Walther Rathenau

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Walther Rathenau

"I am a German of Jewish origin. My people are the German people, my home is Germany, my faith is German faith, which stands above all denominations."[1]

Foreign Minister of Germany
In office
1 February – 24 June 1922
President Friedrich Ebert
Chancellor Joseph Wirth
Preceded by Joseph Wirth (acting)
Succeeded by Joseph Wirth (acting)

Born 29 September 1867(1867-09-29)
Berlin, Kingdom of Prussia, German Empire
Died 24 June 1922 (aged 54)
Berlin, Germany, Weimar Republic
Political party German Democratic Party
Relations Emil Rathenau (father)
Profession Industrialist, politician, writer

Walther Rathenau (29 September 1867 – 24 June 1922) was a German Jewish industrialist, writer, and liberal politician in Germany, who served as Foreign Minister during the Weimar Republic. He was assassinated by the Organisation Consul two months after the signing of the Treaty of Rapallo, 1922.


Rathenau was born in Berlina s the son of Emil Rathenau, a prominent Jewish businessman and founder of the Allgemeine Elektrizitäts-Gesellschaft (AEG), an electrical-engineering company, and his wife Mathilde, née Nachmann. After Gymnasium (Königliches Wilhelms-Gymnasium) and Abitur, he studied physics, chemistry, and philosophy in Berlin and Strasbourg. His German Jewish heritage and his wealth[2] were both factors in establishing his deeply divisive reputation in German politics, at a time of anti-Semitism. From October 1890 until September 1891 he served in the Prussian Army as an one-year volunteer (Einjährig-Freiwilliger) of the renowned Garde-Kürassier-Regiment.

He worked as an engineer before joining the AEG board in 1899, becoming a leading industrialist in the late German Empire and early Weimar Republic periods.[3] Rathenau is generally acknowledged to be the basis for the German industrialist character "Arnheim" in Robert Musil's novel The Man Without Qualities.[4]

Political career

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 anti-Semitism. As a powerful, affluent and highly visible German Jewish politician, Rathenau was hated by Germany's extreme right, despite himself being a German nationalist, culminating in his 1922 assassination.

During World War I, Rathenau held senior posts in the Raw Materials Department of the War Ministry involved in the organization of the German war economy (Kriegswirtschaft), 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) National Socialist 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.


On 24 June 1922, two months after the signing of the Treaty of Rapallo, 1922, Rathenau was assassinated in a plot led by two anti-liberal nationalists, Erwin Kern and Hermann Fischer. Also involved were Ernst Verner Techow, Hans G. Techow and Wille Guenther (aided and abetted by seven others, some of them schoolboys) linked to Organisation Consul.[7] On the other hand, it is suspected that the assassination was engineered by internationally powerful people, with whom Rathenau fell out of favor because of his lack of anti-German sentiment.

On that morning, he was driving from his house to Wilhelmstraße, as he did daily (and predictably). During the trip his car was passed by another in which three armed men were sitting. They simultaneously shot at the minister with machine guns, and threw a hand grenade into the car before quickly driving away. A memorial stone in the Koenigsallee in Berlin-Grunewald marks the scene of the crime. Rathenau was fervently mourned in Germany, with flags officially at half mast, although this was not compulsory. After the National Socialists came to power in 1933, they declared Rathenau's assassins to be national heroes and designated June 24 as a holiday of celebration. One of the participant assassins was the future writer Ernst von Salomon, who had provided the car but was not present at the shooting.

The main assassins, Kern and Fischer, were surrounded by the police in the turret of Saaleck castle (Burg Saaleck), near Koesen. Kern was shot, Fischer chose suicide. The final main assassin, Ernst Werner Techow, who drove the car, was captured and sentenced to 15 years in prison. At his trial, he claimed that he had acted under duress, as Kern threatened to kill him when he tried to withdraw from the murder plot.[8] Upon his release from prison for good behavior in 1927, he volunteered for the French Foreign Legion. During the Second World War, Techow helped save hundreds of Jews in Marseilles, apparently as an attempt at penance for his crime.[9]

Some believe that Rathenau's assassination may have significantly influenced the long-term political, economic, and social development of Europe (or was the result of such development, particularly the development of leftward-trending parties, class consciousness, nationalistic feelings, and antisemitism). It was certainly an early sign of the instability and violence which were eventually to permeate and destroy the Weimar Republic. The British writer Morgan Philips Price wrote:[citation needed]

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...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.

