Industrialist and Foreign Minister

Walther Rathenau was born on 29 September 1867 in Berlin. His parents were the industrial magnate Emil Rathenau, uncle of the painter Max Liebermann, and Mathilde Rathenau (neé Nachmann), daughter of a wealthy Frankfurt banker. His father saw Edison’s incandescent lamp at the International Electricity Exhibition in Paris (1881) and was immediately convinced of electricity’s prospects for the future. Two years later, he founded the Deutsche Edison-Gesellschaft, renamed the Allgemeine Elektricitäts-Gesellschaft (AEG, General Electricity Company) in 1887. Willing to take risks, he invested in promising new markets using patents he had purchased.

Walther Rathenau grew up with his brother Erich, who died at an early age, and his sister Edith. After attending the Königliches Wilhelms-Gymnasium, he studied physics, chemistry and philosophy from 1886 to 1889 at the Friedrich Wilhelm University Berlin and the Reichsuniversität Strasbourg. He completed his doctorate with his dissertation on the absorption of light in metals in Berlin in 1889 under the supervision of the famous physicist Hermann von Helmholtz.

Post-graduate course at the TH Munich

From October 1889 to July 1890, he completed a post-graduate course at the Technische Hochschule Munich in mechanical engineering and electrical engineering. His doctorate proved to be advantageous: »[…] Munich is so enamored of titles that even the worthy damsel Barbara Huber would not allow herself to be buried other than as ‘the daughter of a trimmings manufacturer.’ In any case, my silly title has already rendered me great service here,”«1, he wrote to his brother Erich. During his studies, he assisted in the installation office of AEG in Munich, indulged in the pleasures of student life, and was impressed by the rich studio, gallery and antiques scene.

As he confided to his father, he didn’t think a great deal of the teaching at the Technische Hochschule: “Anyway, lectures here are held in such a rambling and popular manner, as if intended to teach a bunch of craftsmen.”2 He complained to his brother: “In machine research, we are deluged with a tangled jumble of obsolete systems, whose purpose is, at best, to show off. In electrical engineering, the lecturer assumes Ohm’s law to explain dynamos and dwells on magnetic induction engines with an antiquarian interest. Mind you, this kind of course is imperative for the rabble of university students.”3 Such statements also reveal his style, which came across as cool and arrogant, a style which – according to his biographer Lothar Gall – made it difficult for him to interact with people throughout his life.4

In Munich, Rathenau dedicated himself to the promising area of electrochemistry, with which he to some extent wanted to make himself independent from his dominant father. The subject was taught by Professor Wilhelm von Miller, who had set up the first electrochemical laboratory at a German university in 1885. Rathenau soon came to the conclusion “that an actual electrochemistry does not even exist yet, here just as little as anywhere else. […] That’s why I’m forging into that electrolytic sanctuary with considerably less zeal than at the outset, and I’m satisfied to profit from a field in which the locals here are sufficiently competent, namely pure metals chemistry.”5

Discrimination against Rathenau as a German Jew

In the years 1890 to 1891, Rathenau performed his military service with the Pasewalk Guards Cuirassiers. He was deeply disappointed that as a German of Jewish faith he was barred from a career as a reserve officer. He increasingly found his religious affiliation problematic: “In the early years of any German Jew there is a painful moment which he will remember for his whole life: when he realizes thoroughly for the first time that he came into this world as a second-class citizen and that no amount of ability and merit could ever free him from this condition.”6 In Maximilian Harden’s weekly political magazine “Die Zukunft,” he called upon his fellow Jews in 1897 to unconditionally assimilate themselves.

Against a backdrop of anti-Jewish tendencies, he wrote in a letter in 1916: “My father and I have had no thought that was not for Germany, not German.”7 Rathenau explicitly distanced himself from the Zionist movement and their Palestine project. He did not observe the Jewish religion, but he refused to convert to Christianity. Under the influence of the works of Martin Buber, he later began to examine the sources and manifestations of the Jewish faith. On the other hand, he maintained a long-lasting correspondence with the “völkisch” (nationalist) publicist Wilhelm Schwaner, his only close friend, and raved about the ideal of the Nordic people.

