Walther Rathenau: Weimar's Fallen Statesman

Walther Rathenau: Weimar's Fallen Statesman

by Shulamit Volkov

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This deeply informed biography of Walther Rathenau (1867–1922) tells of a man who—both thoroughly German and unabashedly Jewish—rose to leadership in the German War-Ministry Department during the First World War, and later to the exalted position of foreign minister in the early days of the Weimar Republic. His achievement was

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This deeply informed biography of Walther Rathenau (1867–1922) tells of a man who—both thoroughly German and unabashedly Jewish—rose to leadership in the German War-Ministry Department during the First World War, and later to the exalted position of foreign minister in the early days of the Weimar Republic. His achievement was unprecedented—no Jew in Germany had ever attained such high political rank. But Rathenau’s success was marked by tragedy: within months he was assassinated by right-wing extremists seeking to destroy the newly formed Republic.

Drawing on Rathenau’s papers and on a depth of knowledge of both modern German and German-Jewish history, Shulamit Volkov creates a finely drawn portrait of this complex man who struggled with his Jewish identity yet treasured his “otherness.” Volkov also places Rathenau in the dual context of Imperial and Weimar Germany and of Berlin’s financial and intellectual elite. Above all, she illuminates the complex social and psychological milieu of German Jewry in the period before Hitler’s rise to power.

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Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly
Imagine that Jeffrey Immelt, CEO of GE, were also an influential public philosopher who published numerous books on society and political affairs and you will begin to get a sense of Walther Rathenau (1867–1922). The longtime head of AEG, the German counterpart to GE, he was briefly Germany’s foreign minister before being murdered by fascist anti-Semites. In this entry in Yale’s Jewish Lives series, historian Volkov, professor emerita at Tel Aviv University, is, appropriately, particularly interesting on Rathenau’s Jewishness. He declared his identity outright in Germany’s increasingly hostile atmosphere and, unlike many ambitious German Jews, refused to convert. Yet he internalized some of the worst anti-Semitic stereotypes, writing of the “medieval qualities” of the Jewish proletariat. Volkov also examines the nuances and contradictions of Rathenau’s writings. Here was one of Germany’s leading industrialists yet he wrote critically of the “mechanization” of modern life. Volkov captures especially well the socially awkward and often lonely man who never married and may have been gay (an issue she judiciously never resolves). Volkov’s well-researched and written book has a few of the gaps and flaws of a short biography, but it has far more strengths as a fascinating introduction to an important, multifaceted early 20th-century figure. (Jan.)
Wall Street Journal

"An illuminating, thoroughly researched and sympathetic account of this intriguing, enigmatic life."—Ian Brunskill, Wall Street Journal

— Ian Brunskill

Washington Times

"Incisive and probing."—Martin Rubin, Washington Times

— Martin Rubin

London Review of Books

"This is by far the best and most sophisticated life of Rathenau in English."—Richard J. Evans, London Review of Books

— Richard J. Evans

Saul Friedlander
"In this remarkable biography, Shulamit Volkov offers a subtle analysis of Walther Rathenau's complex and often ambiguous personality. She describes admirably how Rathenau's always-reaffirmed Jewishness increasingly became a target for the antisemitic elites of Imperial Germany and, notwithstanding his outstanding services to Germany, an object of fanatical hatred for the extreme Right under Weimar, which led to his assassination. Shulamit Volkov's book is history at its best."—Saul Friedlander, author of the Pulitzer Prize–winning Nazi Germany and the Jews
A. J. Sherman
"Volkov’s scholarship illuminates many sides of Rathenau’s personality. Her discussion of Rathenau’s Jewishness is informed, often moving, and absorbing as both personal and social history."—A. J. Sherman, Associate Fellow, St. Antony’s College, Oxford

