Last modified on 17 March 2015, at 21:32

Walther Rathenau

Walther Rathenau
Walther Rathenau.jpg
Foreign Minister of Germany
In office
February 1 – June 24, 1922
President Friedrich Ebert
Chancellor Joseph Wirth
Preceded by Joseph Wirth (acting)
Succeeded by Joseph Wirth (acting)
Personal details
Born (1867-09-29)September 29, 1867
Berlin, Kingdom of Prussia
Died June 24, 1922(1922-06-24) (aged 54)
Berlin, Free State of Prussia
Political party German Democratic Party
Relations Emil Rathenau (father)
Profession Industrialist, Politician, Writer

Walther Rathenau (September 29, 1867 – June 24, 1922) was a German industrialist, politician, writer, and statesman who served as Foreign Minister of Germany during the Weimar Republic. He was assassinated on June 24, 1922, two months after the signing of the Treaty of Rapallo.


Rathenau was born in Berlin. His parents were Emil Rathenau and Mathilde Nachmann.[1] His father, Emil Rathenau was a prominent Jewish businessman and founder of the Allgemeine Elektrizitäts-Gesellschaft (AEG), an electrical-engineering company.

He studied physics, chemistry, and philosophy in Berlin and Strasbourg. His German Jewish heritage and his wealth[2] were both factors in establishing his deeply divisive reputation in German politics, at a time of antisemitism. He worked as an engineer before joining the AEG board in 1899, becoming a leading industrialist in the late German Empire and early Weimar Republic periods.[3] Rathenau is generally acknowledged to be, in part, the basis for the German Count and industrialist Paul Arnheim, a character in Robert Musil's novel The Man Without Qualities.[4]

Walther Rathenau never married. He had no children.


Walther Rathenau in 1921

World WarEdit

During World War I Rathenau held senior posts in the Raw Materials Department of the War Ministry, while becoming chairman of AEG upon his father's death in 1915. Rathenau played the key role in convincing the War Ministry to set up the War Raw Materials Department (Kriegsrohstoffabteilung - 'KRA') which he was in charge of from August 1914 to March 1915 establishing the fundamental policies and procedures. His senior staff were on loan from industry. KRA focused on raw materials threatened by the British blockade, as well as supplies from occupied Belgium and France. It set prices and regulated the distribution to vital war industries. It began the development of ersatz raw materials. KRA suffered many inefficiencies caused by the complexity and selfishness KRA encountered from commerce, industry, and the government itself.[5]


Rathenau was a moderate liberal in politics, and after World War I he was one of the founders of the German Democratic Party (DDP). He rejected the state ownership of industry and advocated greater worker participation in the management of companies. His ideas were influential in post-war governments.

In 1921, Rathenau was appointed Minister of Reconstruction, and in 1922 he became Foreign Minister. His insistence that Germany should fulfill its obligations under the Treaty of Versailles, while working for a revision of its terms, infuriated extreme German nationalists. He also angered such extremists by negotiating in 1922 the Treaty of Rapallo with the Soviet Union, although the treaty implicitly recognized secret German-Soviet collaboration, begun in 1921, which provided for the rearmament of Germany, including German aircraft manufacturing in Russian territory.[6] The leaders of the (still obscure) Nazi Party and other extreme right-wing groups falsely claimed he was part of a "Jewish-Communist conspiracy", despite his being a liberal German nationalist who had bolstered the country's recent war effort.

The British politician Robert Boothby wrote of him: "He was something that only a German Jew could simultaneously be: a prophet, a philosopher, a mystic, a writer, a statesman, an industrial magnate of the highest and greatest order, and the pioneer of what has become known as 'industrial rationalization'."

Despite his desire for economic and political co-operation between Germany and the Soviet Union, Rathenau remained skeptical of the methods of the Soviets. In fact he noted that:

We cannot use Russia's methods, as they only and at best prove that the economy of an agrarian nation can be leveled to the ground; Russia's thoughts are not our thoughts. They are, as it is in the spirit of the Russian city intelligentsia, unphilosophical, and highly dialectic; they are passionate logic based on unverified suppositions. They assume that a single good, the destruction of the capitalist class, weighs more than all other goods, and that poverty, dictatorship, terror and the fall of civilization must be accepted to secure this one good. Ten million people must die to free ten million people from the bourgeoisie" is regarded as a harsh but necessary consequence. The Russian idea is compulsory happiness, in the same sense and with the same logic as the compulsory introduction of Christianity and the Inquisition.

