Walther Rathenau

Article

July 6, 2022

Walther Rathenau (Berlin, September 29, 1867 - Berlin, June 24, 1922) was a large German entrepreneur, writer, liberal politician, foreign minister of the Weimar Republic. Due to his Jewish origin, liberal views and public activities, he was the victim of a political assassination, which was carried out by members of the far-right terrorist organization, the Organization Consul.

His life and work

His youth and years of searching

He was born into a bourgeois Jewish family, his father Emil Rathenau, the founder of AEG (Allgemeine Elektricitäts-Gesellschaft). He studied physics, chemistry and philosophy in Berlin and Strasbourg, receiving his doctorate in physics in 1889. His broad range of interests is characterized by the fact that he dealt with literature and painting, through which he became acquainted with the future famous Norwegian painter Edvard Munch, and later also wrote philosophical works. He first worked as an engineer-technician at a Swiss aluminum industry company, then at a small electrochemical company in Bitterfelde, where he managed electrolysis experiments. In 1899 he returned to Berlin and joined the management of AEG. In 1907, he became the chairman of the board of directors, and under his leadership, AEG underwent dizzying development and became one of the world's largest electrical engineering companies. After the outbreak of the First World War, he wrote a memorandum to the government in which he offered his services, and as a result he became the organizer and head of the department responsible for the supply of military raw materials (Kriegsrohstoffabteilung - KRA) of the Ministry of War. In 1915, after 8 months, he resigned from his post, but he did not receive any recognition for his work, and this act was later accused of being unpatriotic. In the same year, his father died, and the task of managing AEG fell on him. He was an early supporter of Erich Ludendorff, but his admiration for him faded after the declaration of unrestricted submarine warfare. In 1917, he predicted post-war economic chaos and the ensuing inflation. Even before the impending defeat, on October 7, 1918, he proposed a general conscription.

Lonely prophet, reformer, writer

Although Rathenau's commitment to parliamentary democracy was moderate, he welcomed the emperor's abdication and joined the newly formed German Democratic Party (Deutsche Demokratische Partei - DDP) after the Compiègne Armistice. In November 1918, he played a mediating role in the negotiations between Hugo Stinnes and Carl Legien and in bringing the convention under the roof. The acceptance of the 8-hour working day was due to his advocacy by Stinnes. Rathenau belonged to a narrow circle of industrialists with a progressive spirit, and was in constant conflict with the conservative members of his social class. But not only was he unpopular among his own class, the liberal press also distrusted him, not to mention the left. Ludendorff and his entourage launched a campaign against him in the spirit of the nascent fist-pumping legend, accusing him of sabotaging the war. In the DDP, this was one of the main reasons why he was not nominated as a candidate in the National Assembly elections. The other reason, due to his unquestionable loyalty to Germanness, was rarely voiced but generally present anti-Semitism. He retired from politics for a while and wrote The Emperor, which was published in March 1919. In terms of genre, this is a mixture of memoir, psychological analysis, and moral and historical-philosophical reflection, in which he highlighted the emperor's human traits and condemned the weaknesses of his advisers. Despite the unfavorable criticism, his momentum was not broken, he published The New Society (Die Neue Gesellschaft) in the same year