Wall Street Journal - Ian Brunskill
"An illuminating, thoroughly researched and sympathetic account of this intriguing, enigmatic life."—Ian Brunskill, Wall Street Journal
Washington Times - Martin Rubin
"Incisive and probing."—Martin Rubin, Washington Times
London Review of Books - Richard J. Evans
"This is by far the best and most sophisticated life of Rathenau in English."—Richard J. Evans, London Review of Books
The Forward Arty Semite Blog - Sam Kerbel
"Concise and revelatory."—Sam Kerbel, The Forward Arty Semite Blog

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Product Details

Yale University Press
Publication date:
Jewish Lives Series
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Product dimensions:
5.90(w) x 8.40(h) x 1.00(d)

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Walther Rathenau

Weimar's Fallen Statesman


Copyright © 2012 Shulamit Volkov
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-300-14431-4

Chapter One

A German Jew in the Making

Walther Rathenau was born on September 29, 1867, in Berlin. Later in life he would often mention the hundred years of his Berlin ancestry. But the Berlin to which his grandparents moved from the northern and northeastern plains of Brandenburg in the early years of the nineteenth century was a very different city from the Berlin of Rathenau's own youth. From being a capital strictly oriented toward the Prussian monarchy's military needs, a garrison city only recently adorned with a few royal structures in grand classical style, the Berlin of the 1860s was quickly changing to fit its new role as an imperial seat. The Prussian army won three consecutive wars during that decade. Soon after the first victory, over Denmark in 1864, the town began to experience an unprecedented growth. It attracted new inhabitants by projecting the image of a youthful, energetic metropolis, destined for greatness—politically and economically alike. Following the next victory, over Austria in the summer of 1866, it was Bismarck's presence in town that caused excitement among the many newcomers. Himself no lover of city life, the chancellor was by then seen as the moving spirit behind Berlin's hectic development. Finally, with the crowning of the Prussian king as emperor of a new "German Empire" on January 18, 1871, and in the wake of another spectacular victory, this time over France, it was Wilhelm I, now both Prussian king and German Kaiser, whose occasional pompous ride through the Brandenburg Gate was eagerly awaited by the residents of the new imperial capital. A building boom, especially the westward expansion of the city, providing elegant living quarters for the wealthy commercial population, was now fed by ever more rapid economic growth. The new Germany was beginning to enjoy the fruits of its industrialization, sustained—at least for a while—by the handsome reparations dutifully paid by the defeated French, and despite the fact that a financial bubble grew and burst as early as 1873, Berlin never returned to its earlier provincial self. At the time of German unification the city already had 865,000 inhabitants. It had grown to more than a million by 1877 and reached two million by 1905. Of course, Paris, London, and New York were much larger, but no other city experienced such a dramatic rate of growth at the time. Empire-building was accompanied by economic growth, not without crises or setbacks, to be sure, but with impressive, lasting consequences. It was an exciting time for Germans everywhere, and Berlin was at the center of it all. Its dynamism was contagious; its achievements—glorious. It was a propitious time and place to enter the stage, no doubt.

All the more so if you were a Jew. Discussions of the need to put an end to the discriminatory legislation that regulated Jewish life in the various states of the old Holy Roman Empire had started as early as the 1780s. While the first written statement concerning the so-called improvement of the civil status of Jews was published in Prussia, in fact in Berlin, early practical reforms were undertaken in the territories under the direct rule of the Habsburg emperor Joseph II. In the rest of the empire, despite a prolonged debate concerning their status, and later on even despite new legislation imposed by Napoleon, most Jews experienced only marginal improvements. Local reforms enacted under French occupation were either entirely withdrawn soon after the defeat of the French in 1814 or were only partially put into effect. Full Jewish emancipation was drafted into the constitution adopted by the National Assembly that met in Frankfurt during the Revolution of 1848–49, but this too never materialized. It was only during the 1860s, at a time of rapid economic growth and liberal reawakening, that opposition to emancipation seemed to fade and one German state after another took the long-awaited legal steps to end discrimination. The matter was finally sealed in the wake of German unification in 1871. A new era for German Jewry had begun.

