Walther Rathenau (29 September 1867 – 24 June 1922) was a German statesman who served as Foreign Minister during the Weimar Republic.
Rathenau initiated the Treaty of Rapallo, which removed major obstacles to trading with Soviet Russia. Although Russia was already aiding Germany’s secret rearmament programme, right-wing nationalist groups branded Rathenau a revolutionary, when he was in fact a moderate liberal who openly condemned Soviet methods. They also resented his background as a successful Jewish businessman.
Two months after signing the treaty, he was assassinated in Berlin by the right-wing terrorist group Organization Consul. The public viewed Rathenau as a democratic martyr until the Nazis banned all commemorations of him.
Rathenau was born in Berlin. His parents were Emil Rathenau and Mathilde Nachmann. His father was a prominent Jewish businessman and founder of the Allgemeine Elektrizitäts-Gesellschaft, an electrical engineering company.
He studied physics, chemistry, and philosophy in Berlin and Strasbourg, and received a doctorate in physics in 1889 after studying under August Kundt. His German Jewish heritage and his assimilated wealth were both factors in establishing his deeply divisive reputation in German politics at a time of antisemitism among gentiles.
He summed up his feelings about growing up in Germany
I am a German of Jewish origin. My people are the German people, my home is German land, my belief is German belief, which stands above all denominations.
Reading Goethe, the greatest German poet was a national pride for the German. But more significant was the development of an independent-minded scientist and expert in "The Absorption of Light by Metals".
He worked as a technical engineer in a Swiss aluminium factory, and then as a manager in a small electro-chemical works in Bitterfelde where he conducted experiments in electrolysis. He returned to Berlin and joined the AEG board in 1899, becoming a leading industrialist in the late German Empire and early Weimar Republic periods. In 1903 his younger and much more entrepreneurial brother Erich Rathenau died. Broken-hearted his father had to be content with Walther's help instead. Walther Rathenau was a highly successful industrialist: in a decade he set up power stations in Manchester (England), Buenos Aires (Argentina), and Baku (northern Persia, later run by the Soviet Union). AEG acquired ownership of a streetcar company in Madrid; and in East Africa he purchased an English firm. In total he was involved with 84 companies worldwide. AEG was particularly celebrated for vertical integration methods and a strong emphasis on supply chain management. Rathenau developed an expertise in business restructuring, turning companies around. Superb organizational capabilities made his company very rich, but it also produced the standards for new chemical development, such as Acetone in Manchester. He made large profits from commercial lending on an industrial scale, which were reinvested in capital and assets.
Supply chains, Socialism and World War
An experienced journalist Rathenau published in Berliner Tageblatt an article accusing his own country of manipulating politics in Vienna. As the dual monarchy's relations with Russia drifted the paper described a secret conspiracy at work in Moltke's War department in which he had taken part. During World War I his opinions hardened. He held senior posts in the Raw Materials Department of the War Ministry and became chairman of AEG upon his father's death in 1915. Rathenau played a key role in convincing the War Ministry to set up the War Raw Materials Department (KRA), of which he was put in charge from August 1914 to March 1915 and established the fundamental policies and procedures. His senior staff were on loan from industry. KRA focused on raw materials threatened by the British blockade, as well as supplies from occupied Belgium and France. It set prices and regulated the distribution to vital war industries. It began the development of Ersatzkaisertum raw materials, developing supply chains to bring peace and for regime change within Germany. KRA suffered many inefficiencies caused by the complexity and selfishness encountered from commerce, industry, and the government itself.
Rathenau wrote about personal and social responsibility to the community at a time when solidarity was required to keep the peace. His characteristics were courage, vision, imagination, tenacity and creativity; yet he insisted technology come to the aid of manual labourers. So one of the joys of work included "pleasure from profit" to elevate society. Like World Zionism he identified a sense of inferiority with his Jewishness, he
realised completely for the first time that he had come into this world as a second-class citizen and that no amount of ability and merit could ever free him from this condition.
One heavy criticism which he bore stoically was the implication that Jews could never put Germany first; that Jews were a problem for annihilation from the 1880s bore witness to the proliferation from 1880s of anti-Semitic parties. There were no Jewish officers in the whole Prussian Army - the ruling-class in the Imperial Officer Corps was both blatantly and latently anti-Semitic, eventually giving rise to the Nazis.
Rathenau wanted to stand on a platform for one world order for a transcendental peace that banished anarchy. After Versailles (1919) he founded a "League for Industry", an offshoot of internationalism that blamed German defeat on a lack of industrial readiness. he wished to exculpate the blame for Germany's war guilt articulated through an acquaintance with Colonel House.
