Walther Rathenau, the son of Emil Rathenau, a successful Jewish businessman who founded Allgemeine-Elektrizitats-Gellellschaft (AEG), was born in Berlin on 29th September, 1867. He studied science and philosophy at Berlin University before obtaining his doctorate in 1889.
After university Rathenau joined AEG and by the outbreak of the First World War he was head of the company. He also worked for the government in the Raw Materials Department of the War Ministry.
After the war Rathenau helped form the German Democratic Party. He also wrote The New Economy (1918) where he rejected state nationalization of industry but instead advocated that employees should play a greater role in the management of companies.
In 1921 Karl Wirth appointed Rathenau as his minister of reconstruction. The following year he became foreign minister. He upset right-wing nationalists like Adolf Hitler by arguing that Germany should fulfill Germany's obligations under the Treaty of Versailles. However, at the same time he worked with Matthias Erzberger, the minister of finance, to try and show that the terms of the treaty were too harsh.
Rathenau also upset German conservatives by negotiated the Treaty of Rapallo with the Soviet Union. He was now criticized by the leaders of the Nazi Party who claimed he was part of a Jewish-Communist conspiracy. Walther Rathenau was assassinated by two right-wing army officers on 24th June, 1922.
For ten years, between 1925 and 1935, I went to Germany every year. I was fascinated by the personality of Walther Rathenau, a German Jew, who had provided the munitions for the First World War. He was something that only a German Jew could simultaneously be: a prophet, a philosopher, a mystic, a writer, a statesman, an industrial magnate of the highest and greatest order, and the pioneer of what has become known as 'industrial rationalization'.
In June 1922 Walter Rathenau, a big Jewish industrialist and progressive economist, was assassinated by gangsters of the extreme Right who were the heart and soul of the Freikorps. I was present at the memorial service in the Reichstag and noted an extraordinary outburst of enthusiasm among the workers of Berlin, as expressed in their trade union leaders and Socialist Parties, for the Republic and for President Ebert. The rank and file of the Majority Social Democrats were now thoroughly aroused as they saw what Noske's policy of using the Freikorps had brought the country to. First Communists, then Socialists, and now a big industrialist were murdered for having Liberal views and, in the last case, for being a Jew. The situation in Germany was becoming more and more sinister. But for the first time the murderers were hunted down and shot when they defended themselves.
Who's Who - Walter Rathenau
Walter Rathenau (1867-1922) served as head of the German KRA economic war management department from 1914-15.
Rathenau was an industrialist his father was also head of the giant electrical group AEG. When war broke out in August 1914 (a war he believed would be lengthy) Rathenau approached Erich Falkenhayn, then Prussian War Minister, with a plan for centralised management and distribution of crucial war supplies.
Falkenhayn quickly saw the sense of Rathenau's plan - which was in itself adapted from one prepared earlier by an AEG employee (von Mollendorf) - and Rathenau soon found himself appointed head of the KRA.
Rathenau's patriotism was undeniable but it was perhaps inevitable that contracts for production of important supplies invariably ended up in the hands of the largest suppliers, including AEG, to the exclusion of smaller manufacturers.
Rathenau's tenure as head of the KRA was relatively brief however. In April 1915 he was forced to resign on account of his Jewish background, with the businesses the KRA administered demonstrating resentment at the notion of operating under what they believed amounted to Jewish direction.
Rathenau thereafter returned to his business at AEG, becoming chairman upon his father's death in June 1915. He remained active in politics however, and helped pave the way for the Third Supreme Command, the effective military/industrial dictatorship led by Hindenburg and Ludendorff.
Despite offering support for Hindenburg and Ludendorff's policies he was clear in his opposition to the adoption of a policy of unrestricted submarine warfare (without success, and which was ultimately responsible for drawing the U.S. into the war in April 1917). He similarly opposed Ludendorff's annexationist ambitions in the east.
In favour of resistance to the Allies right up until the end of the war, Rathenau joined the Democratic Party following agreement of the armistice. He served as Minister for Reconstruction from 1919-21 and as Foreign Minister in 1922.
Rathenau was murdered by right-wing extremists in Berlin in June 1922, two months after controversially signing the Treaty of Rapallo with the Soviet Union.
