Walther Rathenau

The German industrialist and statesman Walther Rathenau (1867-1922) pioneered the public management of raw materials in his country during World War I. As postwar foreign minister, he inaugurated a new policy of reconciliation with Germany's former enemies.

Walther Rathenau, born in Berlin on Sept. 29, 1867, was the son of the famed German-Jewish entrepreneur Emil Rathenau (1838-1915), founder (1883) and president of AEG, the mammoth German General Electric Company. Trained as an electrochemist, he earned a doctorate in 1889. He served an apprenticeship as a researcher and manager from 1890 to 1900 before joining his father's company initially as a director, then in 1915 becoming successor to the older Rathenau as AEG president.

Vigorous and innovative as an entrepreneur associated with almost a hundred businesses, Rathenau wrote over a dozen books and many articles on philosophy, politics, and economics, in which the mechanization and suppression of modern man are overriding preoccupations. He saw the tyranny of technology and capital as fundamentally an irrational, chaotic one which he hoped would be replaced by an economy organized for the common social good without excessive politico-economic centralization (for which he believed inheritance in particular responsible) and the suppression of the working poor.

Concerned with Germany's insufficient economic preparation, Rathenau offered his services to the government at the outset of World War I and from September 1914 to March 1915 organized the German War Raw Materials Department, which was to become a crucial part of the German war effort. At the same time his inclinations and his intimate knowledge of Germany's potential made him a persistent advocate of an early, negotiated peace and a severe critic of the dominant military caste.

After the war Rathenau was brought into the government by Finance Minister Joseph Wirth in March 1920 as a member of the Socialization Committee and subsequently attended the Spa Conference on Disarmament as a technical assistant (July 1920). When Wirth became chancellor in May 1921, he appointed Rathenau to the Ministry of Reconstruction. Here Rathenau organized an extensive program of rationalization for German industry and launched his new "foreign policy of fulfillment," that is, reconciliation with the victorious powers by negotiating on the basis of the established peace treaty (Wiesbaden, October 1921; Cannes, January 1922). He became foreign minister in January 1922. The most memorable event of his brief tenure of office was a pact of peace with the Soviets, the Treaty of Rapallo, signed unexpectedly under the strain of failing reparations talks at the Genoa Conference in April 1922. The hope for international reconciliation was shattered, however, by the virulent attacks of a chauvinistic, anti-Semitic, and antirepublican right, which climaxed in the assassination of Rathenau by two young nationalists in Berlin on June 24, 1922.

Further Reading on Walther Rathenau

Of Rathenau's own numerous writings, In Days to Come was translated by Eden and Cedar Paul (1921) and The New Society by Arthur Windham (1921). Several important volumes of personal writings remain untranslated. The best biographical studies of Rathenau in English are Count Harry Kessler, Walther Rathenau: His Life and Work, translated by W. D. Robson-Scott (1928) and by Lawrence Hyde (1930), a sensitive portrayal by a close friend; and the chapter on Rathenau in James Joll, Three Intellectuals in Politics (1961). An authoritative specialized study is David Felix, Walther Rathenau and the Weimar Republic: The Politics of Reparations (1971).

Additional Biography Sources

Kessler, Harry, Graf, Walther Rathenau: his life and work, New York: AMS Press, 1975.

Loewenberg, Peter, Walther Rathenau and Henry Kissinger: the Jew as a modern statesman in two political cultures, New York: Leo Baeck Institute, 1980.