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Einstein's Friend, Walter Rathenau:
The Agapic Personality
in Politics and Diplomacy

by Judy Hodgkiss
June 2012


The world today is facing an imminent hyperinflationary blow-out.  This would be the first time that such a phenomena would happen on a global scale; but not the first time that it ever happened on a smaller scale, the scale of a single nation-state.  It happened to Germany in the autumn of 1923, as that nation printed up, first millions, then billions, of Reichsmark bills and threw them out to the Allies, the victors of World War I, in a desperate attempt to pay the Versailles Treaty war debts. 

That policy of hyperinflationary money printing was not just a fool's policy, which Germany fell into on its own devices; but, as today, in continental Europe and the U.S., it was a policy deliberately contrived and promoted by forces from the outside, forces headquartered in London, as part of British imperial policy.

The British program for Germany was modeled on the previous success that the empire had achieved in the late 18th Century in the creation of Napoleonic France.  The first step had been to seduce France into a series of wars on the continent; then, to wreak havoc on the already-weakened internal economy; next, to drive the population mad, through left-right violence and chaos, leading to a domestic dictatorship; and, finally, to use that dictator in France, as a marcher-lord against all of France's neighbors in Eurasia.

The British Empire's success in 18th Century France was repeated in 20th Century Germany: the Hitler regime was the inevitable result of theWeimar government's hyperinflationary blow-out, and the subsequent "solutions" imposed by the Allies.  But, in the years 1920, 1921, through to June of 1922, the British were confronted with a threatened upset of their grandiose plans. The name of that threat was Walther Rathenau.

The following, excerpted from a two-part article in the German newspaper,"Neue Solidarität,"  is intended as a case study into the unique personality type capable of calm, creative leadership, as demonstrated in the atmosphere of panic in 1920's Weimar Germany, or, as will be needed,  in the panic soon to come upon us, in the existential crisis of today.

ON JUNE 24th, we commemorate the 90th anniversary of the assassination of the German Foreign Minister Walther Rathenau, a singular figure in the industrialization and the political leadership of the German nation at the beginning of the 20th Century. His was a personality perfectly suited for leadership in a time of crisis. A model for today.

We will speak here of Rathenau's accomplishments in industry, politics and diplomacy. But we cannot merely recount Rathenau's monumental list of achievements as an industrialist--he did not consider himself as primarily an industrialist. Neither can we merely list his achievements in politics and diplomacy--he did not consider himself as primarily a politician or a diplomat.  He thought of himself foremost as a writer, a philosopher, a poet, an artist, and a musician.

Therefore, when he devised his various policies, his first consideration was never what others might consider to be “practical;” he saw his fight against the British Empire as primarily a cultural fight, a battle for the "soul" of the German nation.

Rathenau served as political advisor—officially and unofficially—to almost all of the turn-of-the-century German governments: from the pre-war reign of Kaiser Wilhelm II and his cabinet; through the war-time emergency governments and the chaotic coups and counter-coups of the demobilization; then in the post-war Weimar Republic, until his death in 1922.  He brought to the service of his country, in each of these cases, a personality uniquely distilled from, and expressive of, the best of the German classical tradition.  Whether devising policy for the colonies in Africa, negotiating the Rapallo Treaty with the Russians, or building the various private industries and concerns of which he and his father were a part, he always described his actions as being guided by that “German spirit which has sung and thought for the world,” a spirit which was, after the war, threatened with obliteration by those “who are blinded by hate.” [1]

Rathenau’s contemporary, the author, Emil Ludwig, marveled that "Walther Rathenau knew how to paint portraits, design a house, build turbines and factories, write poetry, draw up treaties, and play the Waldstein Sonata."

Walter Rathenau

Just as the image of Einstein and his violin comes to mind when we think of the agapic personality in science, we should, similarly, imagine Walther Rathenau at his piano, when we think of such a personality active in the fields of politics and statecraft. In fact, we can imagine Einstein and Rathenau playing a sonata, together, at one of their several dinner parties which they held, alternately at one, then the other’s home in Berlin, between the years, 1917 to 1922. Or, another image would come to mind: the scene of Rathenau spending an evening at the large villa of his neighbor, a descendant of the Mendelssohn family. Here, Robert Schumann’s piano quintet is being played, Rathenau is at the piano; also playing are the Klingler brothers, Fridolin on viola, the instrument he plays in the Klingler Quartet, and Karl, formerly the viola player with Joseph Joachim’s quartet, 1906-7, here playing first violin, as he does in the quartet with Fridolin; on cello, is the banker, Robert Mendelssohn, great-great-grandson of Moses, distant cousin of Felix; and Robert’s brother, Franz, President of the Berlin Chamber of Commerce, plays the second violin. [2]

The Agapic Personality Squared

In fact, like Einstein, when Rathenau was in school, he contemplated music as a possible profession, as his mother wished; but felt compelled toward a profession in science and engineering, as his father insisted upon. And, perhaps, not coincidently, both fathers owned electro-technical businesses and hoped to see their sons succeed them at the company.

