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Walther Rathenau

Walther Rathenau: Weimar's Fallen Statesman

Copyright Date: 2012
Published by: Yale University Press
Pages: 256
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  • Book Info
    Walther Rathenau
    Book Description:

    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.

    eISBN: 978-0-300-17847-0
    Subjects: History

Table of Contents

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  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-iv)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. v-vi)
    (pp. vii-x)

    On the morning of Saturday, June 24, 1922, following a busy night of meetings and consultations, Walther Rathenau, foreign minister of the young Weimar Republic, left his elegant villa in Grunewald, an outlying western suburb of Berlin, and was chauffeured in his black open-top coupe along the Königsallee to his downtown offices. On a side street around a curve, his assassins waited in their own car. They overtook Rathenau’s vehicle, fired a number of shots, and threw in a hand grenade for good measure. In his memoirs, the literary critic Alfred Kerr, Rathenau’s longtime friend and neighbor, described the pietà-like...

  4. 1 A German Jew in the Making
    (pp. 1-24)

    Walther Rathenau was born on September 29, 1867, in Berlin.¹ 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.² 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...

  5. 2 A Man of Many Talents
    (pp. 25-53)

    By the fall of 1891, Walther Rathenau, twenty-four years old, had completed the preparations for an independent career. It was by no means an easy ride, but—for better or for worse—many crucial decisions concerning his future life seemed to have been irrevocably taken by then. To begin with, Walther was determined to stay within the professional parameters drawn by his father’s business choices. This was not self-evident. Firstly, because Emil Rathenau’s enterprise was at the time in its infancy and, though its future did look promising, AEG was still far from being the gigantic enterprise that it would...

  6. 3 Incursions into Politics
    (pp. 54-80)

    Once more, it seems, partial failure did not hinder Rathenau’s further advance. In fact, the last setback found him stronger than ever. Immediately after his resignation from the AEG board of directors, he was asked by Carl Fürstenberg to join the board of the Berliner Handels-Gesellschaft (BHG), one of Germany’s major banks at the time and the main financing institution of AEG. “Alone at last!” commented Harden in a letter of May 15, 1902. But this was probably not how Rathenau himself saw it.¹ On the one hand, leaving AEG must have felt more like an expulsion than a liberation....

  7. 4 Captain of Industry, Literary Star, Lonely Man
    (pp. 81-114)

    Despite his many interests and ambitions, Rathenau held on to his secure position as an industrialist and businessman. While he did resign from active duty in the BHG, he remained on its board of directors and continued to be involved in the business affairs of AEG as well. His incursions into politics came to nothing and his often expressed wish to dedicate himself completely to a literary career remained rhetorical.

    In fact, despite its difficult beginnings, Rathenau’s business career quickly took off again. By 1904, as we have seen, he was a member of the supervisory board of AEG and...

  8. 5 Hitting the Glass Ceiling
    (pp. 115-145)

    Rathenau’s last piece written forDie Zukunftappeared at the end of October 1912. It was a patriotic cycle of poems, commemorating the so-called Prussian War of Liberation in 1813, in preparation for its approaching centenary. The cycle is divided into three sections, each opening with a biblical quote and ending with one from a Christian hymn. All in all it includes twelve rhymed verses, suffused with conventional pathos. It is more like occasional poetry, commonly written for family events, than like the antiwar poetry of Fritz von Unruh, for instance, whom Rathenau befriended during these years, or Rilke’s “Duino...

  9. 6 Politician Manqué, Prophet with a Vengeance
    (pp. 146-172)

    Although being Jewish and German at the same time no longer pained the mature Rathenau as it had before, this duality continued to constitute a formative element in his life. He knew, of course, that it played at least some role in restricting his career, particularly in the field of politics. And since no public office was going to be offered to him at this point but political issues continued to preoccupy him on a daily basis, he once more chose to rely upon networking as a substitute.

    For some time now Rathenau had been cultivating his relationships with the...

  10. 7 Fulfillment and Catastrophe
    (pp. 173-210)

    The war ended in revolution. During October 1918, hoping for better terms from the Allies, especially from President Wilson, Germany first turned from a constitutional monarchy into a parliamentary one. The conservatives who were still ruling the Reich considered this step far reaching enough as a show of good will vis-à-vis both the victorious countries and the domestic opposition. But by the end of the month, as the government seemed impotent and peace was not yet agreed upon, it was clearly no longer sufficient. Although demands for the Kaiser’s abdication grew louder and the removal of the bankrupt High Command...

  11. NOTES
    (pp. 211-230)
  12. INDEX
    (pp. 231-241)
  13. Back Matter
    (pp. 242-243)