Saturday, 22 August, 2009 Michael Duffy
The financial cost of the war is said to have amounted to almost $38 billion for Germany alone Britain spent $35 billion, France $24 billion, Russia $22 billion, USA $22 billion and Austria-Hungary $20 billion. In total the war cost the Allies around $125 billion the Central Powers $60 billion.
- Did you know?
Rathenau, Walther. Walther Rathenau: Industrialist, Banker, Intellectual, and Politician. Notes and Diaries, 1907–1922. Edited by Hartmut Pogge von Strandmann. Rev. and extended ed. Oxford, U.K., 1985.
Felix, David. Walther Rathenau and the Weimar Republic: The Politics of Reparations. Baltimore and London, 1971.
Williamson, D. G. "Walther Rathenau: Realist, Pedagogue, and Prophet, November 1918–May 1921." European Studies Review 6 (1976).
RATHENAU, WALTHER (1867–1922), German statesman, writer, and industrialist son of Emil *Rathenau and his wife, Mathilde. Walther Rathenau's father became the founder of the Allgemeine Elektrizitäts-Gesellschaft (aeg) in the 1880s. After his studies in physics, chemistry, and philosophy in Berlin and Strasbourg, Walther Rathenau wrote his Ph.D. thesis on the "Absorption of Light in Metals." Afterwards he completed a postdoctorate course in electro-chemistry in Munich and then started practical work in the field of industry. Step by step Rathenau developed into an industrialist on the world stage. In 1899 he became a member of the governing body of the aeg. From 1902 to 1907 Rathenau was co-proprietor of the Berliner Handels-Gesellschaft. At the same time he went back to the aeg as a member of its board of directors. In 1912 he became chairman of the board. Rathenau was one of Europe's leading entrepreneurs and an expert on global finance. As an innovative "system-builder" he not only created new organizational structures in the aeg, but also thought of new ways to develop processes for both heavy and light industry. During the last pre-war years Rathenau made some attempts at attaining a political role. A few days after the outbreak of World War i he started to organize the German war economy as the leader of the newly created Kriegs-Rohstoff-Abteilung (Raw Material Department) in the Prussian War-Ministry. When Emil Rathenau died in 1915, Walther became president of the aeg, a newly created directorial function. During the war Walther Rathenau became increasingly an informal advisor to politicians and high-ranking military personnel. After the war he was one of the official German experts at the financial conference in Spa in 1920. Here he created, with other members of the German delegation such as Moritz Julius *Bonn and Carl *Melchior, the idea of a cooperative "fulfillment policy." In 1921, Rathenau was appointed minister for reconstruction (Wiederaufbauminister). In this capacity he signed the Treaty of Wiesbaden with his French colleague Louis Loucheur. This treaty foresaw partial payment by Germany of its reparations not in money but in goods. The agreement helped German industry regain the French foreign market. In 1922 Rathenau was appointed foreign minister. Increasingly despairing of French diplomacy Rathenau was tempted to abandon his concept of a "cooperative revisionism" of the Versailles Treaty. He still planned to cooperate in the reconstruction of the Soviet economy with the Western powers. Rathenau signed the Treaty of Rapallo, which set the frame for further closer political and economic German-Soviet-Russian cooperation.
During his career as an industrialist, banker, and politician Rathenau also revealed a strong desire to be a man of letters. In this he opposed his father's wishes to see his son exclusively in the world of money and technology. His publications number more than 150 titles, monographs, essays, poems, and plays. Rathenau wrote about politics, economics, financial affairs, aesthetics, social matters, the arts, literature, and philosophy. He developed a philosophy of world history which was based on the antagonism of two types of human beings, the "Furchtmensch" (as a symbol for a mechanistic and rational capitalism) and the "Mutmensch" (as a symbol for the world of art, social progress, and morality). Both were fighting for dominance in the world. The ideal, which only the "Mutmensch" could reach was Rathenau's "Reich der Seele"–a way of living characterized by love, freedom, and transcendent spirituality. Out of his experiences as an industrialist and also with the ideal aim of reaching the "Reich der Seele," after the war Rathenau also developed his theory of a cooperative economy ("Gemeinwirtschaft"). However, Rathenau was a staunch opponent of socialism. For him the question of a constitutional monarchy or a democracy (which he demanded in opposing the feudal structures in Prussia until 1918) was not as important as having all institutions run by capable and moral people. In foreign affairs Rathenau had an international perspective strongly influenced by his business interests. During the war he became increasingly nationalistic, which also reflects the development of his ideas for creating a "Mitteleuropa" under German hegemony. From the end of the World War i until 1920 Rathenau turned towards a "cooperative revisionism" of the Versailles Treaty.