Advancement in AEG

After working as a consultant at Aluminium-Industrie AG, an aluminum factory in the Swiss town of Neuhausen (1892), he took a position as managing director of the newly founded AEG subsidiary Elektrochemische Werke in Bitterfeld from 1893 to 1898, where he put into practice a procedure he devised to extract chlorine and alkali by electrolysis. He joined the board of AEG in 1899, heading up the “central stations” (electric utility companies) department. In 1902, Rathenau switched to the Berliner Handels-Gesellschaft, which was associated with AEG. He was appointed to the Supervisory Board of AEG in 1904, becoming its chairman in 1912. Ultimately, he held 84 supervisory board seats and directorships at one time.

In the years 1907-08, Rathenau undertook two trips to German East Africa and German South-West Africa, together with the liberal colonial state secretary Bernhard Dernburg in order to support him in the reform of German colonial policy. Rathenau’s stance was ambivalent here, too: on the one hand, he sought to expand the German colonies; on the other, he opposed the idea of a master race that purported to be superior. He argued for German power politics, but deplored the aggressive arming of the navy and advocated reaching an understanding with Great Britain. In 1911, he advised the Imperial Treasury on the question of an imperial electricity monopoly. Already at that time, he espoused political control of the economy by means of cartels, syndicates and mergers to prevent economically harmful competition.

Rathenau enjoyed an upper-class Prussian lifestyle. He bought Schloss Freienwalde and expanded it into a summer residence. There he produced and acquired a vast collection of paintings. He maintained a dialogue with such varied personalities as the politician Bernhard Prince von Bülow, the economist Felix Somary, the heavy-industry business owner Hugo Stinnes, the philosopher Ernst Troeltsch, the writers Gerhart Hauptmann, Stefan Zweig and André Gide, the Bolshevist Karl Radek, and the fascist Benito Mussolini. Rathenau had no close personal friends, nor did he marry.

Literary activity

Rathenau increasingly intensified his philosophical writing activity and published writings that received much attention, such as “Zur Kritik der Zeit” (1912), “Zur Mechanik des Geistes” (1913) and “Von kommenden Dingen” (1917). Rathenau detected a fateful turning point: on the one hand, humanity is subject to the law of mechanization; on the other, the “spirit of the mass” prevails, since those who were previously subjects have entered into history as actors. One cannot reverse these developments, he wrote – “abstract thinking, exact science, technology, coming to terms with the masses and organization“ had become reality.

Yet a new aristocracy of the spirit would need to shape the changed world in order not to cede it to fear, envy, greed and “unfreedom.” The mission of our time, he wrote, is to train responsible elites from all classes of people who would overcome the materialist conception of history with transcendental idealism, a strong will and visionary foresight to realize freedom, human dignity and justice. He considered a powerful, classless “people’s state” necessary as an instrument, the embodiment of the “popular will.” Measures like the abolition of class privileges, restrictions on the law of succession, the elimination of monopolies, a high luxury tax, equitable income distribution, and the adoption of workers’ participation rights were intended to create social equilibrium.8

Genie is the compression point of latent mass-forces9

Rathenau distanced himself from the liberal belief in the free play of market forces that would subjugate the fate of the nation to the “powers of chance,” from the Marxists’ “de-deified materialism” and “police bureaucracy,” but also from conservatism, in which he saw a “negation of life and its development.” Though he attributed to the Germans an inclination to apoliticism, he considered them, at the same time, particularly competent to play a leading role spiritually: “The German mind creates the New Society, the society of the spirit and wisdom, the only one that will withstand the social epoch and fulfill it.” 10 Rathenau’s ideas caught on particularly in the youth movement.