But Rathenau always asserted, as Einstein also understood, that scientific and technological progress was dependent not on the concerns of the "materially crass" world, but on the powers of the imagination, the same powers that are a necessary foundation for great art, literature and music. Rathenau wrote in a 1907 essay, called, "Unwritten Works:"

The intellect must lose itself sooner or later in the unessentially real; only the imagination can find the way which leads up to the essentially true. The materially enterprising world of today can carry on only if it turns from its crass admiration for the analytical intellect and bows to the ideal. [3]

A trio at the Beethoven Haus, Bonn, in May of 1890: Robert Mendelssohn's cello instructor, Carlos Alfredo Piatti, together with Carl Reinecke, center, and Joseph Joachim, on the right. Piatti is playing the Stradivarius cello that Robert himself played, later, in the informal musical ensembles that included Walther Rathenau.

One of Rathenau’s first foreign policy missions, before the war, was to join a fact-finding tour of Germany’s African colonies for the Kaiser and Chancellor von Bulow. We might assume it obvious that Rathenau would promote large infrastructure projects for the continent (details of which we will explore later,) not only because of his personal background, but also in the context of the tradition of the nation-building policies of Germany’s former chancellor, Bismarck, and the influential German-American economist, Friedrich List. In fact, Rathenau’s father, Emil, had attended the very exhibition in America, the centennial celebration of 1876, which had originally inspired the railroad building programs that Bismarck carried out in Prussia.

But in Rathenau's report for the fact-finding mission, he went even further, framing his proposals within a cultural context:

The evolution of Germany in the nineteenth century depended on the fact that the ideological and philosophical disposition of the German people, which had spent itself for centuries in metaphysical speculation, suddenly was recognized as having enormous real value, because it proved to be adequate to problems in science, technology, and organization. Thus we may hope that education for colonization will once more open to the German soul a field that corresponds to its earthly mission. [4]

Einstein and Rathenau first met at a Berlin dinner party at the beginning of March, 1917. On March 8, Einstein wrote to Rathenau, "I saw with astonishment and joy how extensive a meeting of minds there is between our outlooks on life."

Einstein would write to his mother, Pauline, in 1918, "Rathenau is an eloquent and sparkling spirit." [5]

Walter Rathenau's house in Berlin's Grunewald district.

After Rathenau’s assassination, Einstein wrote a memorial to him for the Neue Rundschau, Aug., 1922. He said:

My feelings for Rathenau were and are ones of joyful esteem and thanks for the hope and consolation he gave me during Europe’s presently bleak situation as well as for the unforgettable hours this visionary and warm human being granted me...A delightful mixture of sobriety and genuine Berlin humor made it a unique pleasure to listen to him when he chatted with friends at the table. It takes no talent to be an idealist when one lives in cloud-cuckoo-land; but he was an idealist, even though he lived on this earth, whose smells he knew better than almost anyone. [6]

A Jew and a German Patriot

After the war, with the rise of anti-Semitism, and the increasingly violent atmosphere in Berlin, Rathenau had to fight with Einstein to convince him to remain in Germany. As part of that effort, Rathenau found himself in a contest with the Zionists for influence over Einstein. The Zionist leader, Chaim Weizmann, visiting from Britain, recalled in his memoirs:

This visit has remained vividly in my memory. It was a conversation with Walther Rathenau, whom I met at Einstein’s home one evening. In a gush of words he immediately launched an attack on Zionism...The quintessence of what he presented was: he was a Jew but felt like a German and devoted all his energy toward building up German industry and restoring Germany’s reputation in the world. [7]

Although Rathenau had urged the full assimilation of Jews into German society, he was critical of those, like his and Einstein’s mutual friend, the Nobel-prize winning chemist, Fritz Haber, who convert to Christianity as a way to mollify their persecutors. Rathenau’s first book "Hear O Israel," was on the subject. [8]

Rathenau was able to win over Einstein to the fight to "restore Germany’s reputation:" Einstein remained in Berlin, and also agreed to be Rathenau’s "goodwill ambassador," making several trips to other countries, speaking before scientific associations and meeting with labor groups. He went to England and to Holland, and he planned a trip to Japan; but he hesitated to accept the invitation of his friend, Paul Langevin, to lecture in what he knew would be a semi-hostile environment, the College de France in Paris. He at first declined, then wrote to Langevin, March, 1922:

