Walther Rathenau: Weimar’s Fall­en Statesman

Shu­lamit Volkov
  • Review
By – January 26, 2012
At the end of the nine­teenth cen­tu­ry, many Ger­man Jews, espe­cial­ly those who were edu­cat­ed and suc­cess­ful, had assim­i­lat­ed into Ger­man soci­ety. With eman­ci­pa­tion came oppor­tu­ni­ty; how­ev­er, oppor­tu­ni­ty was lim­it­ed, as the specter of anti-Semi­tism remained an under­cur­rent of every­day life. In the lat­est offer­ing from Yale’s Jew­ish Lives series, Shu­lamit Volkov doc­u­ments Walther Rathenau’s suc­cess in fin de siè­cle Berlin, and paints a vivid por­trait of life for Jews at this time.

Rathenau, born into a sol­id mid­dle class Ger­man Jew­ish fam­i­ly, achieved great suc­cess in his life as a busi­ness­man. He was able to turn his busi­ness achieve­ments into polit­i­cal suc­cess and become the first Jew to ascend to a polit­i­cal role in the Ger­man gov­ern­ment after World War I. He also aspired to be con­sid­ered a seri­ous writer and gained some noto­ri­ety for his philo­soph­i­cal writ­ings that, at times, seemed to por­tray him­self as an anti-Semit­ic Jew. This por­trait of one man liv­ing a life in two worlds can be an uncom­fort­able read because of the con­flict between his Jew­ish and Ger­man iden­ti­ties. Rathenau real­ized that as a Jew his progress in soci­ety would always be held back and he could nev­er attain the role he wished in Ger­man life.

Dur­ing his life­time he devel­oped many ene­mies who wished to see him fail. Whether this was due to his prick­ly, cold per­son­al­i­ty, his con­tentious busi­ness rela­tion­ships, his often-con­tro­ver­sial writ­ings, or the fact of his being a Jew, remains an open ques­tion. Rathenau was assas­si­nat­ed by right-wing extrem­ists at the age of fifty-five in 1922, suc­cess­ful but nev­er at peace with his own identity.

Bar­bara Andrews holds a Mas­ters in Jew­ish Stud­ies from the Uni­ver­si­ty of Chica­go, has been an adult Jew­ish edu­ca­tion instruc­tor, and works in the cor­po­rate world as a pro­fes­sion­al adult educator.

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