Organization of the supply chain of raw materials in the war

After the outbreak of the First World War, he called for a supply chain of raw materials organized by the state. From August 1914 to March 1915, he built up the Raw Materials Department of the Prussian War Ministry and was able to alleviate the effects of the British naval blockade. In this way, he anticipated what he planned after a German victory: a state-controlled economy with restricted market economy autonomy. Both Vladimir Ilyich Lenin in the phase of the “New Economic Policy” (1921–28) and the Minister of Armaments Albert Speer with his concept of the “self-responsibility of the arms industry” (1942–44) later oriented themselves on Rathenau’s ideas.

After his father’s death in June 1915, Walther Rathenau did not become his successor, but attained special powers as “President” of AEG and organized the corporation’s armaments production. He rejected annexationist war aims and criticized the peace treaty of Brest-Litovsk as humiliating for Russia. Instead, like Friedrich Naumann, he supported the foundation of a Central European economic union with Belgium, France and Austria-Hungary, dominated by the German Reich. Already in 1913, his long-term objective had been a European economic community that would entail a “mitigation of conflicts” and “saving of strength” and would bring about a “civilization in solidarity.”11

While before 1914 Rathenau had a critical attitude toward a war, he was no longer selective in his choice of means, calling, for example, for bombing London with zeppelins and deporting Belgian civilians to Germany for forced labor. In October 1918, the patriot Rathenau argued against German offers of a ceasefire and propagandized a general arming of the people to continue the war and achieve better peace conditions. Even General Erich Ludendorff, whom he admired, did not support him in this: “Levée en masse would destroy more than one can tolerate.”12

Foreign Minister Rathenau

In November 1918, Rathenau was the co-founder of the Zentralarbeitsgemeinschaft der industriellen und gewerblichen Arbeitgeber und Arbeitnehmer (Central Consortium of Industrial and Commercial Employers and Employees), which negotiated a collective agreement. He joined the left-liberal Deutsche Demokratische Partei (DDP) and worked for them on their Second Socialization Committee. In 1921, he turned to politics exclusively, giving up all his offices in commerce. In the coalition government led by Joseph Wirth (Zentrumspartei), he became Reconstruction Minister. Together with the treasury secretary Matthias Erzberger, he put forward the case for a “policy of appeasement” in order to gradually reach a reduction in demands, provoking the ire of the far right, further aggravated by anti-Semitic resentment. Dehumanizing songs belted out at Rathenau poisoned the political atmosphere. He was even accused of being one of the “Elders of Zion” who ostensibly secretly controlled the world.

In January 1922, Rathenau negotiated a reduction in the German reparation payments at the Conference of Cannes. The Imperial Chancellor Wirth appointed the multilingual Rathenau, who was highly regarded abroad, as Foreign Minister of his second coalition government at the end of January 1922.
He made headlines on 16 April 1922 during the unsuccessful world economic summit in Genoa by concluding the “Rapallo Treaty” with his Soviet counterpart Georgy Chicherin. The two defeated nations took up political and economic relations once again. The German Reich committed to delivering industrial equipment to the Soviet Union; in return, they would henceforth purchase Russian petroleum products. With the Rapallo Treaty, Germany regained room to maneuver in foreign politics. This, of course, intensified the Allies’ mistrust of Germany, and the skeptical stance towards Rathenau intensified among the Social Democrats and the right wing. He had admittedly hesitated at first to sign the treaty. The initiative came from state secretary Adolf Georg “Ago” von Maltzan.