Rathenau has told me that it is my duty to accept, and so I accept. [9]

Even after Rathenau’s death, Einstein still felt the power of Rathenau’s hand on his shoulder. When Einstein hesitated in joining the League of Nation’s Commission for International Intellectual Cooperation, Marie Curie wrote to him, July 7, 1922:

I think your friend Rathenau, who I believe was an honest man, would have encouraged you to at least try to bring about peaceful international intellectual collaboration. [10]

Left: Einstein and violin. Right: On the left, Karl Klingler, first violinist in the Klingler Quartet, and loyal friend of Rathenau; on the right, the eminent physicist, and closest friend of Albert Einstein, Max Planck. Like Rathenau, Planck was always ready with his piano, to accompany the violins of either Klingler or Einstein.

Rathenau’s murder came as a terrible shock for Einstein. In 1935, Einstein’s biographer, William Hermanns, brought up the subject of the anti-Semitic gangs of Germany, in his interview with Einstein and his wife:

"Frau Einstein almost whispered, ‘It was this kind of youth that murdered Rathenau.’

"‘I had so many talks with him about Germany and peace,’ said Einstein. ‘He was the first victim of Nazi propaganda’" [11]

The Fatal Flaw in the Culture

Before the war, Rathenau never held an official government post, but he had functioned informally in a variety of capacities for the Kaiser and his Imperial Chancellor, the Prince von Bulow. Although this was a time of great enthusiasm and optimism on Rathenau’s part, he had intimations of the possible disasterous consequences of Germany’s adherence to its autocratic system. But he was blind-sided as to the depth of the problem that was inherent in the population’s slavish adulation of aristocratic titles or anyone decorated with military regalia.

As for Einstein, we see his view of the matter in his interview with Hermanns:

[Germans] learned from their fathers to bow to any uniform, even a mailman’s. Look what Bismarck said: ‘The Germans lack civil courage.’

When Rathenau moved back to his home town, Berlin, in 1899, he bought a house in the fashionable Grunewald district, and began to associate with the city’s elite circles of artists, politicians, and members of the imperial court. He was introduced to the Kaiser, himself, in 1901. Rathenau described the experience in his essay, "The Kaiser," published in 1919, after the Kaiser’s abdication and exile to Holland:

On the first occasion, I had to repeat before him a scientific lecture which I had already delivered before a larger audience, and which I thus had at my fingers’ ends. The Kaiser sat right in front of me so that I was able to observe him closely...

A friend asked me my impression of his bearings and conversation. I said, "He is an enchanter and a man marked by fate. A nature rent, yet not feeling the rent. He is on the road to disaster." [12]

Einstein expressed it more simply. He said to Hermanns:

It is interesting that the two advisors the Kaiser most trusted were Jews: Rathenau and [Albert] Ballin. I met the Kaiser once. He made the impression of a good man who rattled his sword to please others.

For Rathenau, it was the experience of the collapse of his beloved country into, first, the insanity of the euphoric war fever, beginning in 1913, followed by the depravities he witnessed during the chaos and confusion period of the demobilization, that finally forced upon him the harsh lesson: that the foolishness and weakness demonstrated by the Kaiser and others in the ruling class was actually a predictable function of the population’s own foolish attachment to the feudalist trappings of oligarchy, as a deeply embedded flaw in the culture itself.

In his 1918 appeal to U.S. President Wilson, Rathenau admits the problem, along with his fear that it might be too late for Germany to have a second chance.

Sent to President Wilson, via Colonel House, Dec., 1918:

As a humble member of a people wounded to the heart, struggling simultaneously for its new-found freedom [the Kaiser had abdicated] and for its very existence, I appeal to you, the representative of the most progressive of all nations. Four years ago, we were apparently your equals; but only apparently, for in fact we lacked that element which gives a nation its real strength: internal freedom. Today we stand on the verge of annihilation: a fate which cannot be avoided if Germany is to be crippled as those who hate us wish. For this fact must be stated clearly and insistently, so that all may understand its terrible significance, all nations and their peoples, the present generation and those to come: what we are threatened with, what the policy of hate proposes, is our annihilation, the annihilation of the life of Germany, now and for evermore. [13]

Observations by an American

One week after Rathenau’s assassination, the American journalist, John Finley, wrote a feature on him for the New York Times, titled, "Rathenau’s Vision of a New World." Finley had interviewed Rathenau in Berlin a few months before the murder, and his appreciation of the statesman’s life is genuine and insightful. The following is the first section of his article:

It is significant of much, says Trevelyan, the English historian, that in the seventeenth century members of Parliament quoted from the Bible; in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries from the classics; and in the twentieth century from nothing at all. Walther Rathenau, German Foreign Minister, assassinated a week ago, furnished a sharp contrast to his British contemporaries. In his first Parliamentary speech, a year ago this June, when taking his seat in the Cabinet, he quoted the opening and closing themes of a Beethoven fugue, referred to an apt incident in the story of the Holy Grail, invoked pertinent precepts of philosophy and drew upon the physical sciences for his metaphors.

