Walther Rathenau was neither a typical German Jew nor a traditional German statesman. Born into a wealthy industrialist family that had disowned its Jewish beliefs and practices and gaining political office late in life, Rathenau was the quintessential outsider. He was also a man of contradictions: outgoing and solitary, ambivalent about his Jewishness and German-ness, a technocrat who embraced spiritualism but advocated state regulation to achieve the common good.
Shulamit Volkov's biography of Rathenau, Walther Rathenau: Weimar's Fallen Statesman, is part of Yale University's Jewish Lives series. Volkov, a professor at Tel Aviv University and author of several important works on German and German-Jewish history, has drawn extensively on the recently published Rathenau papers retrieved from the archives of the former Soviet Union and on a vast amount of primary and secondary literature. She has constructed a vivid portrait of an extraordinary life.
Rathenau's privileged youth and education, although decidedly at the pinnacle of the social scale, were emblematic of Jewish advancement—and its limits—in imperial Germany. An admirer of Prussian aristocratic traditions, Rathenau deeply resented his "second-class" citizenship, which blocked him from a reserve officer's commission. In a complicating factor, Rathenau's bachelorhood denied him the social stability of his bourgeois peers and left him vulnerable to suspicions of homosexuality. Rathenau's first article, published at age 26, after he had dutifully embarked on a business career under his father's tutelage, was a cautiously Nietzschean meditation on morality. But four years later, in his essay "Hear, O Israel," Rathenau shocked his family and the public by attacking German Jewry as a "foreign organism" within the German nation and an "Asian horde" whose salvation required a "complete metamorphosis"—not through anti-defamation campaigns, baptism, or Zionism but via Rathenau's ambitious path to acceptance by the majority.
With his elegant demeanor and wide circle of friends, Rathenau became prominent in Germany's mixed cultural and intellectual elite society. He was also an avid traveler abroad. His decision not to convert to Christianity frustrated his political ambitions; but, as a highly successful businessman, he was a trusted consultant to leaders who valued his skills and overseas experience. On the eve of World War I, Rathenau turned to foreign policy. Faced with America's growing power, he urged Germany to take the lead in creating a European customs union.
Rathenau's life and thought changed greatly after 1914. He became chief organizer of the War Ministry's Raw Materials Department but, despite many accomplishments, resigned within eight months, deploring the bureaucratic morass and fearing the war's outcome. In 1915 his father died, freeing him from a difficult relationship. Rathenau returned to the world of business, journalism, and public speaking.
As the war dragged on, German Jews were charged with draft-dodging and war profiteering. Rathenau, accused of having exploited his government position, became a prime target of anti-Semitic attacks. Although he refused to join his Jewish compatriots' protests against the "Jewish census" and continued to be cold toward Zionism, Rathenau, by age 50, had transformed his Judaism from a disability into a positive creed compatible with political and cultural modernity, promoting high moral standards and an individualism free of institutional constraints.
Throughout the war Rathenau continued to seek official position; he worked closely with Germany's political and military leadership, including Hindenburg and Ludendorff. Concealing his doubts about the war, Rathenau was an outwardly enthusiastic patriot who supported annexations, submarine warfare, and a centrally controlled war economy, including the importation of Belgian laborers to increase Germany's military production. When America entered the conflict in 1917, Rathenau grew apprehensive but hid his fears. His best-selling book, In Days to Come, revived his favorite theme: the need for a collective economic order, a "people's state," and social solidarity. But German conservatives shrank from Rathenau's reform proposals, and liberals and socialists mocked what they saw as his eleventh-hour defense of the imperial order.
Until the war's end, Rathenau remained on the margins of power. He responded to Germany's military collapse in the fall of 1918 with a blistering attack on Ludendorff, opposing a cease-fire and calling for mass mobilization. This time Rathenau was not alone: German officers, government leaders, and parliamentarians also called for a last-ditch effort to save the Reich from defeat. But the government formed in 1918 did not invite Rathenau to lead the fight. Instead, it deposed the Kaiser, called elections for a National Assembly, and accepted the victors' armistice terms.
While Germany's first republic was being born, Rathenau remained politically isolated, despised by his fellow industrialists for his "socialist" leanings, distrusted by socialists for his bourgeois background, and vilified by Ludendorff and the emerging radical right for having contributed to the "stab in the back" suffered by Germany. The suggestion that he might be a candidate for president brought gales of laughter from the National Assembly meeting in Weimar. Rathenau took revenge with his pen, cataloguing the Germans' deficiencies and lauding the Jews, who, "in spite of their small number have produced more world-moving genius than all other nations put together." In a whirlwind of public speeches, he called for an "entirely new social order that would reach beyond individual needs toward collective ones, beyond human rights to social rights, beyond capitalism to an organic and communal economy."
Rathenau's ideas were less valued than his practical skills. As a prominent industrialist, fluent in several languages and enjoying international connections, he was summoned to advise the government on the difficult problem of reparations. Then, suddenly, the ostracized Rathenau acquired a key supporter: the Catholic Center leader Joseph Wirth, who became chancellor in May, 1921. Wirth appointed Rathenau to his first cabinet post, Minister of Reconstruction. The position was hazardous, exposing Rathenau to both the Allies' demands and ferocious attacks by the German right. He gladly vacated the job five months later but continued to conduct informal and formal negotiations, gaining a crucial short-term moratorium on German obligations and securing an invitation for Germany to the International Economic Conference in Genoa in April, 1922.
A grateful Wirth named Rathenau Minister of Foreign Affairs. But the appointment of a Jew to represent the German Reich, no matter how patriotic and accomplished he was, stunned the German public and frightened Germany's Jews. At Genoa Rathenau accomplished a coup, concluding the Rapallo Treaty with Soviet Russia; he thereby infuriated the Allies and provoked rage from the German Right. Yet, despite numerous threats against his life, Rathenau refused to take precautions. On his way to work on June 24, 1922, he was shot and killed by right-wing assassins. In death, Rathenau remained a polarizing figure, a martyr to the Weimar republic's supporters but reviled by the German anti-Semites who viewed him as a symbol of the national humiliation that they were determined to avenge.
Volkov deftly characterizes the man, the politics of his era, and the Jewish dimension of the Rathenau tragedy. When news of the assassination reached Prague, Kafka wrote to his friend, Max Brod, "Incredible that he lived as long as he did; already two months ago we heard rumors of his murder." In London, the Spectator called the assassination "as little a surprise as a murder can well be." Just as surely, the German descent into hell had begun.
Carole Fink, currently a Distinguished Fulbright Scholar in Israel and Humanities Distinguished Professor Emerita at The Ohio State University, is the author of three books and more than fifty articles on 20th-century European and Jewish history.
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