Rathenau revealed a complex relationship towards his own Jewishness. He internalized antisemitic stereotypes with the idea of escaping discrimination by identifying with the perpetrators. Rathenau regarded Jews as a "race" and demanded their physical and spiritual transformation ("Höre Israel!" (1897) published in Die Zukunft). He opposed Zionism and all kinds of Jewish organizations (e.g., the Centralverein). Beneath these tendencies Rathenau also displayed more hidden, positive attitudes towards Jewishness: He refused to leave the Jewish community. The baptism of Jews seemed to him only possible for religious reasons, not for reasons of social opportunism. He was interested in Ḥasidism and started to re-learn Hebrew. In his belief Rathenau tried to find parallels between Jewishness and Christianity. After World War i he tried to create his own religion integrating the ideal of the "Reich der Seele" in it.
Rathenau suffered severely from constant attacks by antisemites from his early years on. From 1918 there were warnings about assassination plots against him and, indeed, in 1922 he was assassinated by members of the "Organization Consul," an antisemitic, antidemocratic, "volkish" secret organization. The murderers killed Rathenau as a symbol of the Republic of Weimar and as a Jew. Rathenau became a symbol of the Weimar democracy, and remains one of its most-read authors.
Published citations should take the following form: Identification of item, date (if known) Walther Rathenau Collection AR 1451 box number folder number Leo Baeck Institute.
Published citations should take the following form: Identification of item, date (if known) Walther Rathenau Collection AR 1451 box number folder number Leo Baeck Institute. https://archives.cjh.org/repositories/5/resources/19210 Accessed June 28, 2021.
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2. Walther Rathenau
Rathenau was the greatest German statesman of the first half of the 20 th Century. Rathenau an industrialist and philosopher turned politician, helped Germany survive and nearly win World War I by reorganizing its economy.
After World War I, Rathenau worked tirelessly to rebuild his country’s economy and end the imbecilic program of reparations that was impoverishing Germany.
In addition, Rathenau championed democracy and founded the German Democratic Party after World War I. Furthermore, Rathenau tried to bring peace to Europe and restore Germany’s role in international politics, through the Treaty of Rapallo with the Soviet Union.
Despite all his accomplishments self-proclaimed “German nationalists” assassinated Rathenau on 24 June 1922. The nationalists killed Germany’s greatest leader because Rathenau was Jewish.
Rathenau was the one German democratic leader who could have been strong enough to resist the rise of Hitler and Nazism. Had Rathenau lived it could have spared the world World War II and the Holocaust.
Likewise, Rathenau could have negotiated a settlement that peacefully restored Germany’s role as a great power. However, we will never know because antisemitic bigots murdered Rathenau.
Ultimately, history proved Rathenau right and his nationalist critics wrong. The nationalists became the Nazis and eventually took over Germany and led the country to destruction in World War II.
After World War II however, the new Federal Republic of Germany (West Germany) successfully adopted Rathenau’s policies of peaceful coexistence and economic growth. Germany is now the most powerful nation in Europe, the leader of the European Union, and the fourth largest economy in the world.
Thus Germany could have enjoyed a resurgence and become an economic powerhouse, without the bloodbath known as World War II. The so-called nationalists who murdered Rathenau nearly destroyed Germany because of mindless prejudice.
The Anti-Semitism Behind the Assassination of Walther Rathenau
At 10:45 a.m. on June 24, 1922, Walther Rathenau departed his house in his open car. Headed to work, the Foreign Minister of the Weimar Republic turned at the corner of the Wallotstrasse onto the Königsallee. As Rathenau finished the turn, a six-seated dark gray automobile pulled up alongside of Rathenau's car and then cut him off. Three men were in the large vehicle. One of the gentlemen lifted a submachine gun, pointed it at Rathenau, and fired five times. A second gentleman threw a hand grenade into Rathenau's car. The six-seated vehicle sped away Rathenau died.[i]
Anti-Semitism was a factor in the assassination of Walther Rathenau. Even Rathenau was aware of his vulnerability due to his Jewish heritage. Speaking of his religion, Rathenau confided to a friend, Albert Einstein, that he felt he was representing a German populace that did not fully accept him.[ii] In a letter to a confidante, Rathenau lamented, "My heart is heavy. [W]hat can a man like that do in this paralyzed world with enemies all around?".[iii] Rathenau's religion certainly made him susceptible to the torrents of anti-Semitism in the Weimar Republic. Yet claiming that assassins murdered Rathenau solely, or even primarily, because of his religion would be misguided. The Organization Consul, members of which murdered Rathenau, preached anti-Semitic doctrine, but within a broader nationalistic framework aiming to restore dignity to Germany in the aftermath of the First World War. Many Germans were concerned with Germany's national reputation. As Foreign Minister, Rathenau had a stake in shaping Germany's post-war reputation. Although one cannot divorce anti-Semitism from the nationalistic desires of many German citizens, Rathenau's murder should be interpreted largely as a result of deep dissatisfaction with the Weimar government, and not purely as an act of anti-Semitic violence.