But legal equality in itself, while surely of great symbolic value, did not always bring about a meaningful change in daily life. From the outset, emancipation was a matter of social integration and acculturation as much as of legal procedure. In France, equal citizenship was conceived as a precondition to integration. It was granted to individual Jews at the same time as their communal rights and what were often considered their privileges were abolished. In Germany, by contrast, a measure of integration was conceived as a precondition for equal citizenship. The conservative regimes that were reinstated in most German states following Napoleon's defeat left intact the old Jewish communal institutions, and individual Jews, striving for "entrance" into German society, could hope to gain equality only on the basis of their good behavior, so to speak, or their special contributions. Jewish "movers and doers," successful commercial and financial men, took an active part in the construction of the new economic bourgeoisie, while some of their sons gradually managed to enter the ranks of the Bildungsbürgertum, the educated bourgeoisie, as well. Thus, change was initiated on both sides: Germans allowed some of the traditional hindrances to Jewish "entrance" to be dropped, and at the same time Jews showed ever-growing interest in achieving such entrance. Limited but noticeable openness on the one side encouraged active striving on the other, and although the process was slow at first, it gradually acquired ever greater momentum and encompassed ever larger segments of the population.

However, the process was made problematic by resistance on both sides. The more cautious members of the rabbinical establishment mistrusted integration in principle and rejected it in practice. Many Germans objected to it on various social and economic grounds, though finally and above all because of a long-lasting and deep-seated anti-Jewish tradition. Conservatives seemed anxious to preserve the Christian character of state and society in Germany; liberals, by then the main spokesmen of a new kind of nationalism too, began to conceive Jews as a foreign ethnic element, constitutionally unfit to become equal citizens in the future German national state. Neither complete formal equality nor easy integration seemed possible under such circumstances. Nevertheless, by the second half of the nineteenth century, German Jews could already point out considerable achievements, both in terms of social and economic mobility and in terms of acculturation. Between 1800 and 1870, they indeed managed to "make it.'" Until the end of the eighteenth century, most of them were poor and lived in relative isolation from their non-Jewish neighbors, whereas by the late nineteenth century they had become, more often than not, part and parcel of the German lower and "middle" middle class. Though the very rich continued to be a small minority among them, the very poor too were relatively few. Within two to three generations Jews had moved from the margin to the center of German society. They were more urban than other Germans, moving in ever greater proportions into the larger metropolitan centers. The range of their occupations was expanding, especially as they entered the free professions. And while they could not become officers in the Prussian army, for instance—usually not even in its reserve units—and their chances of promotion within the bureaucracy, especially within the all important Prussian bureaucracy, were very slim, their voices were now heard more often and more clearly than ever before. All in all, they constituted a very special kind of minority: neither poorer, nor less well-educated than other Germans; no longer marginal in most respects. In fact, they usually did not consider themselves a minority at all. Germany was ethnically heterogeneous in any case, ran the argument, and Jews simply made up yet another "tribe" among many; to be absorbed, like others, into the great German nation-in-the-making.

To be sure, non-Jewish Germans tended to see things differently. While Jews normally endeavored to be socially and culturally integrated without giving up their Jewish identity, Germans all too often expected them to take this last step, too. Even some of the more liberal among the latter, defending emancipation, hoped to see the Jews shed their uniqueness as they entered German society, often simply demanding their conversion. Indeed, some Jews were ready, even willing, to take this step. Heinrich Heine, to name only the most famous example, considered his conversion to Christianity a "ticket of admission to European culture." But with the exception of few big cities and only at particular periods, as for example in early nineteenth-century Berlin, the conversion rate among Jews was not very high, endogamy remained the rule, and Jewish ties, familial and social, were usually very tight.

