Rathenau, Walther

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RATHENAU, WALTHER (1867–1922), German statesman, writer, and industrialist; son of Emil *Rathenau and his wife, Mathilde. Walther Rathenau's father became the founder of the Allgemeine Elektrizitäts-Gesellschaft (aeg) in the 1880s. After his studies in physics, chemistry, and philosophy in Berlin and Strasbourg, Walther Rathenau wrote his Ph.D. thesis on the "Absorption of Light in Metals." Afterwards he completed a postdoctorate course in electro-chemistry in Munich and then started practical work in the field of industry. Step by step Rathenau developed into an industrialist on the world stage. In 1899 he became a member of the governing body of the aeg. From 1902 to 1907 Rathenau was co-proprietor of the Berliner Handels-Gesellschaft. At the same time he went back to the aeg as a member of its board of directors. In 1912 he became chairman of the board. Rathenau was one of Europe's leading entrepreneurs and an expert on global finance. As an innovative "system-builder" he not only created new organizational structures in the aeg, but also thought of new ways to develop processes for both heavy and light industry. During the last pre-war years Rathenau made some attempts at attaining a political role. A few days after the outbreak of World War i he started to organize the German war economy as the leader of the newly created Kriegs-Rohstoff-Abteilung (Raw Material Department) in the Prussian War-Ministry. When Emil Rathenau died in 1915, Walther became president of the aeg, a newly created directorial function. During the war Walther Rathenau became increasingly an informal advisor to politicians and high-ranking military personnel. After the war he was one of the official German experts at the financial conference in Spa in 1920. Here he created, with other members of the German delegation such as Moritz Julius *Bonn and Carl *Melchior, the idea of a cooperative "fulfillment policy." In 1921, Rathenau was appointed minister for reconstruction (Wiederaufbauminister). In this capacity he signed the Treaty of Wiesbaden with his French colleague Louis Loucheur. This treaty foresaw partial payment by Germany of its reparations not in money but in goods. The agreement helped German industry regain the French foreign market. In 1922 Rathenau was appointed foreign minister. Increasingly despairing of French diplomacy Rathenau was tempted to abandon his concept of a "cooperative revisionism" of the Versailles Treaty. He still planned to cooperate in the reconstruction of the Soviet economy with the Western powers. Rathenau signed the Treaty of Rapallo, which set the frame for further closer political and economic German-Soviet-Russian cooperation.

During his career as an industrialist, banker, and politician Rathenau also revealed a strong desire to be a man of letters. In this he opposed his father's wishes to see his son exclusively in the world of money and technology. His publications number more than 150 titles, monographs, essays, poems, and plays. Rathenau wrote about politics, economics, financial affairs, aesthetics, social matters, the arts, literature, and philosophy. He developed a philosophy of world history which was based on the antagonism of two types of human beings, the "Furchtmensch" (as a symbol for a mechanistic and rational capitalism) and the "Mutmensch" (as a symbol for the world of art, social progress, and morality). Both were fighting for dominance in the world. The ideal, which only the "Mutmensch" could reach was Rathenau's "Reich der Seele"–a way of living characterized by love, freedom, and transcendent spirituality. Out of his experiences as an industrialist and also with the ideal aim of reaching the "Reich der Seele," after the war Rathenau also developed his theory of a cooperative economy ("Gemeinwirtschaft"). However, Rathenau was a staunch opponent of socialism. For him the question of a constitutional monarchy or a democracy (which he demanded in opposing the feudal structures in Prussia until 1918) was not as important as having all institutions run by capable and moral people. In foreign affairs Rathenau had an international perspective strongly influenced by his business interests. During the war he became increasingly nationalistic, which also reflects the development of his ideas for creating a "Mitteleuropa" under German hegemony. From the end of the World War i until 1920 Rathenau turned towards a "cooperative revisionism" of the Versailles Treaty.

Rathenau revealed a complex relationship towards his own Jewishness. He internalized antisemitic stereotypes with the idea of escaping discrimination by identifying with the perpetrators. Rathenau regarded Jews as a "race" and demanded their physical and spiritual transformation ("Höre Israel!" (1897) published in Die Zukunft). He opposed Zionism and all kinds of Jewish organizations (e.g., the Centralverein). Beneath these tendencies Rathenau also displayed more hidden, positive attitudes towards Jewishness: He refused to leave the Jewish community. The baptism of Jews seemed to him only possible for religious reasons, not for reasons of social opportunism. He was interested in Ḥasidism and started to re-learn Hebrew. In his belief Rathenau tried to find parallels between Jewishness and Christianity. After World War i he tried to create his own religion integrating the ideal of the "Reich der Seele" in it.

