Walther Rathenau

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Walter Rathenau

Walther Rathenau (September 29, 1867June 24, 1922) was a German industrialist and politician who served as Foreign Minister of Germany.



Rathenau was born in Berlin, the son of Emil Rathenau, a prominent Jewish businessman and founder of the Allgemeine Elektricitäts-Gesellschaft (AEG) electrical-engineering company. He studied physics, chemistry and philosophy at Berlin and Strasbourg. He worked an as engineer before joining the AEG board in 1899, becoming a leading industrialist in the late German Empire and early Weimar Republic periods. Rathenau is thought to be the basis for the German industrialist character Arnheim in Robert Musil's novel The Man Without Qualities.

Political career

Rathenau was a leading proponent of a policy of assimilation for German Jews: he argued that Jews should oppose both Zionism and socialism, but should instead integrate themselves into mainstream German society. This, he said, would eventually lead to the disappearance of anti-Semitism. This did not save him from becoming a hated figure, caricatured as a archetypal Jewish capitalist, by Germany's militant anti-Semitic movement.

During World War I Rathenau held senior posts in the Raw Materials Department of the War Ministry, as well as becoming chairman of AEG on his father's death in 1915. He played the leading role in putting Germany's economy in a war footing, and enabling Germany to continue its war effort for four years despite acute shortages of labour and raw materials.

After the war Rathenau, a moderate liberal in politics, was one of the founders of the German Democratic Party (DDP). He rejected the tide of socialist thought which swept Germany after the shock of defeat and revolution, opposing state ownership of industry and advocating greater worker participation in the management of companies. His ideas were influential in post war governments.

In 1921 Rathenau was appointed Minister of Reconstruction, and in 1922 he became Foreign Minister. His insistence that Germany should fulfill its obligations under the Treaty of Versailles, while working for a revision of its terms, infuriated German nationalists. He also angered nationalists by negotiating the Treaty of Rapallo with the Soviet Union. The leaders of the (still obscure) Nazi Party and other right wingers claimed he was part of a "Jewish-Communist conspiracy."

The British politician Robert Boothby wrote of him: "He was something that only a German Jew could simultaneously be: a prophet, a philosopher, a mystic, a writer, a statesman, an industrial magnate of the highest and greatest order, and the pioneer of what has become known as 'industrial rationalization'."

In fact, despite his desire for economic and political co-operation between Germany and the Soviet Union, Rathenau remained skeptical of the Soviets' methods. In his Kritik der dreifachen Revolution ("Critique of the triple revolution"), he noted:

"We cannot use Russia's methods, as they only and at best prove that the economy of an agrarian nation can be leveled to the ground; Russia's thoughts are not our thoughts. They are, as it is in the spirit of the Russian city intelligence, unphilosophical and highly dialectic; they are passionate logic based on unverified suppositions. They assume that a single good, the destruction of the capitalist class, weighs more than all other goods, and that poverty, dictatorship, terror and the fall of civilization must be accepted to secure this one good.
"If ten million people must die to free ten million people from the bourgeoisie, then this is a harsh but necessary consequence. The Russian idea is compulsory happiness, in the same sense and with the same logic as the compulsory introduction of Christianity and the Inquisition."


On June 24, 1922 Rathenau was assassinated by two right-wing army officers. A memorial stone in the Königsallee in Berlin-Grünewald commemorates the crime. One of the assassins was the future writer Ernst von Salomon.

Rathenau's assassination may have significantly influenced the long-term political and economic development of Europe. It was certainly an early sign of the instability and violence which were eventually to destroy the Weimar Republic. The British writer Morgan Philips Price wrote:

"In June 1922 Walter Rathenau, a big Jewish industrialist and progressive economist, was assassinated by gangsters of the extreme Right who were the heart and soul of the Freikorps. I was present at the memorial service in the Reichstag and noted an extraordinary outburst of enthusiasm among the workers of Berlin, as expressed in their trade union leaders and socialist parties, for the Republic and for President Ebert. The rank and file of the Majority Social Democrats were now thoroughly aroused... First Communists, then Socialists, and now a big industrialist were murdered for having Liberal views and, in the last case, for being a Jew. The situation in Germany was becoming more and more sinister."


  • 1908 Reflektionen
  • 1912 Zur Kritik der Zeit
  • 1913 Zur Mechanik des Geistes
  • 1917 Von kommenden Dingen
  • 1918 An Deutschlands Jugend
  • 1919 Die neue Gesellschaft
  • 1919 Der neue Staat
  • 1919 Der Kaiser
  • 1919 Kritik der dreifachen Revolution
  • Gesammelte Schriften in 6 volumns
  • 1924 Gesammelte Reden
  • 1926 Briefe, 2 volumns
  • 1927 Neue Briefe
  • 1929 Politische Briefe

See also

External links

Preceded by:
Joseph Wirth
Minister of Foreign Affairs
Succeeded by:
Joseph Wirth
de:Walther Rathenau

he:ולטר רטנאו it:Walther Rathenau no:Walther Rathenau


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