W.R., Kritik der dreifachen Revolution - Apologie, 1919, S. Fischer, Berlin, (French) La triple revolution, 1921, Aux Éditions du Rhin, Paris - Bâle, p. 265-266, Internet Archive.

Assassination and aftermathEdit

Haus Rathenau (2008)

On June 24, 1922, two months after the signing of the Treaty of Rapallo which renounced German territorial claims from World War I, Rathenau was assassinated. On this Saturday morning, Rathenau had himself chauffeured from his house in Berlin-Grunewald to the Foreign Office in Wilhelmstrasse. During the trip his car was passed by a car with Ernst Werner Techow behind the wheel and Erwin Kern and Hermann Fischer on the backseats. Kern opened fire with a MP 18-submachine gun at close range, killing Rathenau almost instantly, while Fischer threw a hand grenade into the car before Techow quickly drove them away.[7] Also involved in the plot were Techow's younger brother Hans Gerd Techow, future writer Ernst von Salomon, and Willi Günther (aided and abetted by seven others, some of them schoolboys). All conspirators were members of the ultra-nationalist secret Organisation Consul.[8] A memorial stone in Berlin-Grunewald's Königsallee marks the scene of the crime.

The crime itself was soon cleared up. Willi Günther had bragged about his participation in public. After his arrest on June 26 he confessed to the crime without holding anything back.

Memorial service for Rathenau, June 1923

When, in October 1922, the case was brought to court, Ernst Werner Techow was the only defendant charged with murder. Twelve more defendants were arraigned on various charges. Ahead of his assassination Rathenau had indeed been the frequent target of vicious antisemitic attacks, and the assassins had also been members of the violently antisemitic Deutschvölkischer Schutz und Trutzbund. Kern had, according to Ernst Werner Techow, argued that Rathenau had to be murdered, because he had intimate relations with Bolshevik Russia, so that he had even married off his sister with the Communist Karl Radek and that Rathenau himself had confessed to be one of the three hundred "Elders of Zion" as described in the notorious antisemitic forgery The Protocols of the Elders of Zion.[9] But the defendants vigorously denied that they had killed Rathenau because he was Jewish.[10]

Unveiling of the first Commemorative Plaque at the scene of the crime in June 1929. Former chancellor Joseph Wirth and Defence Minister Wilhelm Groener in the first row

For the time being the reactions upon Rathenau's assassination strengthened the Weimar Republic. The most notable reaction was the enactment of the Republikschutzgesetz (Law for the Defense of the Republic) taking effect on July 22, 1922. The Deutschlandlied was made the German national anthem. As long as the Weimar Republic existed, the date June 24 remained a day of public commemorations. In public memory Rathenau's death increasingly appeared to be a martyr-like sacrifice for democracy.[11]

Things changed with the Nazi seizure of power. The Nazis systematically wiped out public commemoration of Rathenau by destroying monuments to him, closing the Walther-Rathenau-Museum in his former mansion, and renaming streets and schools dedicated to him. Instead a memorial plate to Kern and Fischer was solemnly unveiled at Saaleck Castle in July 1933 and in October 1933 a monument was erected on the assassins' grave.[12]


  • Reflektionen (1908)
  • Zur Kritik der Zeit (1912)
  • Zur Mechanik des Geistes (1913)
  • Von kommenden Dingen (1917)
  • Vom Aktienwesen. Eine geschäftliche Betrachtung (1917)
  • An Deutschlands Jugend (1918)
  • Die neue Gesellschaft (1919)
  • Der neue Staat (1919)
  • Der Kaiser (1919)
  • Kritik der dreifachen Revolution (1919)
  • Was wird werden (1920, a utopian novel)
  • Gesammelte Schriften (6 volumes)
  • Gesammelte Reden (1924)
  • Briefe (1926, 2 volumes)
  • Neue Briefe (1927)
  • Politische Briefe (1929)