Victim of a political assassination

A few months thereafter, Walther Rathenau was shot in his open car en route to the Foreign Office on June 24th. He had previously received death threats, but he rejected the police protection that had been offered. After weeks of pursuit, the perpetrators – two former officers – were caught on the Burg Saaleck; one of them was shot, and the other killed himself. At the criminal trial against the accomplices, the court assumed their offenses had been the individual deeds of misguided youthful offenders and that their main motive had been indiscriminate hatred of Jews. The court imposed ten guilty verdicts with relatively high penalties. The driver of the vehicle in which the deed was committed was spared the death penalty, however, and many of those convicted were later given early release.
The historian Martin Sabrow came to the conclusion in the 1990s that the Rathenau murder had been part of a large-scale conspiracy of the secret extreme right-wing “Organisation Consul” to which Finance Minister Erzberger also fell victim. It was intended to provoke civil war-like confrontations and undermine the Weimar Republic with a strategy of tension.

In the Reichstag, Chancellor Wirth declared: “There stands the enemy – and about that there is no doubt. The enemy stands on the Right!”13 Millions of Germans came together at protest rallies and funeral processions. The prudent approach of the government prevented a civil war. As a consequence of the assassination, the Parliament passed the “Republikschutzgesetz” (Law for the Defense of the Republic), which in many German states was used to ban the NSDAP (Bavaria did not join and experienced the “Beer Hall Putsch” in November 1923).

Walther Rathenau was buried in the family grave in Berlin-Oberschöneweide. Many schools, public squares and streets are named after him. The Walther Rathenau Society tends to his political and spiritual legacy. Since 2008, a Walther Rathenau Prize has been awarded for outstanding services in the area of international politics. At Schloss Freienwalde, endowed by his heirs, a Rathenau memorial with an associated exhibition has been set up.

Many of those who followed found it difficult to come to terms with Walther Rathenau’s contradictory personality. For liberals, he was too left; for Socialists, too business-oriented; for nationalists, too Jewish. Martin Sabrow characterizes him with the words: “Open-minded and tolerant in his ideological principles, astonishingly illiberal in some of his proposals for the future, irritatingly pragmatic in his political actions, Rathenau represents the ambivalence of an age that could have resulted in a world of progress in peace and perished in an apocalypse of horror.”14



1. Letter to Erich Rathenau, Dec. 16, 1889, in: Walther Rathenau: Briefe. Neue Folge, Nikosia 2017 (reprint from 1930), p. 72.

2. Letter to Emil Rathenau, Nov. 4, 1889, in; Ibid., p. 65.

3. Letter to Erich Rathenau, 24.1.1890, in: Ibid., p. 71.

4. Lothar Gall: Walther Rathenau. Porträt einer Epoche, München 2009, p. 154.

5. Letter to Erich Rathenau, Dec. 16, 1889, in: Walther Rathenau 2017, p. 69.

6. Walther Rathenau: Staat und Judentum. Eine Polemik. In: Walther Rathenau: Gesammelte Schriften. Volume 1: Zur Kritik der Zeit. Mahnung und Warnung, Berlin 1918, p. 188 et seq.

7. Walther Rathenau to Wilhelm Schwaner, Jan. 23, 1916. In: Walther Rathenau: Briefe, Dresden 1926, p. 203.

8. Walther Rathenau: Von kommenden Dingen, Berlin 1917, p. 259.

9. Walther Rathenau: Auf dem Fechtboden des Geistes. Aphorismen aus seinen Notizbüchern, Wiesbaden 1953.

10. Walther Rathenau: Wirtschaft, Staat und Gesellschaft, Berlin 1915, p. 454.

11. Quoted from Gall 2009, p. 177.

12. Quoted from Ibid., p. 207.

13. Quoted from Martin Sabrow: Die verdrängte Verschwörung. Der Rathenau-Mord und die deutsche Gegenrevolution, Frankfurt a. M. 1999, p. 97.

14. Martin Sabrow: Die Zerrissenheit eines Zeitalters. Zum 150. Geburtstag von Walther Rathenau. Der Tagesspiegel, 27.9.2017 (last visit 16.4.2018).

Photo: Federal Archive Koblenz, Bild 183-L40010 / photographer: unknown / licence CC-BY-SA 3.0