The earliest documentation of the relationship between Rathenau and the Austrian author Stefan Zweig held in the National Library's collections is from 1907. Rathenau greatly appreciated literature and art, and even tried his hand at writing. The two men were known to have met a number of times and exchanged views about art and politics.
Therefore, the background to the letter presented here from October 24, 1914 is not surprising. The French author Romain Rolland, a pacifist and activist against the war and supporter of aid projects for prisoners of war, had approached Zweig a number of days earlier with the idea of assembling a forum of European public figures from all fields and disciplines in order to work together against the "war madness". Rolland asked Zweig to recruit additional people from among his acquaintances.
Zweig approached Walther Rathenau, among others, but in October 1914 the latter was no longer interested in preserving the peace, as illustrated in Rathenau's reply. Rathenau was fully invested in his new post at the German War Ministry and did not want to relate to efforts to stop the war or discuss the activities of the German army in Belgium (the bombing of the city of Louvain) or in France (the bombing of the city of Reims), which had already horrified the world in the first months of the war.
Zweig's and Rathenau's positions aptly illustrate a few of the possibilities from which German Jews, in their outstanding position, could choose. Zweig was never enamored of war, and certainly not of the nationalist phenomena that were very common in almost every country that fought in World War I. He saw himself as a citizen of the world, and fervently believed in the capabilities of European culture.
In contrast, Rathenau was a classic example of a German Jew who tried to become integrated into society-at-large, and even contributed to the strengthening of nationalist views. Like his father, as well as the tradesman and collector James Simon and the shipping magnate Albert Ballin (all Jews), Walter Rathenau was friendly with Kaiser Wilhelm II. Like the others, Rathenau even served as an informal advisor to the Kaiser. Nonetheless, this role as well as his political positions during the first years of the Weimar Republic did not ultimately protect him from extremists and anti-Semitism. Herein lies the tragedy of Walter Rathenau and other figures from this period, who, in the eyes of Germany's extreme right, would always remain first and foremost Jews and as such, the enemy of the German people.