This seemingly extempore and modestly brief speech, illuminated from his wide reading and study and out of his varied experience, was made in the middle of hostile heckling and baiting, in which Helfferich, who goaded him to the last day of his life, joined. It was the utterance of a thinker, who came, out of a sense of duty but fearlessly, near to what he called ‘a high-tension [i.e., ac current] political machine,’ whose construction and operation he confessed he did not understand beyond ‘knowing vaguely its perils’...

Rathenau was a thinker, but not brooding always in stooped and wondering inertia as Rodin has represented his ‘Penseur’...He had thought profoundly, and he had seen an anguish of the world which was vastly more awful than Rodin had pictured at the gates of Hell, upon which his ‘Penseur’ was made, in its original placing, to look down. Rathenau had thought profoundly and broadly and he had written voluminously on science, art, esthetics, morals, one of his twenty books reaching a seventy-fifth edition. He had a ‘passion for theory,’ whether as a scientist, philosopher or sociologist.

He was first, last and always a man who approached all problems from the point of view of the spiritual values involved. In this, he seemed the very antinome of Stinnes [steel industrialist and previous Foreign Minister,] who approaches everything, it would appear, with a purely materialistic purpose. In the early years of the war, Rathenau was writing a book which began with the warning sentence that ‘this book treats of material things but treats of them for the sake of the spirit’ and which ended with this conclusion: ‘We are not here for the sake of possessions, nor for the sake of power, nor for the sake of happiness: we are here that we may elucidate the divine elements in the human spirit.’

Rather surprising pronouncements, these, from the head of a tremendous [corporate] trust that embraced an empire with its horizontal combinations and latterly reached even into vertical co-operations; from one who was for a time the virtual dictator of the whole industrial and trade organization of Germany through his control of the raw material resources which he brought to the support of the armies in the field, fighting for an unholy end, as it seems to us. But these views permeate his whole philosophy of life and even his economic theory, for one of the high ends of economics he conceived to be to increase the flow of earthly goods to the ‘sacrificial places’ where the ‘material is subtilized to become spiritual.’

Has any tariff conceived such a motive for the ‘flow of earthly goods?’ And ‘subsidizing’ the material we know, but ‘subtilizing’ it into the spiritual? It is a strange terminology. And yet one reading his books and looking, as I did for an hour, into the face of their author, cannot doubt the sincerity of his moral purpose." [14]

We will hear more from Mr. Finley later in this report. Now we will fill in more detail in Rathenau’s biography.

A Meteoric Rise to Power

Portrait by Edvard Munch, showing Rathenau at yet another dinner party. Einstein had said: "A delightful mixture of sobriety and genuine Berlin humor made it a unique pleasure to listen to him when he chatted with friends at the table."

The elite circles of Berlin who welcomed Rathenau into their homes and into their confidence, had been impressed in the previous decade by the growth and nature of Rathenau’s father’s electrical conglomerate, the AEG, the Allgemeine Elektrizitatsgesellschaft. But the impression made on them by the son, was that of astonishment and awe. During the short segment of his career, from the time he moved back to Berlin in 1899, to when the Imperial Chancellor gave him his first semi- official assignment in the German Colonial Office in 1907, he went from being a complete unknown, to being categorized by the Berlin press as the "Super Secretary of State."

In his autobiographical essay, "Apology," Rathenau described his father’s modest beginnings in the Berlin of the 1870’s:

The house...was not situated in what was then the quiet west end of Berlin, called the Privy Councillors’ quarter, but in the Chausseestrasse, which was in the working-class North of the city. And behind the house, alongside the cemetery, lay the work-shop, surrounded by old trees—the little fitting-up room, the foundry, and the groaning brazier’s forge. Those were the engineering works of my father and his friend; and the masters and men of that famous race of old Berlin engineers were kind to the little Jewish boy who toddled about among them, and many a tool and piece of machinery they used to explain to him. [15]

Rathenau studied physics and engineering at university; his dissertation topic was "Light Absorption by Metals."

From the beginning, Rathenau insisted that he not be brought into his father’s business until he proved his capabilities on his own. Later, he would argue that this practice should be the general case for children of wealthy parents, enforced by a law requiring a 100% inheritance tax.