See alsoEdit


  1. ^ Walther Rathenau 1867-1922 (in German), LEMO - Lebendiges Museum Online (Deutsches Historisches Museum, Berlin) .
  2. ^ Fink, Carole (Summer 1995). "The murder of Walter Rathenau". Vol. 44 (3). Judaism: A Quarterly Journal of Jewish Life and Thought.  View excerpt in questia.
  3. ^ "Encyclopedia of World Biography on Walther Rathenau". BookRags. Retrieved Jan 2015. 
  4. ^ Pächter, Henry Maximilian (1982). Weimar études. New York: Columbia University Press. pp. 172 et seq. 
  5. ^ D. G. Williamson, "Walther Rathenau and the K.R.A. August 1914-March 1915," Zeitschrift für Unternehmensgeschichte (1978) Issue 11, pp 118-136.
  6. ^ Stent, Angela E. (1998), "Chapter 1", Russia and Germany Reborn: Unification, the Soviet Collapse, and the New Europe, Princeton University Press .
  7. ^ Martin Sabrow (1994), Der Rathenaumord. Rekonstruktion einer Verschwörung gegen die Republik von Weimar, Munich: Oldenbourg, pp. 86–88, ISBN 978-3-486-64569-9, retrieved 27 July 2012 
  8. ^ Martin Sabrow (1994), Der Rathenaumord. Rekonstruktion einer Verschwörung gegen die Republik von Weimar, Munich: Oldenbourg, pp. 146–149, ISBN 978-3-486-64569-9, retrieved 27 July 2012 
  9. ^ Ernst von Salomon has later claimed that Kern's argument was merely pretextual. Historian Norman Cohn believes that Techow's evidence stands. Cohn, Norman (1967). Warrant for Genocide: The Myth of the Jewish World Conspiracy and the Protocols of the Elders of Zion, New York: Harper & Row, p. 145-6.
  10. ^ Martin Sabrow (1999), Die verdrängte Verschwörung: der Rathenau-Mord und die deutsche Gegenrevolution, Frankfurt am Main: Fischer Taschenbuch Verlag, p. 184, ISBN 978-3-596-14302-3, retrieved 28 July 2012 ; Martin Sabrow (1998), "Die Macht der Erinnerungspolitik", Die Macht der Mythen: Walther Rathenau im öffentlichen Gedächtnis: sechs Essays, Berlin: Das Arsenal, pp. 75–76, ISBN 978-3-931109-11-0, retrieved 28 July 2012 
  11. ^ Martin Sabrow (1996), "Mord und Mythos. Das Komplott gegen Walther Rathenau 1922", in Alexander Demandt, Das Attentat in der Geschichte, Cologne: Böhlau, pp. 336–337, ISBN 978-3-412-16795-0, retrieved 27 July 2012 
  12. ^ Martin Sabrow (1998), "Erstes Opfer des "Dritten Reichs"?", Die Macht der Mythen: Walther Rathenau im öffentlichen Gedächtnis: sechs Essays, Berlin: Das Arsenal, pp. 90–91, ISBN 978-3-931109-11-0, retrieved 28 July 2012 


  • Felix, David. Walther Rathenau and the Weimar Republic, Johns Hopkins UP, 1971.
  • Henderson, W. O. "Walther Rathenau: A Pioneer of the Planned Economy," Economic History Review (1951) 4#1 pp. 98–108 in JSTOR
  • Himmer, Robert. "Rathenau, Russia, and Rapallo," Central European History (1976) 9#2 pp. 146–183 in JSTOR
  • Kollman, Eric C. "Walther Rathenau and German Foreign Policy: Thoughts and Actions," Journal of Modern History (1952) 24#2 pp. 127–142 in JSTOR
  • Pois, Robert A. "Walther Rathenau's Jewish Quandary," Leo Baeck Institute Year Book (1968), Vol. 13, pp 120–131.
  • Strachan, Hew, The First World War: Volume I: To Arms (2001) pp 1014–49 on Rathenau and KRA in the war
  • Volkov, Shulamit. Walter Rathenau: Weimar's Fallen Statesman (Yale University Press; 2012) 240 pages; scholarly biography
  • Williamson, D. G. "Walther Rathenau and he K.R.A. August 1914-March 1915," Zeitschrift für Unternehmensgeschichte (1978) Issue 11, pp 118–136.

Primary sourcesEdit

  • Count Harry Kessler, Berlin in Lights: The Diaries of Count Harry Kessler (1918–1937) Grove Press, New York, (1999).
  • Walter Rathenau: Industrialist, Banker, Intellectual, And Politician; Notes And Diaries 1907–1922. Hartmut P. von Strandmann (ed.), Hilary von Strandmann (translator). Clarendon Press, 528 pages, in English. October 1985. ISBN 978-0-19-822506-5 (hardcover – ISBN 31101985).

External linksEdit

Political offices
Preceded by
Joseph Wirth
Foreign Minister of Germany
Succeeded by
Joseph Wirth