Prophet in a Tuxedo

Richard J. Evans

  • Walther Rathenau: Weimar’s Fallen Statesman by Shulamit Volkov
    Yale, 240 pp, £18.99, April 2012, ISBN 978 0 300 14431 4

On the morning of 24 June 1922, Walther Rathenau, the German foreign minister, set off for work from his villa in the Berlin suburb of Grunewald. The weather was fine, so he instructed his chauffeur to use the open-top limousine. The minister sat alone in the back. He took no security precautions, used the same route every day, and had dismissed the police protection he had been offered. As the car slowed down to negotiate a bend just before joining the main road, another car, an open-top tourer, came out of a side street and started to overtake it. Two men were sitting in the back, clad somewhat oddly in long leather coats and leather driving helmets.

Drawing level, the second car slowed down, pushing the limousine across the road. As the minister looked up, alarmed, one of its passengers leaned forward, picked up a long-barrelled machine-pistol and opened fire. A rapid series of shots rang out. Bringing his car to a halt, Rathenau’s chauffeur shouted for help. At the same moment there was a loud explosion as the other assassin lobbed a hand grenade into the back of the limousine, causing it to spring into the air. A passing nurse cradled the dying foreign minister as the chauffeur drove to the nearest police station; but she could do nothing.

The assassins, Erwin Kern and Hermann Fischer, drove into a side street, took off their leather gear, disposed of the machine-pistol and calmly walked away as police cars sped past them on their way to the scene of the crime. The police mounted the largest manhunt Germany had ever seen: ‘Wanted’ posters appeared all over the country, and police forces were issued with descriptions of the men. The two assassins made their way to Saaleck Castle in Bavaria, whose custodian was a sympathiser, but the police tracked them down. Kern was killed in a shoot-out and Fischer committed suicide; both were in their mid-twenties. The driver, Ernst Techow, was only 21. His parents turned him in; in court, he claimed he had acted under duress, and he was given a relatively mild prison sentence. Rathenau’s mother wrote an emotional letter of forgiveness to Techow’s mother, prompting strong feelings of guilt in the young man. On his release in 1927 he joined the French Foreign Legion, and during the Second World War is said to have expiated his crime by saving Jews in Marseille from deportation to Auschwitz.

Police inquiries soon established that the three young men were part of a much wider conspiracy involving others as young as 16. All of them were from good families. They included the sons of a general, a senior police officer and a member of Berlin’s town council. All of them belonged to extreme right-wing nationalist organisations, and several had served in the notorious Freikorps brigade, led by a former naval captain called Hermann Ehrhardt, that took part in the bloody suppression of the Munich Soviet in 1919 and the Kapp putsch that occupied Berlin briefly in a botched attempt to overthrow the republic a year later.

Following the brigade’s enforced dissolution, a number of its members went underground, forming a secret resistance group called Organisation Consul which carried out a number of murders, including that of Matthias Erzberger, a prominent signatory of the Treaty of Versailles for the German government. One of the men who provided logistical support for the assassination, a 19-year-old bank clerk called Ernst von Salomon, wrote a bestselling novel glorifying the Freikorps and Organisation Consul after his release from prison in 1930: entitled Die Geächteten (‘the ostracised’, published in English translation shortly afterwards as The Outlaws), it was an unapologetic glorification of the violent and extreme nationalism from which these young men drew inspiration.

The killing sent a shockwave through the fledgling Weimar Republic. In the subsequent Reichstag debate, the chancellor, Joseph Wirth, caused uproar by accusing the right-wing press of inciting the murder. Pointing to the nationalist benches, he declared: ‘There stands the enemy who drips his poison into the wounds of a people. There stands the enemy, and there is no doubt about it: this enemy stands on the right!’ Flags were flown at half-mast on official buildings, trade unions staged demonstrations protesting against the murder, and the president, Friedrich Ebert, immediately issued a decree for the protection of the republic, confirmed by a law steered through the Reichstag on 21 July. It was a key moment in the history of the Weimar Republic. It brought to an end a long series of assassination attempts, including an acid attack on the Social Democrat Philipp Scheidemann, whose proclamation from the balcony of the Reichstag had established the republic in 1918 (the acid had been diluted, and most of it hit his beard), and an assault with an iron bar on the popular muck-raking journalist Maximilian Harden, a friend of Rathenau’s (Harden survived, but only just). It also brought the Organisation Consul to an end.

