Rathenau, Walther

The Columbia Encyclopedia, 6th ed.

Rathenau, Walther

Walther Rathenau (väl´tər rä´tənou), 1867–1922, German industrialist, social theorist, and statesman. Son of Emil Rathenau (1838–1915), founder of the German public utilities company Allgemeine Elektrizitätsgesellschaft (A.E.G.), Rathenau succeeded to the presidency of this corporation on his father's death. He directed the distribution of raw materials in World War I and became minister of reconstruction (1921) and later foreign minister (1922). He represented Germany at the Cannes and Genoa reparations conferences and negotiated the Treaty of Rapallo (see Rapallo, Treaty of) with Russia. A Jew, he was assassinated by nationalist and anti-Semitic fanatics, who opposed his attempts to fulfill reparations obligations. A strong nationalist who played an important role in Germany's war efforts, Rathenau was also a strong proponent of international cooperation and his diplomatic initiatives played a key role in breaking Germany's postwar diplomatic isolation. In his writings, Rathenau contended that the days of unfettered capitalism were over and argued that technological change and industrialization were pushing civilization toward a stage of extreme mechanization, in which the human soul would be lost. In an attempt to find an alternative to laissez-faire capitalism that did not involve state socialism and Marxism, Rathenau proposed a decentralized, democratic social order, in which the workers would have more control over production and the state would exert more control over the economy. His translated works include In Days to Come (1921) and The New Society (1921).

See studies by H. K. U. Kessler (1928, tr. 1930, repr. 1969), D. Felix (1971), and H. Pogge von Strandmann (1985).

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