Rathenau, Emil Moritz

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RATHENAU, EMIL MORITZ (1838–1915), German industrialist and engineer. Emil Rathenau was born in Berlin into a family of businessmen and entrepreneurs. Through his mother he was related to the painter Max *Liebermann. After leaving school before the final examination he started his education as an engineer and technician, which lasted until 1862. Afterwards he worked in different companies in Germany and Great Britain. In 1865 he bought an engineering plant in Berlin. One year later he married Sabine Mathilde Nachmann, with whom he had three children Walther (1867), Erich (1871), and Edith (1883). Shortly after the foundation of the German Reich, Rathenau's company was closed. After some years living independently on his own resources, he established the Deutsche Edison Gesellschaft in 1883. In 1887 it was enlarged and named Allgemeine Elektrizitaets-Gesellschaft (aeg). By the turn of the century the aeg became Germany's second-largest electrical company, topped only by Siemens. The aeg was active worldwide. Rathenau was an obsessive and brilliant entrepreneur. He was creative in finding new ways of marketing and creating new needs for products of the aeg. Thanks to his close contacts with banks, with which the aeg cooperated (especially the Deutsche Bank, later the Berliner Handelsgesellschaft under Carl *Fuerstenberg), he invented new systems of financing his business projects by founding his own company banks (i.e., the Elektrobank in Zurich). Buying licenses for innovative technical products he carefully applied scientific advances to the purposes of the aeg. As a Jew, Rathenau followed the path of acculturation. He avoided any kind of close religious or cultural contacts with the Jewish community. He assumed that a Jewish state could never be self-supporting and thus rejected Zionism. In spite of all this Rathenau was an opponent of the conversion of Jews. Early in his life, he was confronted with antisemitism, including antisemitic comments by his competitors. Being a National Liberal Rathenau always remained faithful to the constitutional monarchy. He was one of the few unbaptized Jews who could come into close contact with German Emperor Wilhelm ii. When World War i broke out Rathenau initially expected that it would last only a short time. As an entrepreneur he followed traditional and patriarchal social patterns even though he was able to think in modern abstract terms of building up a modern world-wide company. In the years before his death Emil Rathenau succeeded in placing his son Walther *Rathenau at the helm of the aeg.


Riedler, Emil Rathenau und das Werden der Großwirtschaft (1916), containing an autobiographic fragment by Emil Rathenau from 1908; aeg (ed.), 50 Jahre aeg: Als Manuskript gedruckt (1956), M. Pohl, Emil Rathenau und die aeg (1988), W. Knopp, Ein Industrieller im Strom der Zeit: Emil Rathenau (1838–1915), in: Jahrbuch Preußischer Kulturbesitz, vol. 26 (1989), 339–54, U. Wengenroth, Emil Rathenau, in: W. Treue et al. (ed.), Berlinische Lebensbilder: Techniker (1990), 193–209, P. Strunk, Die aeg: Aufstieg und Niedergang einer Industrielegende (1999).

[Christian Schoelzel (2nd ed.)]