Why had the foreign minister aroused such hatred? The immediate cause was his negotiation of the Treaty of Rapallo, signed on 16 April 1922, in which the Soviet Union and the Weimar Republic, two newly established, insecure states shunned by the international community, agreed to normalise diplomatic relations, renounce any territorial claims and begin economic co-operation. The Soviets promised not to demand financial reparations for war damage, and the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk, in which the kaiser’s government had forced the nascent Soviet government to cede huge swathes of territory to Germany, was formally repudiated.

Rapallo had been backed by Wirth not least because it promised to strengthen the ties that had already formed between the Red Army and the Reichswehr, and which allowed the latter to circumvent the restrictions on arms and equipment imposed by the Treaty of Versailles – for example, warplanes were being built in a Junkers factory in Russia. The ultimate victim of the German-Soviet rapprochement was Poland. ‘Poland must be eliminated,’ Wirth said privately, adding that ‘Rapallo should be supplemented … as military problems too ought to be settled with special reference to Poland.’

This background to the treaty was hidden from the ultra-rightists of Organisation Consul, who saw it as a compromise with Bolshevism and a craven abandonment of Germany’s war aims. The day before the murder, the right-wing nationalist Karl Helfferich had furiously denounced the treaty in the Reichstag, blaming Rathenau personally for the policy of détente and accusing him of a lack of patriotism because of his refusal to repudiate the Treaty of Versailles. The young conspirators had laid their plans long before, but the condemnation of Rapallo by the right-wing press and politicians almost certainly influenced their decision to target its main German author. Judging by their witness statements, and the depiction of the plot in Salomon’s book, the plotters’ ideology was immature and confused. Rathenau, claims Kern in Salomon’s novel, ‘might pursue what the chattering classes call a policy of fulfilment [of Versailles]. We are fighting for higher things … We are not fighting so that the people can be happy, we are fighting to force the people into its trajectory of fate.’

Salomon insisted to the end of his days that Rathenau had been killed because he had pursued a policy of negotiation instead of confrontation with the Soviet Union. But during the trial, the accused had urged ‘the exclusion of Jews’ from public office through an ‘internal war’. Anti-semites such as these young men believed that Jews were traitors to Germany – a belief shared by the Nazi Party, whose stormtrooper movement included many former members of the Ehrhardt Brigade. They objected vehemently to the fact that the German foreign minister was a Jew, and saw this as a central reason for what they regarded as his treachery to the national cause.

Rathenau was proud of his Jewish identity, although he wasn’t religiously observant. Writing in 1897, he argued that Jews should do their best fully to participate in German culture and institutions, but without abandoning their ethnic identity in a misguided search for assimilation with a majority Christian society. This was unrealistic. Anti-semitism was becoming more, not less, widespread in the kaiser’s time, and shifting from a religious to a racial basis. Extreme parties were emerging which wanted to rescind the civil equality of the Jews, granted in 1871.

Rathenau’s self-identification as a Jew is justification enough for the inclusion of this excellent brief biography by Shulamit Volkov, the leading Israeli historian of German Jewry and German anti-semitism, in Yale’s ‘Jewish Lives’ series. Volkov has made good use of the unpublished correspondence and writings in Rathenau’s private papers, discovered in the KGB special archive in Moscow after the fall of the Soviet Union and currently being edited for publication. This is by far the best and most sophisticated life of Rathenau in English.

In discussing Rathenau’s Jewishness, however, Volkov goes too far in emphasising the social cohesion and isolation of Germany’s Jewish population, when it had in fact been dissolving gradually into the larger culture since the end of the previous century. Assimilation had been accelerating fast, with 35 Jewish-Christian marriages for every hundred purely Jewish marriages in Berlin by the time the First World War began (and 73 per 100 in Hamburg), compared with only nine around 1880. Twenty thousand German Jews were baptised between 1880 and 1920. In a community numbering little more than half a million, these figures were significant. Rathenau’s ambivalent comments on Jewish identity in 1897 were in large part a reaction to these changes, and to the rise of racial anti-semitism.

Born in 1867, Rathenau came to prominence as a writer. Maximilian Harden, whose magazine Die Zukunft published his early essays, introduced him to Berlin’s intellectual and artistic milieu, where he frequented literary salons and met men like Hugo von Hofmannsthal, Frank Wedekind and Stefan Zweig. He had become well known by 1914, publishing two volumes of essays on subjects ranging from economics to morality. In his essays on art he rejected what he saw as the modernism of the French Impressionists and advocated the revival of a German art that would express the fundamental characteristics of the German soul. Such views, expressed on occasion in pseudo-Nietzschean aphorisms, won him a wide readership among the intelligentsia, though Hofmannsthal condemned their ‘pedantry, pretension, snobbery’ and above all the ‘stale and crafty “Germanness”’ that he claimed was often expressed by Jews.

