Walther Rathenau: Weimar's Fallen Statesman

By Redding, Kimberly A. | The Historian, Summer 2013 | Go to article overview

Walther Rathenau: Weimar's Fallen Statesman


Redding, Kimberly A., The Historian


Walther Rathenau: Weimar's Fallen Statesman. By Shulamit Volkov. (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2012. Pp. ix, 240. $25.00.)

According to this convincing new biography, Weimar foreign minister Walther Rathenau personified the strengths and struggles of the young German nation at the turn of the last century. Both Rathenau and the Second Reich struggled to negotiate a place among established power holders in order to resolve inherent contradictions between the industrial age and traditional Bildungskultur and to step out of the shadow of an imposing patriarch. Both Rathenau and Weimar Germany also wrestled with "the Jewish question," which takes center stage in Shulamit Volkov's study of the ill-fated German-Jewish statesman.

This book is the most recent volume in Yale University Press's Jewish Lives series, which aims to demonstrate the diversity and complexity of Jewish experience to a broad audience. Volkov does just this, using seven chronologically organized chapters to situate Rathenau's life within a relatively small circle of wealthy entrepreneurial families--many of them assimilated German Jews--in and around Berlin. Chapter 1 introduces this cultural milieu and the familial relationships that shaped Rathenau's youth, while the remaining six mine Rathenau's extensive correspondence with both male and female acquaintances throughout his adult life. Thus, chapter 2 depicts a young adult Rathenau as disciplined and well educated yet checked by the fear of disappointing an overbearing industrialist father. Chapter 3 suggests that Rathenau's early political efforts were similarly tentative, and chapter 4 finds his troubled father-son relationship marking his nascent business career.

In Volkov's assessment, Rathenau's patriotism trumped familial pressures when international conflict loomed; consequently, chapters 5 and 6 form the most compelling section of the book. …

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