Rathenau was a moderate liberal in politics, and after World War I, he was one of the founders of the German Democratic Party (DDP), but he moved to the Left in the advent of post war chaos. Passionate about rights of social equality, he rejected state ownership of industry and instead advocated greater worker participation in the management of companies. His ideas were influential in postwar governments. He was put forward as a socialist candidate for first President; but on standing in the Reichstag was dismissed amid "rows and shrieks of laughter" which visibly upset the man. Ebert's election by the Left failed to heal the deep rifts and social divisions in German society that obtained throughout the Weimar. Rathenau advised that a small town in central Germany was the wrong place for the capital and seat of Government. But his own adequacy was under-appreciated; immediately giving rise to extreme right-wing organizations within months of the Communist-inspired Spartacist Revolt, "the product of a state in which for centuries no one has ruled who was not a member of, or a convert to military feudalism...., he told the Reichstag, at once deploring the foundation of the Fatherland Party in 1917. In 1918 he established the ZAG living through his philosophy of Deutsche Gemeinwirtschaft a collective economic community.
Rathenau was a natural central planner with an eye for economic detail. He encouraged free traders, was honestly unrepentant believing in the efficacy of "preparedness and directional efficiency". The Socialists sowed the seeds of their own downfall by attacking moderates such as deregulated northern bankers. But AEG was influential: his colleague Wichard von Moellendorff was appointed as Undersecretary of the Reich Economy Office; for a time in July 1919 they worked closely for Weimar with republican Rudolf Wissell. But Hindenburg's technocratic rational economic Programme was borrowed; while Rathenau, being democratic, warned against short-termism. Berlin's March Days was a consequence of the internal struggle between Finance and Economic ministries. On 20 Feb 1919 he proposed workers councils "which had already been explained in his writings". The plan for a Socialist League of nations was overtly pro-Union mocked as the "Paris League" - a throwback to the Second Communist International - they challenged openly for democratic ideas. But a rapprochement with Soviet Union was inspired by Rathenau, it tried to prevent an expansive 'Greater Germany'.
Rathenau was appointed Minister of Reconstruction and in May 1921 held a second meetings with Lloyd George and the Reparations Committee. He established good relations with Aristide Briand who praised "a strong, healthy, booming Germany". The era of Erfullungspolitik was high, altruistic self-confidence; he shared a pre-war fascination for the Hegelian Complex for a corporate Germany chastised by a reverence to a Supreme Being. He was wary of allied decadence, complacent, corrosive of an innocent romanticism expanded into mysticism. His ideas were challenged as "objectively impossible"; Weimar lacked clarity and leadership, while Rathenau was deterministic, and robust over the details. A Levee en masse would be part of this utilitarianism that bestrode his menschen philosophies. This contradistinction about an "unravelled" Versailles which was incompatible with Fulfillment and the role of Reconstruction. Bravely Rathenau held out against the partition of Poland; despite Erzberger's assassination; and threats for extreme National Bolshevists when he joined Joseph Wirth's government after Cannes on 31 Jan 1922, there was a horrible fear that his days were numbered.
In 1922 he became Foreign Minister: on which occasion he sought Lili Deutsche solace, his mother's comfort, and the company of a pistol for protection. Writing before the Genoa Conference that concern for his personal safety was prescient of a foreboding for his own death. The insistence that Germany should fulfill its obligations under the Treaty of Versailles, but work for a revision of its terms, infuriated extreme German nationalists. He also angered such extremists by negotiating on 22 Jan 1922 Treaty of Rapallo with the Soviet Union, although the treaty implicitly recognized secret German-Soviet collaboration begun in 1921 that provided for the rearmament of Germany, including German-owned aircraft manufacturing in Russian territory. The leaders of the (still obscure) National Socialist German Workers' Party and other extremist groups falsely claimed he was part of a "Jewish-Communist conspiracy," despite the fact that he was a liberal German nationalist who had bolstered the country's recent war effort. 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'." Despite his desire for economic and political co-operation between Germany and the Soviet Union, Rathenau remained skeptical of the methods of the Soviets:
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 intelligentsia, 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. Ten million people must die to free ten million people from the bourgeoisie is regarded as 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.
The question of war reparations vexed Rathenau: Art. 231 imposed repayments that crippled Germany until 1990. Expunging war guilt converting it into financial and economic Responsibility was critical to relations with the Big Four. Yet Rathenau was unable to convince Germans of its applicability. He talked in his "apocalyptic way about society, politics and the problems of responsibility." He was persuasive; The Entente would recognise, he urged, that Germany how to be "capable of discharging its obligations."