What fascinated many people about Rathenau was that he wasn’t just a writer or an aesthete, but a successful businessman too. His father was Emil Rathenau, the founder of the Allgemeine Elektrizitäts-Gesellschaft, or AEG, one of Germany’s largest companies. Walther Rathenau went into his father’s business, pioneering technical innovations and rapidly climbing up the hierarchy, sitting on the board, steering the company through a series of mergers and acquisitions and surviving bruising rivalries with other industrialists such as Hugo Stinnes.

He bought a small 18th-century Prussian royal palace at Freienwalde, as well as constructing a neoclassical villa to his own design in Berlin. Count Harry Kessler, a close acquaintance, thought the villa tasteless and snobbish, full of ‘dead Bildung, petty sentimentality and stunted eroticism’. The novelist Joseph Roth, by contrast, said Rathenau ‘lived wonderfully, among great books and rare objects, amid beautiful paintings and colours’. He was notorious, however, for the frugality of his dinners, where, the writer Franz Blei complained, one could expect only ‘fish, lamb cutlets and dumplings … a tiny glass of champagne, never refilled by the servant’ and ‘that bottomless pot of black coffee, intended to keep the guests awake till the early morning’, while Rathenau delivered speeches, in Kessler’s recollection, ‘like a preacher or a rabbi, never less than a quarter of an hour’. He was, people mocked, ‘a prophet in a tuxedo’, ‘Jesus in a tailcoat’, ‘Jehovah at the coffee-table’. He quarrelled with one friend after another, breaking with Harden over the latter’s furious public condemnation of the kaiser and his entourage, and over his own relationship, probably never consummated, with Lili Deutsch, the wife of a colleague at AEG.

It was the liberal Jewish banker Bernhard Dernburg, appointed colonial secretary in 1907 after the scandal of the genocide of the Herero people of South-West Africa, who brought Rathenau into politics by inviting him to join a fact-finding tour of Germany’s African colonies. Rathenau condemned the genocide as ‘the greatest atrocity that has ever been brought about by German military policy’. This won him the respect of Reich Chancellor Bülow, who had himself heavily criticised the army’s conduct. Rathenau’s essays began to consider political topics, taking a moderate liberal approach to, for example, the question of the reform of the Prussian three-class voting system (in which the value of one’s vote depended on how much tax one paid). He attacked the domination of Prussian politics by the landed and bureaucratic aristocracy, whom he blamed for the exclusion of Jews from senior positions in the army and state. He advocated the political advancement of the industrial and financial middle classes, claiming that only then could Germany become fully modern. Published in 1912 as Critique of the Times, the essays were reprinted seven times within a year and turned Rathenau into a political as well as a literary sensation.

He did not take the plunge into serious politics, however, preferring to continue with his business life and with his writings, which included a vaporous and little-read philosophical treatise, On the Mechanism of the Spirit, a set of patriotic poems, a further attack on the backwardness of the Prussian state and a plea for European economic unity. It was the outbreak of war in 1914 that brought him a political role. He was put in charge of the procurement of raw materials after the Allied blockade cut Germany off from foreign sources of supply. Rathenau worked hard and had an astonishing degree of success, but remained privately critical of the state (run by ‘adventurers, fools and pedants’) and sceptical about the benefits the war might bring for Germany: ‘On the day that the Kaiser and his paladins on their white chargers ride victorious through the Brandenburg Gate, history will have lost all meaning,’ he wrote. Published in 1919, the aphorism was widely quoted by his enemies as evidence of his defeatism. Yet, when his influence within AEG increased after his father’s death in 1915, he boosted aircraft and munitions production until it constituted 45 per cent of the firm’s turnover – hardly evidence of defeatism.

He resigned from the Office of Raw Materials, hoping for a higher political position, but this at first eluded him. His experiences in procurement led him to believe that the economy should be centrally directed, and he supported the Hindenburg Programme, which tried, unsuccessfully, to achieve this. He also backed the forced transportation of Belgian workers to Germany to aid in war production, an action entirely contrary to international law, but opposed unrestricted submarine warfare and wanted a peace without vast territorial annexations. As a result, he found himself increasingly marginalised as the political situation in Germany polarised.

The growing atmosphere of rabid anti-semitism among conservatives prompted Rathenau to identify himself far more clearly than before with the Jewish mainstream in Germany and to condemn anti-semites as lacking the true Christian spirit. ‘I see the beginning of the worst internal strife at the moment when the external strife would come to an end,’ he wrote prophetically in 1917. Without a political job, he turned to writing, putting the case for an economically centralised modern state, based on spiritual values, in his bestselling book In Days to Come. Many found the contrast between his own great wealth and his condemnation of materialism hard to swallow. His insistence, repeated in another bestselling book, The New Economy, on the need for tight state controls over industry alienated his fellow businessmen, such as the influential Stinnes. And his advocacy of limited parliamentary reform was overtaken by events as the war was lost, the kaiser was forced to abdicate, and the socialists came to power.