Rathenau suffered severely from constant attacks by antisemites from his early years on. From 1918 there were warnings about assassination plots against him and, indeed, in 1922 he was assassinated by members of the "Organization Consul," an antisemitic, antidemocratic, "volkish" secret organization. The murderers killed Rathenau as a symbol of the Republic of Weimar and as a Jew. Rathenau became a symbol of the Weimar democracy, and remains one of its most-read authors.


sources: W. Rathenau, Gesammelte Reden (1924); ibid., Gesammelte Schriften in fünf Bänden (1925); ibd., Neue Briefe (1927); ibid., Briefe: Neue Folge (1928); ibd., Nachgelassene Schriften, 2 vol. (1928); ibid., Politische Briefe (1929); ibd., Schriften aus Kriegs- und Nachkriegszeit (1929); ibd., Briefe: Neue Ausgabe in drei Bänden (1930, volumes 1 and 2 have been published 1926 the first time); H.W. Richter (ed.), Walther Rathenau: Schriften und Reden (1964, 19862); H. Pogge von Strandmann (ed.), Walther Rathenau: Tagebuch 19071922 (1967). add. bibliography: E. Schulin (ed.), Walther Rathenau: Hauptwerke und Gespräche (1977, 19922); H.D. Hellige (ed.), Walther Rathenau: Maximilian Harden: Briefwechsel 18971920 (1983). literature: H. Graf Kessler, Walther Rathenau: Sein Leben und sein Werk (1928, 1988); P. Loewenberg, "Walther Rathenau and German Society" (Ph.D. diss., Univ. of California, Berkeley, 1966); P. Berglar, Walther Rathenau (1970, 19872); R. Kallner, Herzl und Rathenau: Wege juedischer Existenz an der Wende des 20. Jahrhunderts (1976); E. Schulin, Walt her Rathenau: Repraesentant, Kritiker und Opfer seiner Zeit (1979, 19922); H. Wilderotter et al. (ed.), Walther Rathenau 18671922: Die Extreme berühren sich (1993); M. Sabrow, Der Rathenaumord: Rekonstruktion einer Verschwörung gegen die Republik von Weimar (1994); C. Schoelzel, Walther Rathenau: Industrieller. Schriftsteller. Politiker (2004); idem, Walther Rathenau. Eine Biographie (2005).

[Christian Schoelzel (2nd ed.)]

Walther Rathenau

views updated Jun 08 2018

Walther Rathenau

The German industrialist and statesman Walther Rathenau (1867-1922) pioneered the public management of raw materials in his country during World War I. As postwar foreign minister, he inaugurated a new policy of reconciliation with Germany's former enemies.

Walther Rathenau, born in Berlin on Sept. 29, 1867, was the son of the famed German-Jewish entrepreneur Emil Rathenau (1838-1915), founder (1883) and president of AEG, the mammoth German General Electric Company. Trained as an electrochemist, he earned a doctorate in 1889. He served an apprenticeship as a researcher and manager from 1890 to 1900 before joining his father's company initially as a director, then in 1915 becoming successor to the older Rathenau as AEG president.

Vigorous and innovative as an entrepreneur associated with almost a hundred businesses, Rathenau wrote over a dozen books and many articles on philosophy, politics, and economics, in which the mechanization and suppression of modern man are overriding preoccupations. He saw the tyranny of technology and capital as fundamentally an irrational, chaotic one which he hoped would be replaced by an economy organized for the common social good without excessive politico-economic centralization (for which he believed inheritance in particular responsible) and the suppression of the working poor.

Concerned with Germany's insufficient economic preparation, Rathenau offered his services to the government at the outset of World War I and from September 1914 to March 1915 organized the German War Raw Materials Department, which was to become a crucial part of the German war effort. At the same time his inclinations and his intimate knowledge of Germany's potential made him a persistent advocate of an early, negotiated peace and a severe critic of the dominant military caste.

After the war Rathenau was brought into the government by Finance Minister Joseph Wirth in March 1920 as a member of the Socialization Committee and subsequently attended the Spa Conference on Disarmament as a technical assistant (July 1920). When Wirth became chancellor in May 1921, he appointed Rathenau to the Ministry of Reconstruction. Here Rathenau organized an extensive program of rationalization for German industry and launched his new "foreign policy of fulfillment," that is, reconciliation with the victorious powers by negotiating on the basis of the established peace treaty (Wiesbaden, October 1921; Cannes, January 1922). He became foreign minister in January 1922. The most memorable event of his brief tenure of office was a pact of peace with the Soviets, the Treaty of Rapallo, signed unexpectedly under the strain of failing reparations talks at the Genoa Conference in April 1922. The hope for international reconciliation was shattered, however, by the virulent attacks of a chauvinistic, anti-Semitic, and antirepublican right, which climaxed in the assassination of Rathenau by two young nationalists in Berlin on June 24, 1922.

Further Reading

Of Rathenau's own numerous writings, In Days to Come was translated by Eden and Cedar Paul (1921) and The New Society by Arthur Windham (1921). Several important volumes of personal writings remain untranslated. The best biographical studies of Rathenau in English are Count Harry Kessler, Walther Rathenau: His Life and Work, translated by W. D. Robson-Scott (1928) and by Lawrence Hyde (1930), a sensitive portrayal by a close friend; and the chapter on Rathenau in James Joll, Three Intellectuals in Politics (1961). An authoritative specialized study is David Felix, Walther Rathenau and the Weimar Republic: The Politics of Reparations (1971).

Additional Sources

Kessler, Harry, Graf, Walther Rathenau: his life and work, New York: AMS Press, 1975.

Loewenberg, Peter, Walther Rathenau and Henry Kissinger: the Jew as a modern statesman in two political cultures, New York: Leo Baeck Institute, 1980. □

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