Anti-Semitism in the Aftermath of the First World War
Slurs against Rathenau often incorporated anti-Semitism. For months prior to his assassination, Rathenau had received death threats, many of them inveighing against his Jewish heritage. Plots against Rathenau's life were so numerous that German police instructed him to carry a pistol with him at all times.[iv] Members of the Upper Silesian Selbstschutz, a domestic military organization, would chant, "God damn Walther Rathenau. / Shoot him down, the dirty Jew."[v] This quotation is telling not in its hatred of a government figure, given the rampant domestic unrest of the time, but rather in the agitators' channeling of their anger into an anti-Semitic catharsis. As Historian Carole Fink remarked, "Rathenau, who was about to plead for a defeated, and largely unrepentant Germany, risked disappointment and danger for Germans, for Jews, and for himself."[vi] Rathenau's Jewish background evidently made him particularly susceptible to ridicule. In fact, bands of German students had chanted from the outset of Rathenau's tenure as Foreign Minister, "Strike down Walther Rathenau/ The God-damned Jewish sow!".[vii] Threats against Rathenau's life had a distinctly anti-Semitic tone.
However, the frequent politically motivated murders of non-Jews in the early years of the Weimar Republic suggest that anti-Semitism was not the only force that provoked widespread dissatisfaction with Rathenau. Rathenau's assassination perhaps marked the nadir of a four-year string of high profile murders in the Weimar Republic. Self-professed German nationalists carried out most of the murders of over three hundred government officials and radical activists between 1918 and 1922.[viii] Political figures including the Majority Socialist leader in Bavaria, Erhard Auer, were targets for assassination.[ix] Insurrections grew commonplace as domestic frustrations generated massive instability during the early years of the Weimar Republic. Indeed, a professor with the University of Heidelberg remarked in 1922, "[P]olitical murder has gone from being a heroic deed, to becoming a daily act, an easy source of earnings for 'impulsive customers.'"[x] Blame for Germany's post-war turmoil continually found targets. Two radical German nationalists unsuccessfully attempted to assassinate Philipp Scheidemann, Social Democratic ex-Chancellor of the Weimar Republic, by spraying prussic acid in his face.[xi] The assassination of Mathias Erzberger of the Centre (Catholic) Party transpired at the hands of two other radical German nationalists who blamed Germany's post-war humiliation on Erzberger for his role as Imperial Secretary of State in negotiating an armistice.[xii] Anti-Semitism plainly was not the only factor that motivated unrest in the early years of the Weimar Republic.