Thus, while Jews could justly be proud of their achievements in the areas of social integration and acculturation, Germans continued to be skeptical in some cases, and hostile in others. In fact, they were often both skeptical and hostile even when they too appreciated the upward movement of the Jews; perhaps especially when they did so. This created a complex situation. Jews were making significant inroads into German society, but a degree of tension between themselves and other Germans remained and was felt by both sides. Both Germans and German Jews were aware of this tension, and both learned to live with it. Some Jews managed to overlook it more easily and more gracefully than others, though to some degree it remained a problem even for them. Some expected more openness and occasionally found themselves offended and disappointed; others feared more hostility and were favorably surprised by the occasional friendly reception. Some, continuously under pressure, experimented with new ideologies such as Zionism, while others insisted on stretching the bounds of their assimilation. In any case, by the end of the nineteenth century most Jews had reached a measure of contentment. After all, they could only evaluate their newly acquired status by comparing it with that of earlier generations, not with some utopian future state of perfect equality. Alternatively, they could make the comparison with the position of Jews elsewhere in Europe, in Tsarist Russia for instance, or even in republican France, struggling with the consequences of the Dreyfus Affair. Living under a stable regime and within a law-abiding society in Germany, they were confident enough with regard to their own and their offspring's prospects. On the whole, and despite the ever present undercurrent of antisemitism, they usually felt secure, even gratified.

Emil Rathenau, Walther's father, born in Berlin on December 11, 1838, already belonged to a generation of Jews who took for granted their status as emancipated Jews, although the legal process itself was far from completion during his youth. His parents, newcomers in Berlin, were soon engulfed by the brilliance of the city's social life and settled down to the leisurely existence of well-to-do rentiers. His father, wrote Emil many years later in an autobiographical sketch, was "strict and meticulous," while the mother was "clever and witty," an elegant and ambitious lady. Her origins surely warranted such qualities. Therese Rathenau was a daughter of an old trading family, the Liebermanns, whose father had turned to manufacturing, first in calico printing and then in machine building, first in and around Berlin and then in faraway Silesia. Not altogether surprisingly, the familial constellation in Emil's own home, later on in life, seems to have been much like that of his parents. A pattern of distance from the father and closeness to the mother, as we shall soon see in Walther's life too, was clearly a reenactment of an earlier familial situation. Till her death in 1894, Emil visited his mother almost daily, whenever it was at all possible under the constraints of his busy schedule, much as his son Walther did later on with his own mother.

Having graduated from a humanistic gymnasium, Emil was first sent as an apprentice to his relatives' ironworks in Silesia. He spent four and a half unhappy years there, gaining invaluable practical experience, but feeling hopelessly trapped, both socially and professionally. It was a small fortune he had inherited from his grandfather that set him free. He was then able to study, first in Hanover and then in Zurich, acquiring a proper engineering certificate, and then to launch an independent career as a technical adviser at the up and coming Borsig railroad equipment company in Berlin. Though this was clearly a promising post, Emil was not satisfied. Soon he was on the move again, traveling to England, taking on various jobs in a number of industrial firms, learning and observing the political and economic situation in that country, but never entirely happy with himself and his achievements. Finally, back in Berlin, he managed to step forward on two fronts at once. He married Mathilde Nachmann, daughter of a wealthy Jewish banker from Frankfurt am Main, and not unlike his mother a clever and witty, ambitious and worldly young lady. Then, together with an old schoolmate, he took over a small machine-building factory in one of Berlin's industrial districts and established himself as an independent businessman in the technical field of his choice.

Nevertheless, signs of discontent could soon be detected again. Constructing steam engines for heating as well as for urban gas and water distribution was a routine kind of work. At Emil's initiative, the factory took upon itself to provide the Royal Theater of Berlin with all the needed technical fixtures, clearly a job requiring more imagination but rather unpromising financially. And when his partner suggested that they turn their business into a public company, under the favorable circumstances of the economic boom in the early 1870s, Emil Rathenau decided to sell his share. He continued to function as the firm's general manager, but was clearly planning his exit. In fact, as the stock exchange crash of 1873 came soon afterwards, Emil Rathenau's first business enterprise ended in collapse. Thanks to his previous caution, however, his personal financial losses were relatively minor.