Philosophy of imagery
Although he never married Rathenau did fall in love with Lili Deutsch, a society beauty and a Christian. He related in a notebook titled Brevarium Mysticum finding revealed love in the sight of a soaring eagle, a soulful dedication on a sojourn in the Harz Mountains. Walther was highly literate and intelligent, wrote several books with deep philosophical overtones. In Zur Kritik der Zeit contemporary human conditioning was critically examined on a sociological basis found in a life of business. This put together another critique into an intellectual context of 'mind over matter', social wisdom and corporate discipline as a framework in the socialistic sciences - Zur Mechanik des Geistes. Rathenau moved ever closer to a rejection of religion, embracing the power of science. He tried to bring people's attention to what changes would be required for a futuristic romantic movement in Von Kommenden Dingento openly challenge the living of lives. Mechanistics rejected the central feature of Malthusian thoughts on human progress motivated by population growth. His focus was the importance of technology, rather than abstinence for standardisation, specialization and abstraction with positive approbation. The corollary for Rathenau of information-gathering was an exponential explosive growth in data that would enrich globalization. Rathenau delineated his arguments by dividing men into classifications: Mutmenschen and Furchtmenschen outlined the problems of mass migration across Europe which had resonance with the past. But he saw real significance for Zweckmenschen as utilitarian cunning to set the men of fear in motion. The philosophy amounted to Social Darwinism but there was an unaccredited presumption of delphic adoration for the Greek Parnassus.
The theories of mechanization argued that competition could not go on forever as it died in love. Intellectual perorations were reached in pronouncements preceding a great vision for the future of German business. He cannot be directly held responsible for the mechanization of the Panzers movement, for his social idealism was grounded in Rousseau's Great Enlightenment Path. Pure mechanization would have to transmogrify psychological mutation, risk tragedy, and plunging into the abyss. Rathenau was assimilated by a love for St Francis Assisi, a message of service dedicated to the community that restricted his ambitions. A modified or applied mysticism Rathenau's idea always expressed work as "a joy", alike to Schopenhauer he rejected materialism; recognised its pitfalls, using a deep knowledge of technology to simultaneously warn of its dangers. This distinction with Soviet working methods of dialectical materialism were unwelcome in Germany seeking to rearm. Thus he rallied ideas for management and control as Head of Raw Materials and efficacy of science.
Assassination and aftermath
The German Foreign Secretary was increasingly concerned for his own safety: Poincare and the French did not appear at the Genoa Conference on 10 April 1922. The Russians went 20 miles down the coast to sign a deal with Germany. The idea for a 'consortium' in an economic Europe was already dead. On the other hand, rapprochement with the Soviets held risks, as Lloyd George had gone behind Germany's back with "private meetings". At Portofino a Soviet-German Accord was signed in order to stimulate "...the moral and spiritual rejuvenation of industry".
On 24 June 1922, two months after the signing of the Treaty of Rapallo (which renounced German territorial claims from World War I), Rathenau was assassinated. On this Saturday morning, Rathenau had himself chauffeured from his house in Berlin-Grunewald to the Foreign Office in Wilhelmstraße. During the trip, his NAG-Convertible was passed by a Mercedes-Touring car with Ernst Werner Techow behind the wheel and Erwin Kern and Hermann Fischer on the backseats. Kern opened fire with a MP 18-submachine gun at close range, killing Rathenau almost instantly, while Fischer threw a hand grenade into the car before Techow quickly drove them away. Also involved in the plot were Techow's younger brother Hans Gerd Techow, future writer Ernst von Salomon, and Willi Günther (aided and abetted by seven others, some of them schoolboys). All conspirators were members of the ultra-nationalist secret Organisation Consul (O.C.). A memorial stone in the Königsallee in Grunewald marks the scene of the crime.
Rathenau's assassination was but one in a series of terrorist attacks by Organisation Consul. Most notable among them had been the assassination of former finance minister Matthias Erzberger in August 1921. While Fischer and Kern prepared their plot, former chancellor Philipp Scheidemann barely survived an attempt on his life by Organisation Consul assassins on 4 June 1922. Historian Martin Sabrow points to Hermann Ehrhardt, the undisputed leader of the Organisation Consul, as the one who ordered the murders. Ehrhardt and his men believed that Rathenau's death would bring down the government and prompt the Left to act against the Weimar Republic, thereby provoking civil war, in which the Organisation Consul would be called on for help by the Reichswehr. After an anticipated victory Ehrhardt hoped to establish an authoritarian regime or a military dictatorship. In order not to be completely delegitimized by the murder of Rathenau, Ehrhardt carefully saw to it that no connections between him and the assassins could be detected. Although Fischer and Kern connected with the Berlin chapter of the Organisation Consul to use its resources, they mainly acted on their own in planning and carrying out the assassination.