Dissatisfaction with Rathenau
One terrorist group, the Organization Consul, targeted its nationalist energies at many Jewish political figures in the Weimar government and was ultimately responsible for the assassination of Rathenau. Despite their targets, the Organization Consul operated within a broader nationalistic framework that strived to do more than eliminate Jews in government. In fact, members of the Organization Consul had also murdered the Catholic Mathias Erzberger.[xiii] The Organization Consul's radical nationalistic motivations are exemplified by the fact that the organization was an offshoot of the Ehrhardt Freikorps, which had directed the Kapp Putsch in March 1920.[xiv] The Kapp Putsch was an attempt to overthrow the government of President Friedrich Ebert and to enact a dictatorship under Wolfgang Kapp. When the Kapp Putsch failed, the Weimar government attempted to dissolve the Ehrhardt Brigade.[xv][xvi]The ideology of the Organization Consul operated under a rubric of radical German nationalism, of which anti-Semitism was a part. The oath that the Organization Consul leadership mandated overtly mentioned nothing of anti-Semitism, instead stressing German blood: "I declare on my honor that I am of German descent."[xvii] For the Organization Consul, however, nationalism implicitly meant combating the presence of Jews in Germany. One of the organization's bylaws espoused a "spiritual aim" of "warfare against all anti-nationalists and internationalists [and] warfare against Jewry."[xviii] Plainly, the Organization Consul juxtaposed a Jewish identity with anti-nationalism in Germany thus making anti-Semitism more complex than a blind hatred towards Jews. Therefore, despite Rathenau's eager contention, "[M]y religion [is] that Germanic faith which is above all religions,"[xix] the Organization Consul's credo of conflating Jewish descent with anti-nationalism in Germany was insurmountable for Rathenau. The bylaws of the Organization Consul served as a linchpin for Jewry's association with traitorousness. However, many members of the clan had formed political bonds and a few of the leaders of the Ehrhardt Brigade clandestinely established the Organization Consul, named after "Consul Eichmann," which was an alias of Hermann Ehrhardt, the leader of the Ehrhardt Brigade.
The members of the Organization Consul certainly were not the only Germans who desired for Rathenau to be ousted from the Weimar government. Notably, Karl Helfferich also campaigned to remove Rathenau from his post as Foreign Minister. Helfferich, who served as Germany's Secretary of the Treasury at the beginning of the First World War, remained an ardent nationalist and became a steadfast critic of the leadership of the Weimar Republic.[xx] Helfferich criticized Rathenau in regard to Germany's policy on reparations—in early June of 1922 Helfferich delivered a speech in the Reichstag in which he invectively asserted that Rathenau was "utterly ruining Germany and the German people in subservience to the Entente."[xxi]
Rather than concluding that Helfferich targeted Rathenau because of the latter's religion, one must take into account the context in which Helfferich stated his views. An analysis of the words that Helfferich used to derogate Rathenau in the Reichstag suggests that anti-Semitism did not principally motivate Helfferich rather, Helfferich espoused a widely shared discontent with the operations of the Weimar government. In a speech criticizing Rathenau, Helfferich condemned Rathenau's foreign policy for "[bringing] poverty and misery on countless families, [driving] countless people to suicide and despair, [sending] abroad large and valuable portions of [Germany's] national capital."[xxii] On the prominent stage of the Reichstag, Helfferich did not enounce anti-Semitic diatribes. Instead, Helfferich's perhaps latent anti-Semitism was entwined with his discontent with Rathenau's policymaking. Although a critic of Helfferich, following Rathenau's assassination, accused Helfferich of advancing "secret or semi-secret Chauvinist, Nationalist, anti-Semitic and Monarchist organizations,"[xxiii] anti-Semitism was evidently not Helfferich's core concern. Moreover, Rathenau was not Helfferich's only political enemy Helfferich lobbied against the non-Jewish Erzberger as well.[xxiv] Further, it would be unfair to conclude that anti-Semitism stood at the root of all of the grievances of Rathenau's detractors. Historian Carole Fink described most citizens of the Weimar Republic in 1922 as "frightened" about the future of the Weimar Republic, and that not all Germans "sought the reduction of 'Jewish power.'"[xxv] Thus, while anti-Semitism was interwoven with public discontent with Rathenau, many Germans were more concerned with perceptions of Weimar's execrable governance than with Rathenau's Jewish background.
The anti-Semitic sentiments of Rathenau's assassins were decidedly more acerbic than the views espoused by Helfferich. The plot to murder Rathenau appears to have begun in April 1922, when Erwin Kern, an ex-naval officer, gathered a few comrades to discuss his perspectives on the political situation of the Weimar Republic.[xxvi] Despite limited documentation on Kern's particular views—he committed suicide before police could apprehend him following the assassination—Kern appears to have been motivated in large part by the anti-Semitic text, Protocols of the Elders of Zion. Kern claimed that Rathenau "was one of the 300 Elders of Zion committed to taking over the world."[xxvii] Kern certainly had radical views: he asserted that Rathenau "wanted to bring Germany under the influence of the Jews."[xxviii] Rathenau's Jewish heritage helped to make him a political target for Kern.