Rathenau was one of many Germans outraged by the terms of the armistice and the Treaty of Versailles. Initially, indeed, when General Ludendorff called for a ceasefire, Rathenau urged the people to rise up and carry on fighting until better peace terms were obtained. By now he had made enemies on all sides: the left, the right, businessmen, the working class, Jews, anti-semites. When he published a short tract, The Kaiser, in 1919, he alienated not only supporters of Wilhelm II but also the political spokesmen of the aristocracy and the middle class, since he blamed them both for the disasters of the kaiser’s reign. It was some time before he came round to Harden’s view that it was necessary for Germany to fulfil the peace terms in order to earn the international trust necessary for their revision to be agreed.

As well as working hard at managing AEG in the inflationary postwar era, Rathenau continued to pour out political writings, urging a new, more responsible political culture to replace the violently polarised extremisms that characterised the founding period of the Weimar Republic. This brought him close to the moderate liberals of the Democratic Party, and he found a new outlet as a ‘passionate, even charismatic’ political orator, as Volkov describes him. Following the failure of the Kapp putsch (which Volkov misdates to March 1919 instead of March 1920), Rathenau was taken on as a government adviser on socialisation and then on negotiations with the Allies about reparations. Here he again clashed with Stinnes, who was determined to fend off demands for the state control of industry and keen to reduce deliveries of coal to the French to a minimum.

Rathenau’s realisation that it was necessary to win the trust of the French brought him close to Joseph Wirth, then finance minister, who was soon relying on him to help steer Germany through the negotiations. When Wirth became chancellor in May 1921, he appointed Rathenau minister of reconstruction, and the next month, speaking in the Reichstag, Rathenau formally announced the government’s intention to ‘fulfil’ the terms of the Treaty of Versailles, including the payment of reparations in both money and kind. His talks with the British and French reached a series of sensible compromises, and relations improved. Confident, well-prepared, skilful, eloquent and increasingly influential, Rathenau, as Volkov writes, ‘had finally come into his own’.

In January 1922, Wirth, hitherto his own foreign minister, appointed Rathenau to the post. By this time Rathenau was less keen to fulfil the Versailles terms, as he realised they were proving economically damaging, and began to look for another way forward. Rapallo was the result. His aims in negotiating the treaty were very limited; alarmed by signs of a rapprochement between the western Allies and the Soviets, he wanted an agreement with Moscow not least in order to make it impossible for Lenin’s government to join the British and French in demanding reparations. But the sensation caused by the treaty simply made his enemies more bitter. As the attacks on him became more shrill, he grew increasingly apprehensive about the possibility of assassination. ‘If my dead body,’ he remarked, ‘were to be a stone in the bridge leading to understanding with France, then my life would not have been lived in vain.’

It was not to be. If Rathenau’s murder brought defenders of the republic together in the short run, it did not, as Volkov claims, force its opponents to choose less violent tactics in their attempt to bring it down. In fact, its consequences were far more mixed. The stipulations of Ebert’s decree for the protection of the republic, promulgated the day after the assassination, set a dangerous precedent. They prescribed the death penalty for anyone convicted of conspiring to kill a member of the government, and set up a special State Court to try such cases, packed with judges sympathetic to the government and appointed by the president. The notorious People’s Court of the Nazi era would follow this model. After Ebert’s death and the election of the conservative Paul von Hindenburg as president of the republic, the state court was taken over by the reactionary, nationalist judges who dominated the legal system. They took an increasingly lenient view of political crimes committed in the name of Germany, undermining the republic’s public legitimacy. In the shorter term, the assassination of the foreign minister caused a run on the mark and accelerated the currency depreciation that was already taking hold, leading to the hyperinflation of the following year, the collapse of the economy, the French invasion of the Ruhr and Hitler’s attempted putsch in Bavaria. The putsch was defeated, but paramilitary violence did not end, and within a few years it reached a scale that the republic was wholly unable to control. Rathenau’s policy of ‘fulfilment’ was taken up, more successfully, by Gustav Stresemann, but that didn’t last either. Less than eight years after Rathenau’s death, Weimar democracy had been replaced by authoritarian rule, and by 1933 Nazi dictatorship, in which many of those who had advocated his assassination found their own kind of fulfilment.