Rathenau developed a new process of electrolysis for the production of chlorine and alkalies, and convinced the AEG board to invest its capital to build an electro-chemical factory using his technique, in the small town of Bitterfield. Rathenau describes his amazing progress from there:

In 1899, after I had spent seven years in the little manufacturing town of Bitterfeld, the undertakings began to prosper. I decided to retire from industry in order to devote myself to literature. The AEG, however, invited me to join their board of directors and take over the department for constructing power stations. I undertook the work for three years, and built a number of stations—e.g., in Manchester, Amsterdam, Buenos Aires and Baku. I retained the directorship of the electro-chemical works, and became at the same time delegate of a great foreign electricity trust...In 1902 I left the AEG in order to enter finance. I joined the management of one of our big banks, the Berliner Handelsgesellschaft, and reorganized a great part of its industrial undertakings. I gained an insight into German and foreign industry, and belonged at that time to nearly a hundred different concerns.


1907: Rathenau and Colonial Secretary Bernhard Dernburg on board the ship taking them to the African colonies. Rathenau wrote: "We may hope that education for colonization will open to the German soul a field that corresponds to its earthly mission."

In 1907, Chancellor von Bulow selected Rathenau to accompany the Colonial Secretary, Dernburg, to do a fact-finding tour of the German colonies in Africa. The "Super Secretary of State" paid his own expenses, so that he could be as independent and truthful in his findings, as possible. He ended up, two years after his series of reports was issued, with the award of an Imperial Medal. But this was only after the controversy had been allowed to die down, and Dernburg had been demoted because of his resistance to some of Rathenau’s proposals.

Rathenau was harshly critical of what he found on his first tour, which was to the colony of East Africa; he was even more critical in his report on his second tour the next year, of the colony of South-West Africa.

His first report began with the assertion,

[The colony’s] most valuable product, its human population, is large but sparse; its population density is 12 to 15 times less than that of our own country. Population growth makes but slow progress, impeded as it is by endemic and epidemic disease.

Rathenau advocated shifting out of "plantation agriculture," to "native agriculture," where "investment opportunities for large-scale German capital can, however be found: investment in the colonies themselves would possibly be more profitable if mercantile, mining, and industrial developments were later to emerge."

The notes in his African diary refer to "reflections on colonial psychosis." He was more diplomatic in his official report:

It is worth noting the special interpretation on which the interested party bases his cultural task: he is called to train the Negro to work, and indeed this is clearly understood to be plantation work. The interpretation goes further—an argument which was put forward on an official occasion: just as the German child has to go to school, so too the black man has to undertake regular work in European enterprises.

These views, which former Governments [Bismarck] probably did not share, yet tolerated, have occasionally and sometimes continuously produced results reminiscent of kidnapping and serfdom.

He wrote up a 5-point proposal:

1) With regard to overall economic policy: shifting the emphasis in the direction of native agriculture.

2) With regard to the native question: different regulation of the power of Europeans to punish, and protection of the coloured man against maltreatment...

3) With regard to the agriculture of the country: an extensive afforestation programme; a search for new, and protection of existing sources of water...

4) With regard to the communications system: establishment of a railway-building programme...

5) With regard to the administration: reorganization of municipal finance; establishment of the colonial service as a career; an increase in the number of senior officers in administrative posts. [16]

Germany's pre-war African colonies.

One (hostile) biographer, David Felix, ridicules Rathenau’s plan for railway construction, as a scheme, "costing 200 million marks for a colony with an annual trade of 24 million marks." [17]

But the Kaiser and the Reichstag thought otherwise. On the basis of Rathenau’s reports, the Reichstag voted in 1908 to build a total of 1,467 kilometres of new railways for the African colonies. This investment nearly matched the size of the Berlin-Baghdad railway project, begun in 1903, which would have extended 1,600 kilometres, total.


Before arriving in Africa, Rathenau stopped over in London, where he had meetings that were to arrange an international conference, needed to settle border disputes for African colonies. He wrote up a memorandum on the state of Britain for the Kaiser and von Bulow:

This pampered country has been doing bad business for years and lives, by our standards, beyond its means: new taxes are there the most disagreeable expense...Doubtless England can strengthen its fleet, will strengthen it, and must strengthen it—but its present exorbitant position of superiority can not be maintained in the long run...

It is especially worth noticing that these anxieties, industrial and colonial, cause the nation to look across to Germany. Here is the competitor, the rival. It soon comes up in all conversations with informed Englishmen, sometimes as a compliment, sometimes as a reproach, sometimes ironically: you will outstrip us, you have outstripped us...Add to this a third reason...From the outside one peers into the cauldron of nations that is the Continent, and becomes aware of a people, surrounded by stagnating nations, a people of restless activity and enormous powers of physical expansion. Eight hundred thousand new Germans every year!...