Despite Kern's seething anti-Semitism, the motivations that Kern appears to have had for assassinating Rathenau were more nuanced than a simple hatred for Rathenau's Jewish background. Kern appeared to passionately care about Germany's political reputation, resenting the humiliation to which Germany had been subjected in the years after the Great War. That is, swayed to murder Rathenau not simply because of anti-Semitism, Kern was "fanned by Nationalist agitation into a fervor of hatred against Jews and the Republic."[xxix][xxx] The amalgam of zealous patriotism and anti-Semitism that Kern professed is captured in Kern's final words, yelled to police from his perch inside of a tower in Saaleck Castle in Naumburg, just before he shot himself: "Long live Ehrhardt!".[xxxi] As elaborated upon earlier, the Ehrhardt Brigade and the Organization Consul championed German nationalism, viewing anti-Semitism as one salient hindrance to developing a respectable, powerful German state. As virulently anti-Semitic as Kern was, and as motivated as he was to assassinate Rathenau because of the latter's Jewish blood, Kern had grand nationalistic motives as well. Kern apparently hoped that the assassination would incite a putsch.[xxxii] Anti-Semitism was a significant component of Kern's radical nationalism, and was fused with it, but certainly did not comprise the whole of it. Kern contended that, because of Rathenau's Jewish heritage, the Foreign Minister would betray the Fatherland. In fact, to generate support for murdering Rathenau among his Organization Consul comrades, Kern alleged that Rathenau had made a secret agreement with the Entente that would deepen the humiliation of Germany, and would make Germany further subservient to the Entente.
Kern's co-conspirators in the murder appear to have been characteristic members of the Organization Consul, eager to rid German politics of Jews, but chiefly motivated to protect and restore dignity to the German nation. Next to Kern, Ernst von Salomon was the leading conspirator in the plot to assassinate Rathenau.[xxxiii] Von Salomon, in describing his motivation to murder Rathenau, asserted, "Scheidemann, Rathenau, Zeigner, Lipinski, Cohn, Ebert. must be killed, one after the other. Then we shall see whether or not there are uprisings in the Red Army, the Independent Socialist party, and the Communist party."[xxxiv] Von Salomon appears to have been suspicious of a Communist plot to take over or undermine Germany. He evidently suspected that many Jews and non-Jews alike were players in this conspiracy. In contrast with Kern, then, von Salomon did not largely focus on Jews in his calculations to protect Germany.[xxxv] Instead, von Salomon contended that Jews were one enemy among the broader Communist enemies of Germany.
Less is known about the other conspirators in the plot against Rathenau's life. Hermann Fischer killed himself in the same tower that Kern did, with no documentation of his particular views other than that he screamed from the turret of diehard allegiance to the Organization Consul (see Figure in Appendix).[xxxvi] Hans Stubenrauch, according to Kern, was merely a "handy tool, who would do as he was told and ask no questions."[xxxvii] The other notable players in the assassination of Rathenau—Ernst Werner Techow and Gerd Techow—deflected blame onto Kern when tried in court.[xxxviii] Yet one could reasonably expect the Techow brothers to deny culpability when legally confronted their anti-Semitic views are thus unclear. Nonetheless, the plot to murder Rathenau appears to have been primarily the creation of Kern, fervently desiring to purge a prominent Jew. The other conspirators in the assassination plot certainly appear to have been anti-Semitic, but there is not enough evidence to draw a solid conclusion.
Reactions in the Weimar Republic to the Assassination of Rathenau
Apocryphal accounts assert that many Germans celebrated the elimination of a Jew from government, suggesting that anti-Semitism was commonplace in Germany in 1922. Nobel Prize-winning novelist Thomas Mann alleged that he overheard a professor exult that there was "one less Jew!"[xxxix] On the day of Rathenau's funeral, Heidelberg's Nobel Prize-winning Professor of Physics, Philip Lenard, apparently forbade students to skip his lecture "on account of a dead Jew."[xl] These caustic comments vivify the fact that a London-based newspaper, The Spectator, reported in Rathenau's obituary that his assassination was "as little a surprise as a murder can well be."[xli] Even if Rathenau's assassination was not a foregone conclusion, a palpable amount of Germans harbored anti-Semitism.
