on Walther Rathenau, a biography by Shulamit Volkov (Yale)

Walther Rathenau, the only Jew to serve as foreign minister of Germany, is most famous for having been assassinated in his open car by anti-Weimar extremists in 1922. Otto Friedrich devoted a chapter to Rathenau in Before The Deluge (1972), his jaunty account of Berlin in the 1920’s, in which he focused on the assassins’ motivations and maneuvers, filling in Rathenau’s background along the way. RathenauCar.jpgBut in her discerning biography of Rathenau, Shulamit Volkov devotes only a few paragraphs to the murder. In her mode, Rathenau’s death is the inevitable result of the turbulent clashing of forces – including those within the man himself. Her portrait of the man and his age is riveting and disturbing.

Rathenau was born in Berlin in 1867. His father Emil built the family’s fortune after licensing the German rights to Edison’s incandescent light bulb, eventually founding AEG, a major electric utility and engineering company that built some of the country’s first power plants. In his youth, he was known for his inept social skills and an interest in the arts. By the early 1890s he was working under his father’s aegis, and ultimately sat on the AEG board (and that of 86 other German and 21 foreign companies) and ran some of its projects, amassing his own fortune. His wealth and Bildung (“that special German combination of culture and a correctly formed character”) gained him entry to an intellectual elite. His first essay, “Morality Today,” was published in 1893. He continued freelance writing (on the verge of graphomania) and publishing volumes of his essays until his death., constantly seeking to wield influence. A loner and a bachelor, he pursued links to Germany’s leading statesmen and opinion-leaders.

RathenauMunch1907.jpgBut these facts are merely the armature of Volkov’s narrative. She finds in Rathenau a man of contradictions, vacillations and inconsistencies – a Jew who underscored his group identity yet sounded “like a full-fledged anti-Semite” in his essay “Hear, O Israel,” a wealthy industrialist who questioned Capitalism’s profit motive and said, “Three hundred men, all acquainted with each other, control the economic destiny of the Continent.” He seemed to critique Germany’s rationale for going to war with France and England in 1914, but then ably managed the War Materials Office. He lauded tradition and Imperial Germany, then prescribed modernization and the rule of the bourgeoisie. He obsessively desired to wield power, but described the nation as “an autocratic association of economic interests bristling with arms.” He thought of himself as a philosopher and dined with artists (his portrait was painted by Edvard Munch), but he disliked Impressionism and German Expressionism and, sounding more like Hitler and Goering, favored “true German art.”

Here was a man, painfully alienated by his Jewishness and insufferably overbearing in his manner, who surveyed Germany and attempted to integrate all of its irreconcilable antagonisms within himself. As Volkov notes, he positioned himself as a negotiator and a man of the middle, but his manner, ideas, and changeability (and his culture’s anti-Semitism) made him a man of the margins. His life was a series of thwarted attempts to grasp an element of power – even as he avoided party membership. And then, suddenly, after the war, his particular talents were in demand by the government – “large-scale economic system-building … a touch of diplomatic sense.” He accepted the post of minister of reconstruction in 1921 and became foreign minister in 1922, a position he held for 144 days during which he was warned several times that his life was in danger. Hitler’s Munich beer hall putsch occurred the next year. When the Nazis came to power, the vilified Rathenau was accused of military defeatism, defined as a socialist, and blamed for Germany’s huge war reparations bill.

Volkov summarizes his hybridized view of the desired republic as follows:

“Rathenau envisioned a collective economic order with strong centralized control, a society that eschewed material values, luxury, and an ‘empty life of amusement,’ seeking spiritual integrity through solidarity combined with a deep sense of responsibility. The state that hovered above such a society was to take care of the well-being of its citizens; it should be a true ‘people’s state,’ an ‘organocracy,’ as he called it, stable and dynamic at the same time, incorporating ‘absolute and ethical ideals,’ and finally ‘dethroning mechanization’ and ‘elucidating the divine elements in the human spirit.’”

RathenauCover.jpgSound familiar? The American reader, shaken by the deep rifts in American polity, may see Rathenau as one of our own yearning, doomed selves, yearning for the social embrace of collective, empathic governance, but challenged by entropy, violence, and fundamentalisms. Nevertheless, Volkov won’t let us admire him too much. Rathenau “was unwilling to disclose his inner self or give expression to his feelings, much less be swayed by them.” Robert Musil based the character of Paul Arnheim in The Man Without Qualities on Rathenau. Hugo von Hofmannsthal described Rathenau’s essay collection, Reflections, as “a subtly unpleasant book … a mixture of pedantry, pretension, snobbism … stale and crafty.” (But Stefan Zweig admired Rathenau’s “universality.”) He made people of all parties uneasy; the liberal press called him “the most paradoxical creature of old Germany” even as he became a prominent bureaucrat at the end of the war. Yet his essay collections sold in the thousands. His Critique of the Times (1912) was reprinted seven times in its first year.

RathenauStamp.jpegVolkov tracks Rathenau’s most important relationships, samples his essays, and speculates moderately about his private life. He was a man of ambivalent notions – and Volkov keeps them aloft and intact like so many spinning plates. As an industrialist, Rathenau helped build the first electric grid for Germany. As a critic, he discovered no corresponding nervous system in the country’s psyche for governance. So he dreamed one up as an antidote to his anguish. It would have been a world into which everyone, including the disenfranchised Jew, would have been integrated – but also, one in which paternalistic intellectuals like Rathenau would run things.

[Published January 24, 2012. 240 pages, $25.00 hardcover]

Rathenau was a very

Rathenau was a very complicated person by all accounts. He didn't approve of zionism and argued with Theodore Hertzl. He supported certain political ideas that strengthened the hands of workers' rights and unions, and that made him a target for the rightwing. Just as Obama and Democrats are made so today and called "socialists" by Fox News. The point here is that Rathenau is more than a poster child for Nazi anti-semitism which is how he tends to be used or exploited. This book sounds like a very pertinent story and an addition to our knowledge of this period and I've already ordered a copy. Thanks.

Anti-Semitism in Germany

Somehow this all sounds like an avoidance of the main issue, the anti-Semitism in Germany. Do you really think Rathenau would have been murdered if he had not been Jewish?