightly visits. Amnesty International later said that, if true, this was a violation of human rights, and Middelhoff says he intends to sue for damages.
The disease nearly killed him. A doctor confused the symptoms for a long time with foot fungus. Middelhoff shows me his hands. "Here you can still see it a bit," he says, pointing to faint red and blue patches on the skin of his fingertips.
He underwent two rounds of heart surgery, and tells me about it in more detail than I want to know at lunchtime. Currently, he says, he has problems with his kidneys. Every two to three weeks, he has to have a medical check-up. "If you look at it cynically you can say: my health is supervised so closely that any issue will be detected early on," he says, laughing. "You have to live with the disease and that’s what I do."
We have been so immersed in the conversation that, after 20 minutes or so, he has to remind me that we might want to have a look at the menu. Middelhoff is considering the Thai vegetable curry until I mention the schnitzel, which he recalls enjoying here on another occasion. He orders this and, after trying unsuccessfully to replace the accompanying potatoes with chips, gratefully accepts the truffled potato mash offered as an alternative by the waitress.
I go for fillet of locally hunted hare, which comes with nutty Swabian noodles and braised red cabbage. He says he doesn’t really need a starter, but changes his mind when I order a mixed salad. "OK, I will tag along, then." I suggest wine, and it doesn’t take much to sway him. He prefers white and I want red, so we order 250ml of each.