Thus all English discontent is substantiated and the notion of Germany. And what appears among the educated as a motivated conviction is expressed among the people, among the youth, in the provinces, as prejudice, as hatred and wild fantasy to an extent that far exceeds the measure of our journalistic apperception. [18]

Five years later, Rathenau wrote a study of a possible scenario of British pre-emptive war. He is apparently unable at this time to foresee that Britain were capable of inducing Germany to destroy itself. Here he thinks he can reason with the British. From the Neue Freie Presse, Vienna, April 6, 1912, "England and Ourselves: A Philippic:"

[England] is under the impression she has been technically and industrially outstripped. Secondly, she feels obliged to intervene against every dominating continental power which emerges. Thirdly, her colonial structure would be shaken from within if supremacy at sea lost its value as a historic dogma. Fourthly, the armaments race is becoming too expensive and, given a constantly changing technology, success uncertain. The war which England would have to wage would thus be a preventive war...

England has, for two hundred years, been used to having all problems brought before her curial throne and to deciding them at leisure...a policy of phantasy, adventure and desperation was alien to the Doge-like wisdom of this country. [19]

The war fever building up in Germany in 1913 caught Rathenau by surprise. He launched a barrage of articles attempting to cool it down. From the Neue Freie Presse, March 23rd 1913, on the anniversary of the War of Liberation, 1813:

But it is misleading to compare the taxes proposed by the Bundesrat with the national sacrifice of 1813. The finest thing about that period was not the sacrifice nor the victory, but the heart-searching that preceded them...Money and armament alone will not avert our doom. Material forces only call up material forces in reply. [20]

And, on the verge of war, July 31, 1914, in the Berliner Tageblatt:

The government has left us no doubt of the fact that Germany is intent on remaining loyal to her old ally. Without the protection of this loyalty Austria could not have ventured on the step she has taken...Such a question as the participation of Austrian officials in investigating the Serbian plot is no reason for an international war! [21]

The war begins. A conflicted Rathenau writes to his friend, Fanny Kunstler, authoress, in November:

Apart from this obvious pain, there is another, a duller pain, more mysterious, which benumbs everything within me. We must win, we must!...How different it was in 1870 with the ideal of unity before us! How different the demand for our very existence in 1813! A Serbian ultimatum and a mass of confused precipitate telegrams! Would that I had never seen behind the scenes of this stage! [22]

In spite of his misgivings, Rathenau volunteered within days of the outbreak of the war to head up a War Raw Materials Department to deal with the blockade set up by the Allies. That he was enormously successful, is testified to by an article in the London Times, Oct. 11, 1915, that quotes American journalist, Raymond G. Swing, reporting from Berlin (America was still neutral at the time):

It is an interesting story, this miracle of industry, this inventiveness, this genius of organization. It is a story which explains the fall of Warsaw and the great Eastern offensives and the impregnable Western line. And when the Falkenhayns, the Hindenburgs and the Mackensens, are thought of as great German soldiers, one person must be set beside them, the German business-man, Dr. Walther Rathenau. [23]

The Times then adds, plaintively: where is our English Rathenau?

But, even while Rathenau was busy accomplishing miracles on behalf of the war effort, he was writing to the German Democratic Party deputy, Conrad Haussmann:

Do you know, Herr Haussmann, what we are fighting for? I do not and I should be glad if you could tell me. What will come of it? We have no strategists and no statesmen. [24]

Rathenau, the Author

No matter how world events were sweeping him along, before the war, during the war, or after, Rathenau poured out a continuous stream of poetry, essays, pamphlets and books, on a variety of topics, all of varying quality. Instead of attempting to critique any or all of it at this point, let’s look over the shoulder of our journalist friend, Mr. Finley, as he attempted to explain Rathenau’s economic theory to a contemporary American audience:

In the late Winter of 1921, when the German reparation delegation...was in London I picked up one day at a bookshop, in an interval between the tense conferences in St. James’ Palace, a little volume entitled ‘The New Society.’ It was by Walther Rathenau.

I read and re-read this treatise, which some anonymous editor had called a ‘landmark in the history of economic and social thought.’ It did indeed seem like a primitive landmark, a cairn of chapters thrown together without design. But each stone had either historical significance or a prophetic import. This author, then stranger to me, began by asking if there is a sign by which we can know whether human society has been ‘completely socialized,’ and answered immediately his own question: ‘It is when no one can have an income without working for it [i.e., no income from inheritance].’ But is this the goal? No, it is only the sign. The final goal, the only full and final object of all endeavor upon earth is the ‘development of the human soul’...