The terrorists' aims were not achieved, however, and civil war did not come. Instead, millions of Germans gathered on the streets to express their grief and to demonstrate against counter-revolutionary terrorism. When the news of Rathenau's death became known in the Reichstag, the session turned into turmoil. DNVP-politician Karl Helfferich in particular became the target of attacks, because he had just recently uttered a vitriolic attack upon Rathenau. During the official memorial ceremony the next day, Chancellor Joseph Wirth from the Centre Party held a speech soon to be famous, in which, while pointing to the right side of the parliamentary floor, he used a well known formula of Philipp Scheidemann: "There is the enemy - and there is no doubt about it: This enemy is on the right!"
The crime itself was soon cleared up. Willi Günther had bragged about his participation in public. After his arrest on 26 June, he confessed to the crime without holding anything back. Hans Gerd Techow was arrested the following day, Ernst Werner Techow, who was visiting his uncle, three days later. Fischer and Kern, however, remained on the loose. After a daring flight, which kept Germany in suspense for more than two weeks, they were finally spotted at the castle of Saaleck in Thuringia, whose owner was himself a secret member of the Organisation Consul. On 17 July, they were confronted by two police detectives. While waiting for reinforcements during the stand-off, one of the detectives fired at a window, unknowingly killing Kern by a bullet in the head. Fischer then took his own life.
When the crime was brought to court in October 1922, Ernst Werner Techow was the only defendant charged with murder. Twelve more defendants were arraigned on various charges, among them Hans Gerd Techow and Ernst von Salomon, who had spied out Rathenau's habits and kept up contact with the Organisation Consul, as well as the commander of the Organisation Consul in Western Germany, Karl Tillessen, a brother of Erzberger's assassin Heinrich Tillessen, and his adjutant Hartmut Plaas. The prosecution left aside the political implications of the plot, but focused upon the issue of antisemitism. Ahead of his assassination, Rathenau had indeed been the frequent target of vicious antisemitic attacks, and the assassins had also been members of the violently antisemitic Deutschvölkischer Schutz- und Trutzbund. Kern had, according to Ernst Werner Techow, argued that Rathenau had to be murdered, because he had intimate relations with Bolshevik Russia, so that he had even married off his sister to the Communist Karl Radek - a complete fabrication - and that Rathenau himself had confessed to be one of the three hundred "Elders of Zion" as described in the notorious antisemitic forgery The Protocols of the Elders of Zion. But the defendants vigorously denied that they had killed Rathenau because he was Jewish. Neither was the prosecution able to fully uncover the involvement of the Organisation Consul in the plot. Thus Tillessen and Plaas were only convicted of non-notification of a crime and sentenced to three and two years in prison, respectively. Salomon received five years imprisonment for accessory to murder. Ernst Werner Techow narrowly escaped the death penalty, because in a last-minute confession he managed to convince the court that he had only acted under the threat of death by Kern. Instead he was sentenced to fifteen years in prison for accessory to murder.
Initially, the reactions to Rathenau's assassination strengthened the Weimar Republic. The most notable reaction was the enactment of the Republikschutzgesetz(Law for the Defense of the Republic), which took effect on 22 July 1922. As long as the Weimar Republic existed, the date 24 June remained a day of public commemorations. In public memory, Rathenau's death increasingly appeared to be a martyr-like sacrifice for democracy.
Things changed with the Nazi seizure of power in 1933. The Nazis systematically wiped out public commemoration of Rathenau by destroying monuments to him, closing the Walther-Rathenau-Museum in his former mansion, and renaming streets and schools dedicated to him. Instead, a memorial plate to Kern and Fischer was solemnly unveiled at Saaleck Castle in July 1933 and in October 1933, a monument was erected on the assassins' grave.
Rathenau is generally acknowledged to be, in part, the basis for the German noble and industrialist Paul Arnheim, a character in Robert Musil's novel The Man Without Qualities.
- Reflektionen (1908)
- Zur Kritik der Zeit (1912)
- Zur Mechanik des Geistes (1913)
- Von kommenden Dingen (1917)
- Vom Aktienwesen. Eine geschäftliche Betrachtung (1917)
- An Deutschlands Jugend (1918)
- Die neue Gesellschaft (1919) The New Society translated by Arthur Windham, (1921) New York: Harcourt, Brace and Co.
- Der neue Staat (1919)
- Der Kaiser (1919)
- Kritik der dreifachen Revolution (1919)
- Was wird werden (1920, a utopian novel)
- Gesammelte Schriften (6 volumes)
- Gesammelte Reden (1924)
- Briefe (1926, 2 volumes)
- Neue Briefe (1927)
- Politische Briefe (1929)