Yet as pronounced as anti-Semitism was among some people during the early years of the Weimar Republic, these malicious anecdotes ignore the fact that anti-Semitism was not necessarily a dominant public attitude. Isolated rumbles of glee following Rathenau's assassination, and even perhaps the predictability of his murder, should not cloud the fact that many Germans considered Rathenau's death to be a tragedy. Hundreds of thousands of Berliners watched Rathenau's funeral procession as the cortege passed through the Brandenburg Gate.[xlii] One spectator melodramatically, but no less tellingly of the widespread grief surrounding Rathenau's death, commented, "Four deep they marched in their hundred thousands, beneath their mourning banners. passing like a portent silently along the great thoroughfares lined by immense crowds, wave after wave, from the early afternoon till late into the June sunset."[xliii] Against the specter of Professor Lenard's anti-Semitism, German trade unions, comprising roughly 200,000 workers in Berlin, declared a day of mourning.[xliv] Many Germans citizens who were unable to attend the funeral convened en masse in Hamburg, Munich, Chemnitz, Eberfeld, Essen, and Breslau to honor Rathenau.[xlv] As marked as anti-Semitism was among some Germans, many other Germans plainly respected the fallen Jewish leader. Anti-Semitism evidently did not overwhelmingly grip Germany in the early years of the Weimar Republic, as it did under the Nazi regime a decade later.
There is debate over the role that anti-Semitism played in the assassination of Walther Rathenau. No doubt anti-Semitism was a motivating factor for Erwin Kern and his co-conspirators. No doubt many Germans were anti-Semitic. Yet one must understand that there was severe political unrest in the Weimar Republic between 1918 and 1923, which derived in large part from national humiliation following Germany's defeat in the First World War. In the Weimar Republic after the war, anti-Semitism and German nationalism were often entwined. Anti-Semitism suggested that Jews did not represent the interests of Germany. In turn, the assassination of Rathenau must be viewed in terms of an amalgam of anti-Semitism and national unrest. Rathenau's murder was not purely an act of anti-Semitism, but rather occurred within a broader context of deep public dissatisfaction with the Weimar government.
The grave of Hermann Fischer and Erwin Kern in Berlin. Retrieved from Axis History.
Brown, Cyril. "Rathenau Slayers, At Bay in Castle, Kill Themselves." NYTimes.com. The New York Times, 19 July 1922.
Fink, Carole. "The Murder of Walther Rathenau." Judaism 44.3 (1995): 259-269.
"Freikorps Units." AxisHistory.com. 26 August 2009.
"Germany: A Crash." Time.com. Time Magazine, 5 May 1924.
Gumbel, Emil Julius. "Four Years of Political Murder." The Weimar Republic Sourcebook. Ed. Anton Kaes, Martin Jay, and Edward Dimendberg. Berkeley, California: University of California Press, 1994. 100-104.
"It Just Happened." Time.com. Time Magazine, 10 January 1955.
Kessler, Count Harry. Walther Rathenau: His Life and Work. New York: Harcourt, Brace and Company, 1930.
Mommsen, Hans. The Rise and Fall of Weimar Democracy. Trans. Elborg Forster and Larry Eugene Jones. Chapel Hill, North Carolina: University of North Carolina Press, 1996.
Stern, Howard. "The Organisation Consul." The Journal of Modern History 35.1 (1963): 20-32.
Waite, Robert G. L. Vanguard of Nazism: The Free Corps Movement in Postwar Germany. Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press, 1952.
A strong German nationalist, [ 5 ] Rathenau was a leading proponent of a policy of assimilation for German Jews he argued that Jews should oppose both Zionism and socialism and fully integrate themselves into mainstream German society. This, he said, would lead to the eventual disappearance of antisemitism. As a powerful, affluent and highly visible German Jewish politician, Rathenau was hated by Germany's extreme right, despite himself being a German nationalist. In spite of his stated beliefs, he was assassinated in 1922 by right wing elements within Germany.
During World War I Rathenau held senior posts in the Raw Materials Department of the War Ministry, while becoming chairman of AEG upon his father's death in 1915. He played a leading role in putting Germany's economy on a war footing, enabling wartime Germany to continue its war effort for years despite the serious shortages of labor and raw materials that were caused by an ever-tightening naval blockade.
Rathenau was a moderate liberal in politics, and after World War I he was one of the founders of the German Democratic Party (DDP). He rejected the tide of socialist thought which swept Germany after the shock of defeat and revolution, opposing state ownership of industry and advocating greater worker participation in the management of companies. His ideas were influential in post-war governments.