A few weeks later reaching Berlin on a Sunday and eager to meet the author of ‘The New Society’ that I might ask him how he proposed to get that theory instituted here upon earth, I found that he was out of town...But passing through Berlin again a few weeks later, I made another effort, this time successfully, to see this man whom I wanted to see above all other Germans. I was (as he says, every one in America is today, and as every one will be when society is completely socialized) determined to know the how and where and why of the thing. He welcomed me to his mother’s home, where amid signs of material but unostentatious comfort, we talked for an hour. It was the one bright hour of the drab and depressing hours that I spent in Berlin.

This little giant, with the patient eyes of a student lodged in features that belonged to no race, but were like those of a primitive man upon whom the marks of softness had not come, was a gracious but ineffusive man of affairs who seemed to have still the touch of youth upon him...We did not talk of reparations nor of the political change in America (whose ‘sky-scratching’ towers he remembered admiringly.) Our conversation was all concerning his proposals for social salvation, for the bringing of ‘mind into labor’...

This does not mean socialism. Dr. Ratheanau was quick to say—that ‘hell of mechanical socialism.’ ‘What I propose,’ he said, ‘strikes dogmatic socialism to the very heart.’ ‘Socialism leads from earth to earth; its centre is the distribution of earthly goods; its goal is simply the right to bread. Nor is it a cheap Utopianism with ‘unproved parrot phrases,’ that he advocates, magically creating by technical improvements a ‘niggard Sunday out of the week-day existence.’ ‘No,’ he said, ‘no Soviet policy can go to the heart of the problem.’ ‘It is a world order that I am urging, whose principle is an interchange of Labor, by which it is required, within certain fixed limits of application, that every employee engaged in mechanical work can claim to do a portion of his day’s work in intellectual employment and that every brain worker shall be obliged to devote a portion of his day to physical labor’...

My questions and criticisms had to do with the practical operation of such an industrial system, the obvious losses through shifting and want of concentration and continuity. His answers were all concerned with the social benefit, whatever the incidental economic losses, with the abolition of hereditary idleness (of which we know little in this country,) with respect for physical labor and appreciation of the fact that mental work is not mere chattering and that ‘thinking hurts’...

Production would cease to be merely material and formal and would acquire spiritual value. As to the machinery for the realization of all this, he insisted, that it would inevitably come if the idea willed it. The thing was to get the mind possessed of the idea...‘Let the idea but take hold of the minds of the people, the means will be found.’ I left his home that May day with a confident hope that if his idea could get into every factory and home, as his incandescent bulbs had, the new society would come."

More from Mr. Finley, later.

The "Gifts"

In the end, Rathenau believed that all of his extraordinary achievements, industrial, political, or diplomatic, were inspired by the "gifts" he had inherited, as a legacy from a "German soul," a spirit, as he had described it in his Africa Report, that could guide human endeavour toward that which corresponds to "its earthly mission." In his writings after the war, he described his dedication to preserving, what he called, that "German spirit which has sung and thought for the world," and which was, at that moment, threatened with obliteration by those "who are blinded by hate." [25]

Rathenau frequently wrote of the obligation that had fallen on him for having received such "gifts," from both the German culture, in particular, and from what he called, "nature," in general. These were obligations that he often described as the driving force of his existence. He wrote to his friend, Lili Deutsche, in 1911:

This winter it has become clear to me as never before that a man’s life signifies nothing unless all his powers of mind and sense of responsibility are exerted to their utmost. There is something half-wrong in receiving gifts, even from Nature.

and, in another letter:

I must expend myself, not only on the things I love and dream of, but also on many others—things that make me hard and cold. I must do this, because men of my type are responsible for all that nature has given them to do and be; I have no right to live a life of imagination and contemplation without spiritual conflict and exertion. Nor must I ask the reason why. Nature has united in me heterogeneous elements; and she must answer for it. [26]

In his 1913 book, "The Mechanism of the Mind," Rathenau wrote of the general case, where an individual is called by "divine forces" to a life of creative activity:

Ambition has never produced anything in this world but sharp practice, petty expedients and mere casual successes... But if we consider the truly great, the creators in thought and deed, we find that they were men who served a cause...Display, immediate results, and reward meant nothing to them; they were willing to give up property, power, and life itself for the sake of their cause. Such devotion is transcendental, for it is disinterested and intuitive; the spiritual forces which release it are the result of imagination and vision. Of such a kind were and are the men who have given to the world their form. The passion that moves them is the same which inspires the artist, the scientist, the craftsman and the builder; it is the joy of creation. And they must have yet another emotion in an unusual measure, the consciousness of being called by the will of spiritual or divine forces to an activity which absorbs their whole being, demanding a ceaseless struggle against their own imperfections, incapable of delegation and endowed therefore with the dignity of a personal burden and necessity. This consciousness we call ‘responsibility,’ meaning thereby that the spirit must render its account to God and man. [27]

Rathenau was strict and disciplined about what was to be defined as a true "transcendental passion." He condemned the fraudulent Tolstoy, for example, in "The Apology:"

Tolstoy’s mistake was that, instead of following the law which he divined in his own nature, he bowed to a theory which suppressed his creative spirit as artist and thinker, in order to give strength to the weak forces of his ‘enthusiasm.’ ...But he who embraces the enthusiastic life, not from the beginning and from his own unconscious necessity, but strives for it consciously, or worse still, with a definite purpose— he does himself violence and sins against the light.

