Carole Fink: Killing Rathenau

Roundup: Talking About History

Carole Fink, currently a Distinguished Fulbright Scholar in Israel and Humanities Distinguished Professor Emerita at The Ohio State University, is the author of three books and more than fifty articles on 20th-century European and Jewish history.

Walther Rathenau was neither a typical German Jew nor a traditional German statesman.  Born into a wealthy industrialist family that had disowned its Jewish beliefs and practices and gaining political office late in life, Rathenau was the quintessential outsider.  He was also a man of contradictions: outgoing and solitary, ambivalent about his Jewishness and German-ness, a technocrat who embraced spiritualism but advocated state regulation to achieve the common good.

SAVEShulamit Volkov's biography of Rathenau, Walther Rathenau: Weimar's Fallen Statesman, is part of Yale University's Jewish Lives series.  Volkov, a professor at Tel Aviv University and author of several important works on German and German-Jewish history, has drawn extensively on the recently published Rathenau papers retrieved from the archives of the former Soviet Union and on a vast amount of primary and secondary literature.  She has constructed a vivid portrait of an extraordinary life.

Rathenau's privileged youth and education, although decidedly at the pinnacle of the social scale, were emblematic of Jewish advancement—and its limits—in imperial Germany.  An admirer of Prussian aristocratic traditions, Rathenau deeply resented his "second-class" citizenship, which blocked him from a reserve officer's commission.  In a complicating factor, Rathenau's bachelorhood denied him the social stability of his bourgeois peers and left him vulnerable to suspicions of homosexuality.  Rathenau's first article, published at age 26, after he had dutifully embarked on a business career under his father's tutelage, was a cautiously Nietzschean meditation on morality.  But four years later, in his essay "Hear, O Israel," Rathenau shocked his family and the public by attacking German Jewry as a "foreign organism" within the German nation and an "Asian horde" whose salvation required a "complete metamorphosis"—not through anti-defamation campaigns, baptism, or Zionism but via Rathenau's ambitious path to acceptance by the majority....

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