In 1921, Rathenau was appointed Minister of Reconstruction, and in 1922 he became Foreign Minister. His insistence that Germany should fulfill its obligations under the Treaty of Versailles, while working for a revision of its terms, infuriated extreme German nationalists. He also angered such extremists by negotiating the Treaty of Rapallo, 1922 with the Soviet Union, although the treaty implicitly recognized secret German-Soviet collaboration, begun in 1921, which provided for the rearmament of Germany, including German aircraft manufacturing, inside the Soviet union. [ 6 ] The leaders of the (still obscure) Nazi Party and other extreme right-wing groups falsely claimed he was part of a "Jewish-Communist conspiracy", despite his being a liberal German nationalist who had bolstered the country's recent war effort.
The British politician Robert Boothby wrote of him: "He was something that only a German Jew could simultaneously be: a prophet, a philosopher, a mystic, a writer, a statesman, an industrial magnate of the highest and greatest order, and the pioneer of what has become known as 'industrial rationalization'."
In fact, despite his desire for economic and political co-operation between Germany and the Soviet Union, Rathenau remained skeptical of the methods of the Soviets. In his Kritik der dreifachen Revolution (Critique of the triple revolution) he noted that:
We cannot use Russia's methods, as they only and at best prove that the economy of an agrarian nation can be leveled to the ground Russia's thoughts are not our thoughts. They are, as it is in the spirit of the Russian city intelligentsia, unphilosophical, and highly dialectic they are passionate logic based on unverified suppositions. They assume that a single good, the destruction of the capitalist class, weighs more than all other goods, and that poverty, dictatorship, terror and the fall of civilization must be accepted to secure this one good. "If ten million people must die to free ten million people from the bourgeoisie" is regarded as a harsh but necessary consequence. The Russian idea is compulsory happiness, in the same sense and with the same logic as the compulsory introduction of Christianity and the Inquisition.
Walther RathenauView Inside Format: Cloth
From the prizewinning Jewish Lives series, a figure of great intellectual power who ran the German state, however briefly, during one of its most tumultuous periods, and whose life was "the essence of German Jewish history."
This deeply informed biography of Walther Rathenau (1867–1922) tells of a man who—both thoroughly German and unabashedly Jewish—rose to leadership in the German War-Ministry Department during the First World War, and later to the exalted position of foreign minister in the early days of the Weimar Republic. His achievement was unprecedented—no Jew in Germany had ever attained such high political rank. But Rathenau’s success was marked by tragedy: within months he was assassinated by right-wing extremists seeking to destroy the newly formed Republic.
Drawing on Rathenau’s papers and on a depth of knowledge of both modern German and German-Jewish history, Shulamit Volkov creates a finely drawn portrait of this complex man who struggled with his Jewish identity yet treasured his “otherness.” Volkov also places Rathenau in the dual context of Imperial and Weimar Germany and of Berlin’s financial and intellectual elite. Above all, she illuminates the complex social and psychological milieu of German Jewry in the period before Hitler’s rise to power.
Jewish Lives is a prizewinning series of interpretative biography designed to explore the many facets of Jewish identity. Individual volumes illuminate the imprint of Jewish figures upon literature, religion, philosophy, politics, cultural and economic life, and the arts and sciences. Subjects are paired with authors to elicit lively, deeply informed books that explore the range and depth of the Jewish experience from antiquity to the present.
In 2014, the Jewish Book Council named Jewish Lives the winner of its Jewish Book of the Year Award, the first series ever to receive this award.
More praise for Jewish Lives:
"Exemplary." –Wall Street Journal
Shulamit Volkov is professor emerita of modern European history, Tel Aviv University. Her most recent book is Germans, Jews, and Antisemites: Trials in Emancipation. She lives in Herzliya, Israel.
"In this remarkable biography, Shulamit Volkov offers a subtle analysis of Walther Rathenau's complex and often ambiguous personality. She describes admirably how Rathenau's always-reaffirmed Jewishness increasingly became a target for the antisemitic elites of Imperial Germany and, notwithstanding his outstanding services to Germany, an object of fanatical hatred for the extreme Right under Weimar, which led to his assassination. Shulamit Volkov's book is history at its best."—Saul Friedlander, author of the Pulitzer Prize–winning Nazi Germany and the Jews
"Volkov’s scholarship illuminates many sides of Rathenau’s personality. Her discussion of Rathenau’s Jewishness is informed, often moving, and absorbing as both personal and social history."—A. J. Sherman, Associate Fellow, St. Antony’s College, Oxford