Rathenau, Walther (1867–1922)

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German-Jewish industrialist and political leader.

Walther Rathenau led a varied life, as an industrialist, intellectual, wartime administrator, and politician, before he was assassinated by extreme right-wing terrorists in June 1922. Rathenau's career embodied the challenges of coming to terms with the transformations in politics and business that took place between the 1890s and the 1920s. Born into a Jewish family, he moved among the elites of Wilhelmine Germany. He was educated at the universities of Strasbourg and Berlin, received a doctorate in physics, served in the army for one year, and then entered AEG (German General Electric), the company his father had set up, following the collapse of his first business venture.

By the outbreak of war he was one of the leading industrial figures in Germany. Nonetheless he was critical of what he, like many contemporaries, saw as the materialism of his age and the conditions of the workers. In a series of publications, including Zur Kritik der Zeit (1912; Criticism of the age) and Die neue Gesellschaft (1919; The new society), he suggested that economic growth would, in the long run, enable workers to devote more time to their intellectual development. However, many of his books were utopian and received a mixed reception. At a more practical level, he was involved in negotiating the Stinnes-Legien pact between employers and workers in 1918, which guaranteed the eight-hour day and gave the workers a greater stake in the running of companies.

He was also an advocate of greater state involvement in economic matters, a view not shared by most other German industrialists. During the First World War, he set up the Raw Materials Office in the Prussian Ministry of War, after warning in early August 1914 that Germany would run short of munitions. The state distributed raw materials to those firms that were best able to exploit them. While Rathenau did not undermine the principles of property ownership, he sought to limit free competition by allowing the state to direct economic activity. At the same time as he advocated greater state involvement in the economy, he also urged that the industrial and professional middle classes should have a greater say in political affairs. German power was no longer based on the officer corps or aristocracy, though he admired their past achievements, but on its economic growth. Before and during the war he advocated reform of the Prussian electoral system and the constitutional position of the Reichstag. This would create domestic harmony and strengthen Germany abroad. Yet by the end of the war he was pessimistic about Germany's future, criticizing the lack of political maturity.

Rathenau, following official visits to German colonies in 1907 and 1908, had argued that Germans lacked the political nous and governing ability of the British. His notes during these trips reveal him to be a skeptic of the value of colonies; nonetheless, Germany could not withdraw, especially after the atrocities committed in colonial wars between 1904 and 1907. Despite showing some sympathy for the plight of Africans, Rathenau had been imbued with the racism of his age and considered the Africans to be indolent and in need of Western support.

In terms of foreign policy, Rathenau was far more interested in Germany's position in Europe than its imperialist expansion. Before World War I he had tried to avert the Second Moroccan Crisis in 1911 by negotiating a deal between German and French companies in Morocco. He consistently argued for collaboration between Germany and France. During the war he rejected the more extreme war aims of large territorial annexations. Instead he argued that a customs union with Austria, Italy, the Netherlands, and Belgium, with France possibly joining later, would preserve Germany's place in Europe. He also saw a customs union as an effective means of countering the growth of U.S. economic power. His ideas anticipated those of Aristide Briand in the late 1920s. After the war Rathenau was initially on the margins of German politics. However, in 1920 and 1921 he began to play a role in the attempts to revise the Treaty of Versailles. At Wiesbaden in June 1921, as minister for reconstruction, he met the French minister, Louis Loucheur. They worked out an agreement for German aid to reconstruct northern France. However, both were hampered by domestic political opposition, and the agreement never materialized. He became foreign minister in January 1922. Frustrated by France, he turned to Britain and then later to Soviet Russia. In April 1922 he signed the Treaty of Rapallo with the Soviet Union in an effort to stave off German isolation. On 24 June 1922 he was murdered, a victim of the antirepublican and anti-Semitic terrorist group Organisation Consul.

See alsoGermany; Versailles, Treaty of.


Primary Sources

Rathenau, Walther. Walther Rathenau: Industrialist, Banker, Intellectual, and Politician. Notes and Diaries, 1907–1922. Edited by Hartmut Pogge von Strandmann. Rev. and extended ed. Oxford, U.K., 1985.

Secondary Sources

Felix, David. Walther Rathenau and the Weimar Republic: The Politics of Reparations. Baltimore and London, 1971.

Williamson, D. G. "Walther Rathenau: Realist, Pedagogue, and Prophet, November 1918–May 1921." European Studies Review 6 (1976).

William Mulligan

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Rathenau, Walther (1867–1922)

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