Walther was by then eight years old. Though the Rathenaus could maintain their standard of living, the situation at home changed dramatically. The father, till then always busy and rarely at home, was suddenly jobless, living, like his own father before him, the life of a youthful rentier, only this time not really as a matter of choice. In fact, the grandfather's leisurely life had been curtailed quite early in Emil's life, as much of the family property had perished in an accidental fire in 1842. Emil may have had some early memories of these less than glamorous years. In 1870, his father-in-law, Isaac Nachmann, took his own life as he feared the bankruptcy of his bank, a bankruptcy that in fact never occurred. Considering this background, it is hardly surprising to find Emil despondent. For a number of years, he seemed to oscillate between depression and feats of animated activity. He was looking for new employment but nothing seemed to fit his skills, measure up to his ambition, or fulfill his restless personality. He was briefly involved in a real estate business with his brother, but then quickly withdrew, finding it incompatible with his tastes and interests. Then came a series of trips abroad, especially to various international exhibitions, in search of technical innovations, and the accompanying insecurity, intensely felt by the whole family. It was evidence of Emil Rathenau's sure sense of technical potential that he first targeted the telephone as a promising business proposition, but it was also evidence of his lack of confidence in himself at the time that he only sought a bureaucratic concession to install it in Berlin, not the more daring option of building his own factory. Or perhaps he felt that this was not yet what he was looking for. Finally, at the grand Paris exhibition of 1881, he first saw Thomas Alva Edison's new electric bulb, which aroused little interest among others but instantaneously fired his imagination. Emil Rathenau bought the European rights to Edison's patent and thus opened a new chapter in his and his family's life. It was his first step on the road to becoming one of Germany's most successful entrepreneurs, the renowned general manager of the Allgemeine Elektrizitätsgesellschaft (AEG), an innovator on a world scale, a system builder, an enormously rich and powerful man. The journalist Maximilian Harden, whom we shall later meet as Walther Rathenau's friend and rival, saw in this hard-working, coolheaded man "the Bismarck of Germany's industrial empire."

Walther's childhood was practically over as this rush to success began. The father he had experienced during his early years was the unhappy Emil Rathenau, often traveling, rarely at home, for ever searching after some promising opportunity, irritable and less than approachable, surely not very loving. Erich, Walther's younger brother, was born in August 1871, some two months after the death of their grandfather Moritz, Emil's father. He was an adorable little boy, nicknamed "Gold" at home, and from the outset his father's source of consolation and his lifelong favorite. Erich, sickly since childhood, attracted much of the mother's attention too. She was endlessly trying to improve his health and was frequently traveling with him to various health resorts near and far. This life style may have suited Mathilde Rathenau on more than one account. She was not happy in her marriage. While at first a true companion to her husband, she must have soon lost interest in his hectic business affairs and he, in turn, shut her out as the going got rough, disregarding both her need for intimacy and her social and cultural ambitions. Walther's birth provided a temporary relief and Mathilde was enchanted by the handsome, intelligent boy, who remained her favorite and to whom she was deeply devoted throughout her life. Still, with Erich's birth she found attending to the two young boys, one of them often ill, so taxing that she sent Walther to her mother in Frankfurt, at first only for short visits and then to attend school there. This, in addition to the parents' joint trips for business or pleasure, frequently separated the young Walther from them, and he surely experienced this enforced distance as a hardship. It did, however, prove a blessing for the historian. Rathenau's estate includes a letter to his father from as early as June 1871, when he was not yet four years old, and then a trickle of childish, often precocious letters to both his parents, providing a rare insight into the early stages of his life.


Excerpted from Walther Rathenau by SHULAMIT VOLKOV Copyright © 2012 by Shulamit Volkov. Excerpted by permission of Yale UNIVERSITY PRESS. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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Meet the Author

Shulamit Volkov is professor emerita of modern European history, Tel Aviv University. Her most recent book is Germans, Jews, and Antisemites: Trials in Emancipation. She lives in Herzliya, Israel.

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