Walther Rathenau

Walther Rathenau

Walther Rathenau, the son of Emil Rathenau, a successful Jewish businessman who founded Allgemeine-Elektrizitats-Gellellschaft (AEG), was born in Berlin on 29th September, 1867. He studied science and philosophy at Berlin University before obtaining his doctorate in 1889.

After university Rathenau joined AEG and by the outbreak of the First World War he was head of the company. He also worked for the government in the Raw Materials Department of the War Ministry.

After the war Rathenau helped form the German Democratic Party. He also wrote The New Economy (1918) where he rejected state nationalization of industry but instead advocated that employees should play a greater role in the management of companies.

In 1921 Karl Wirth appointed Rathenau as his minister of reconstruction. The following year he became foreign minister. He upset right-wing nationalists like Adolf Hitler by arguing that Germany should fulfill Germany's obligations under the Treaty of Versailles. However, at the same time he worked with Matthias Erzberger, the minister of finance, to try and show that the terms of the treaty were too harsh.

Rathenau also upset German conservatives by negotiated the Treaty of Rapallo with the Soviet Union. He was now criticized by the leaders of the Nazi Party who claimed he was part of a Jewish-Communist conspiracy. Walther Rathenau was assassinated by two right-wing army officers on 24th June, 1922.

Primary Sources

(1) Robert Boothby, Boothby: Recollections of a Rebel (1978)

For ten years, between 1925 and 1935, I went to Germany every year. I was fascinated by the personality of Walther Rathenau, a German Jew, who had provided the munitions for the First World War. 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'.

(2) Morgan Philips Price, My Three Revolutions (1969)

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 as they saw what Noske's policy of using the Freikorps had brought the country to. 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. But for the first time the murderers were hunted down and shot when they defended themselves.