Others, such as historian Erich Eyck,[10] argue that the murder of Rathenau may have been the singular event that set into motion the period of extreme hyperinflation in Germany during 1922–23:

"But as great as was the impact of Rathenau’s death upon German domestic politics, it left an even greater mark upon the economic scene. Now the tumble of the mark could not be stopped. The dollar, still under 350 on the day of the murder, climbed to 670 by the end of July, to 2000 in August, and to 4500 by the end of October."[11]

Albert Einstein later commented that he was "greatly disturbed" by Rathenau's assassination, since he saw it as early proof of an immense anti-pacifist and anti-semitic presence in Germany.[12]


  • Reflektionen (1908)
  • Zur Kritik der Zeit (1912)
  • Zur Mechanik des Geistes (1913)
  • Von kommenden Dingen (1917)
  • Vom Aktienwesen. Eine geschäftliche Betrachtung (1917)
  • An Deutschlands Jugend (1918)
  • Die neue Gesellschaft (1919) The New Society translated by Arthur Windham, (1921) New York: Harcourt, Brace and Co.
  • Der neue Staat (1919)
  • Der Kaiser (1919)
  • Kritik der dreifachen Revolution (1919)
  • Was wird werden (1920, a utopian novel)
  • Gesammelte Schriften (6 volumes)
  • Gesammelte Reden (1924)
  • Briefe (1926, 2 volumes)
  • Neue Briefe (1927)
  • Politische Briefe (1929)

See also

Further reading

  • Felix, David. Walther Rathenau and the Weimar Republic, John Hopkins, 1971.
  • Shulamit Volkov Shulamit. Walter Rathenau: Weimar's Fallen Statesman (Yale University Press; 2012) 240 pages; scholarly biography
  • Count Harry Kessler, Berlin in Lights: The Diaries of Count Harry Kessler (1918–1937) Grove Press, New York, (1999).
  • Walter Rathenau: Industrialist, Banker, Intellectual, And Politician; Notes And Diaries 1907–1922. Hartmut P. von Strandmann (ed.), Hilary von Strandmann (translator). Clarendon Press, 528 pages, in English. October 1985. ISBN 978-0-19-822506-5 (hardcover – ISBN 31101985).

External links


  1. Walther Rathenau, An Deutschlands Jugend, p. 9
  2. Fink, Carole (Summer, 1995). "The murder of Walter Rathenau". Judaism. Archived from the original on 2012-07-09. http://archive.is/nTkm. Retrieved 2008-11-19. 
  3. Walther Rathenau Biography. Encyclopedia of World Biography Biography. Retrieved on 2008-11-19.
  4. Pächter, Henry Maximilian (1982). Weimar études. New York: Columbia University Press, 172 et seq.. 
  5. Tom Reiss, The Orientalist, 2005, Random House. p. 181f. "Though not a convert to Christianity, Rathenau represented a Jewish apostasy more typical of his time: the conversion to Wagnerian-Teutonism."
  6. Angela E. Stent, Russia and Germany Reborn, 1998, Princeton. ch. 1, http://press.princeton.edu/chapters/s6426.html
  7. Axis History Factbook: 2. Marine-Brigade Ehrhardt (Freikorps) at axishistory.com
  8. "Full Confession in Court Of Rathenau Murder Plot". Associated Press. The New York Times. October 13, 1922. http://query.nytimes.com/gst/abstract.html?res=9F01E4DC1139E133A25750C1A9669D946395D6CF. Retrieved 2008-11-19. 
  9. Telushkin, Joseph (1994). Jewish Wisdom. New York: William Morrow and Company. ISBN 0-688-12958-7. “After Techow's arrest, Mithilde Rathenau, the victim's mother, wrote to Techow's mother: In grief unspeakable, I give you my hand... Say to your son that...I forgive [him], even as God may forgive [him], if before an earthly judge your son makes a full and frank confession...and before a heavenly judge repents... May these words give peace to your soul... . Techow later told Rathenau's nephew that his transformation had been triggered by Mathilde Rathenau’s letter: Just as Frau Rathenau conquered herself when she wrote that letter of pardon, I have tried to master myself. 
  10. Eyck, Erich (1963). A History of the Weimar Republic, 2 vols., Cambridge, Mass: Harvard, 213–221. 
  11. Guttmann, William (1975). The Great Inflation, Germany 1919–23. Farnborough: Saxon House, 25–26. ISBN 0-347-00017-7. 
  12. Fink, Carole (June 22, 1995). "The Murder of Walther Rathenau". Judaism: A Quarterly Journal of Jewish Life and Thought. http://www.encyclopedia.com/doc/1G1-17422958.html. Retrieved 2008-11-19.