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Walter Rathenau

 90 years since the assassination of Walter Rathenau

Walter RathenauSaturday June 24, 1922, Königsallee, Berlin. Walter Rathenau, foreign minister of the Weimar Republic and general manager of AEG, leaves his handsome house and gets into his car, ready for a busy workday. As usual, Rathenau is accompanied only by a driver – no bodyguards. They drive several hundred meters and then a hand grenade explodes and gunfire is heard.  Rathenau and his driver are killed. A vehicle carrying the three assassins, members of the extreme right, militarist Organisation Consul, speeds away.
Who was Walter Rathenau and what were the political circumstances in Germany of 1922? What outraged his opponents so much that they would go to such extremes to silence this senior politician?
At the time of Rathenau's assassination, Germany was fraught with the severest of economic, political and social problems. Four years earlier the country had been defeated in WWI and suffered political shockwaves with the consequent resignation of the last Kaiser, Wilhelm II. Many Germans were experiencing political confusion, torn as they were between the monarchy and the new democracy.
Moreover, the Germans were feeling the financial toll taken by the War: unemployment, hunger and inflation. Such times do not foster serenity, but rather the need to apportion blame, find a guilty party, root out the traitor.  As might be expected, anti-Semitism increased during that time, as did enrollment in extremist and chauvinist organizations and parties. Among others, the situation gave impetus to Adolph Hitler's National Socialist Party. The aggressive programs of these parties turned public opinion against Jews, particularly prominent Jews.  The anti-Semites believed that the Jews had achieved affluence by exploiting the poor general public. Walter Rathenau, a Jewish politician, industrialist and author, was caught up in this political, economic, and historical maelstrom.
Walter Rathenau (1867-1922) was born in Berlin, to a well-off Jewish family. His father, Emil Rathenau, founded AEG and Walter would inherit a significant share in the company, as well as the directorship. As a result of the company's centrality in the German economy, Rathenau was appointed to supervise resources and raw materials in the war industry.  Rathenau's position on political trends was not devoid of controversial inconsistencies: during WWI he supported German interests and even recommended the bombing of London with Zeppelins. After the war however, he leveled harsh criticism at the Kaiser who had resigned. In January 1922, he was appointed foreign minister of the Weimar Republic, the only Jew to date to be attain such a high rank. In this capacity Rathenau promoted cautious peration between Germany and Russia, managing to bring about the Rapallo agreement with the Soviet Union.  This agreement did much to ease the economic pressure on the German coffers, which were empty at the time.
In addition, Rathenau was a man of letters who wrote and painted, as well as collected art. He corresponded with many cultural figures and was renowned for his generous support of struggling artists. When, the young expressionist writer Carl Ehrenstein asked for support, Rathenau gave him a year's scholarship, despite never having met him. This was just one of many such incidents.
The National Library has in its collection letters than Rathenau wrote to various people: Albert Einstein, Carl Ehrenstein, Martin Buber and Stefan Zweig. Rathenau's correspondence with the Austrian Jewish writer Zweig affirms his close connections with literary figures.
Rathenau in the National Library's Collection
  • Foreign Minister Walter Rathenau
  • Walter Rathenau in military uniform
  • Letter to Carl Ehrenstein
  • The Kaiser, by Walter Rathenau
  • Reflections, by Walter Rathenau
  • Postcard from Rathenau to Stefan Zweig
  • Letter from Rathenau to Stefan Zweig
  • Letter from Rathenau to Stefan Zweig