Magazine article Judaism: A Quarterly Journal of Jewish Life and Thought

The Murder of Walter Rathenau

Magazine article Judaism: A Quarterly Journal of Jewish Life and Thought

The Murder of Walter Rathenau

Article excerpt

On June 24, 1922, Germany's first (and only) Jewish foreign minister, Walther Rathenau, was shot and murdered by two young right-wing former German officers. The assassination, less than six months after Rathenau's appointment, was shocking both in its brutality and in its expectedness. Albert Einstein was stunned. Heeding his friends' warnings of "widespread anti-Semitism," he canceled all his lectures; although refusing to escape from Berlin, he was "officially absent."(1) A few hundred miles away in Prague, Franz Kafka observed: "Incredible that he lived as long as he did; already two months ago we heard rumors of his murder."(2) In London, the Spectator's obituary began: "... as little a surprise as a murder can well be."(3)

Many observers denied, or minimized, anti-semitism as a motive force in Rathenau's murder, either stressing its structural and political causes (Weimar Germany's volatile mixture of anti-republicanism, anti-bolshevism, and anti-Westernism, its armed bands of militant right-wing youths, and its woefully disunited center and left) or the personal dimension, Rathenau's unpopularity among almost every segment of German opinion. In mirror image, the German and European left created a mythical Rathenau, transforming the industrialist/war leader into a "sacrifice" for the good Germany -- as much a victim of the Allies' intransigence as of German rightwing bullets.(4) But these political Rathenaus-Rathenau as another martyr of Weimar's fragile democracy -- disregard the flesh-and-blood reality of the time, which we must retrieve.

Who was Walther Rathenau? An exotic, complex, and tragic figure, his life and work encompassed powerful opposites, as exemplified in the huge and impressive exhibition two years ago at the German Historical Museum in Berlin.(5) He was a direct descendant of the German and Jewish Enlightenment which valued reason and science but also the arts, music, and literature. An industrialist, social philosopher, and statesman, he attained the highest government office ever reached by a German Jew. As foreign minister, he steered the wobbly Weimar Republic in two directions -- towards reconciliation with the Entente and rapprochement with Soviet Russia. As a marked victim of political and racial assassins and now the subject of several biographies, he is a challenging figure of contemporary history.(6)

Born in 1867, Walther Rathenau was a true child of imperial Germany and its emancipated Jews. His father, Emil Rathenau, founded the huge centralized conglomerate, AEG, the German General Electric Company. Following his dutiful study of engineering, Walther Rathenau did his business apprenticeship in various AEG subsidiaries before returning to Berlin at age thirty-two; he continued to travel throughout Europe and to South America and Africa. Within the next decade he succeeded his father at the helm of AEG, also served on numerous boards, and became one of Europe's major economic leaders.(7)

The other Walther Rathenau sought an influential position in the German intellectual firmament. He was a talented musician and painter, an avid art collector and raconteur, a brilliant linguist and man of letters who produced five didactic volumes on contemporary and philosophical issues. Like Friedrich Nietzsche, the dominant figure of his age, Rathenau lauded the creative spirit who labored to win things eternal and divine. A latter day utopian socialist, Rathenau called for state regulation to subordinate personal interest to the needs of the community and an international organization to control trade, finance, and raw materials.(8)

Like many Jews of his generation who had attained wealth and held intellectual and social pretensions, Rathenau subordinated his Jewishness to his Germanness -- perhaps with more fervency than most. In 1897 he characterized his people as "a separate and alien race," and asserted his complete devotion to Germany and to the German people. …

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