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Walther Rathenau
(September 29, 1867 - June 24, 1922) Germany

Walther Rathenau

Industrialist, writer, politician


Rathenau was born in Berlin, the son of Emil Rathenau, a prominent Jewish businessman and founder of the Allgemeine Elektricitäts-Gesellschaft (AEG) electrical-engineering company. He studied physics, chemistry and philosophy at Berlin and Strasbourg. He worked an as engineer before joining the AEG board in 1899, becoming a leading industrialist in the late German Empire and early Weimar Republic periods. Rathenau is thought to be the basis for the German industrialist character Arnheim in Robert Musil's novel The Man Without Qualities.

Rathenau was a leading proponent of a policy of assimilation for German Jews: he argued that Jews should oppose both Zionism and socialism, but should instead integrate themselves into mainstream German society. This, he said, would eventually lead to the disappearance of anti-Semitism. This did not save him from becoming a hated figure, caricatured as a archetypal Jewish capitalist, by Germany's militant anti-Semitic movement.

During World War I Rathenau held senior posts in the Raw Materials Department of the War Ministry, as well as becoming chairman of AEG on his father's death in 1915. He played the leading role in putting Germany's economy in a war footing, and enabling Germany to continue its war effort for four years despite acute shortages of labour and raw materials.

After the war Rathenau, a moderate liberal in politics, was one of the founders of the German Democratic Party (DDP). He rejected the tide of socialist thought which swept Germany after the shock of defeat and revolution, opposing state ownership of industry and advocating 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 German nationalists. He also angered nationalists by negotiating the Treaty of Rapallo with the Soviet Union. The leaders of the newly-prominent Nazi Party and other right wingers claimed he was part of a "Jewish-Communist conspiracy."

In fact, despite his desire for economic and political co-operation between Germany and the Soviet Union, Rathenau remained skeptical of the Soviets' methods. Rathenau was assassinated by two right-wing army officers. A memorial stone in the Königsallee in Berlin-Grünewald commemorates the crime. One of the assassins was the future writer Ernst von Salomon.


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