Walther Rathenau: Weimar's Fallen Statesman

Yale University Press  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.

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