On June 24, 1922, Walter Rathenau, the foreign secretary of Germany’s Weimar Republic, and one of the country’s most influential businessmen, was assassinated, while being driven to the office from his suburban Berlin villa. The attack was carried out by members of an extreme-right wing organization, who hated Rathenau both for being Jewish and for forging a German rapprochement with the Soviet Union. It was but one of several attacks on officials of the fragile Weimar government, albeit the most high-profile one, and it led to at least a temporary, if doomed, effort to achieve some sort of national reconciliation in a highly polarized Germany.
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Walter Rathenau was born in Berlin on September 19, 1867. His mother was the former Mathilde Nachmann, daughter of a Frankfurt banker. His father was Emil Rathenau, founder and CEO of the Allgemeine Elektrizitäts-Gesellschaft (AEG – literally, German General Electric), which, among many other things, owned the patent to manufacture the Edison-designed light bulb in Europe.
Walter studied chemistry and physics, in addition to philosophy, at the Universities of Berlin and Strasbourg, and earned a doctorate in 1889.
Though groomed to be an engineer and man of industry, Rathenau had a spiritual, artistic side too. He painted, and wrote novels and dramas, and also indulged frequently in producing philosophical essays, including one, the 1897 “Hear O, Israel!” on the place of the Jew in contemporary Germany. There, he expressed his opposition to conversion, and his conviction that Germany’s Jews could only counter the hatred they faced by way of increased assimilation and integration into the larger society. He remained a public intellectual his entire life, although his father once commented that his work was “far easier to write than to read.”
Dedicated to the war
After working in industry and banking, Rathenau joined the board of his father’s company, and subsequently another 100 corporate boards. But with the start of World War I, in 1914, he dedicated himself to the war effort. He convinced the German War Ministry of the need to set up a centralized department to oversee boards for the pricing and distribution of every vital commodity, and ran the department for its first half-year, until he was forced by anti-Semitic attacks to resign. Shortly after that, he succeeded his deceased father as CEO of AEG.
After a long period of post-war chaos ended, with the 1919 founding of the Weimar Republic, Rathenau was among the founders of the moderate German Democratic Party (DDP), and advocated cooperation with the more left-wing Social Democrats. In 1921, he accepted the invitation of Chancellor Karl Joseph Wirth to become minister of reconstruction. A year later, he became foreign minister.
Here too, Rathenau set a realistic course for Germany, advocating cooperation with the strict and painful terms of the Versailles Treaty, at the same time that he endeavored to convince the allies to ease some of those conditions. Nationalistic Germans would have preferred a more confrontational stance.
Even more controversial was his negotiation of the Rapallo Treaty with the Soviet Union, in 1922, which established relations with the new communist regime – though his enemies might have been more accepting of the treaty had they known it contained a secret clause that set the stage for Russia to undertake the rearming of Germany.
Rathenau’s thoughtfulness, which sometimes manifested itself as ambivalence, led him to conclude that capitalism needed to be moderated by government. But he remained opposed to state ownership of the means of production.
A new political party, the National Socialist, branded him part of a “Jewish Communist conspiracy.” Rathenau received frequent warnings that he was in danger from extremist violence. Yet he refused to accept police protection and continued driving in an unarmed convertible automobile. Hence, it need not have been a surprise when, on this day in 1922, just four months after becoming foreign minister, his car was attacked with both machine-gun fire and a grenade, while he was being driven to work. He died almost instantly.
His two assassins were killed while being pursued by police. Several accomplices were arrested and tried on lesser charges, but the organizers of the crime were never brought to justice. When the Nazis came to power, 11 years later, they eliminated every mark of commemoration of Rathenau in the country.