And, as we have seen, he condemned the misguided passion of Einstein’s Zionist friends. A few weeks before his murder, the Berlin Zionist leader, Kurt Blumenfeld, and Einstein came to visit him in Grunewald, in order to urge him to resign as Foreign Minister: Blumenfeld gave the reason that Rathenau was stirring up trouble not just for himself, but for all of Germany’s Jews; and Einstein, because he wanted to save the life of his friend.

Blumenfeld reported that Rathenau calmly argued his position. To Blumenfeld, he said, "I am [actually] breaking down the boundaries erected by anti-Semites to isolate the Jews;" and, to Einstein, "I am the right man for the position. I am fulfilling my duty for Germany." [28]

Into the Vortex

Wikimedia Commons.
1952 postage stamp commemorating 30th anniversary of Rathenau's assassination.

Rathenau’s self-assurance, as described above, astounded his friends; but that self-assurance was actually the result of a hard-won internal struggle. All during his career, Rathenau had his moments of doubts, times when he tried to resist the "divine force." In an undated letter to Lili, he wrote:

I am in the grip of forces which...determine my life. It seems to me as though I could do nothing of my own free will, as though I were led—gently, if I comply, roughly if I resist. [29]

And resist, he did, when, before the war, he first received an offer of an official government position, which came to him, as a suggestion, through the wife of General (later President) Paul von Hindenburg.

Rathenau replied to Frau Hindenburg:

My industrial activities give me satisfaction, my literary activities are a necessity of life to me, but to add to these a third form of activity, the political, would exceed not only my strength, but also my inclination. And even if I were inclined to take to politics, you know, dear lady, that external circumstances would prevent it. Even though my ancestors and I myself have served our country to the best of our abilities, yet, as you know, I am a Jew, and as such a citizen of the second class. I could not become a higher Civil Servant, nor even, in time of peace, a sub-lieutenant. By changing my faith I could have escaped these disabilities, but by acting thus I should feel I had countenanced the breach of justice committed by those in power. [30]

The 1914 cascade of declarations of war was to soon change his mind. Rathenau threw all considerations aside, immediately offering his services to create a War Raw Materials Department to ensure that Germany could survive the economic blockade established against her ports. Within days of the start of the war, he was named by the Minister of War, General Falkenhayn, to head such a department.

At the end of the war, Rathenau wrote a small book, "An Deutschlands Jugend" (To Germany’s Youth.) Einstein was delighted, especially recommending the last chapter, "Charakter," to his mother, Pauline, as "well worth the reading." [31] Einstein, at the time, was giving informal classes to a group of Eastern European Jewish emigres that were otherwise blocked from attendance at Berlin’s universities. Einstein would have encouraged Rathenau to apply himself in a similar direction; this was at the same time that Einstein was advising Rathenau to not accept any public office in a post-war government, and to keep a distance from the capitol, where political violence was an everyday occurrence in the streets. He urged Rathenau, instead, to "guide the Germans from a desk with his brilliant mind." [32]

But over the next two years, Rathenau spent more time in the political fray, than at his desk in Grunewald, functioning as best he could as an unofficial advisor to a shifting array of post-Kaiser political parties, factions, and movements, as they carried out their coups and counter-coups. He was finally offered an official appointment in May, 1921, as Reconstruction Minister, i.e., for reconstructing France, a post, which, technically, placed him in the senior position for dealing with the reparations issue. His ever-shrinking group of friends was horrified at the prospect. He wrote, apologetically, to Lili:

Do you really believe that I wanted to drag you into this vortex, when I scarce know myself whether I shall be able to stand it? [33]

But the divine force had its grip on him. And we will not see him hesitate again, until January of 1922, when, in a decision that required much heart-searching, he accepted the even more publically prominent position of Foreign Minister, making himself the ultimate target of all the dispossessed military and the right-wing corporate interests that the British and French could muster inside Germany.

His fellow diplomat, Count Kessler, described his condition:

When I entered his office in the Wilhelmstrasse for the first time after his appointment, and greeted him with the usual ‘Good-morning, how do you do?’ he replied, pulling a pistol out of his trouser pocket: ‘This is how I do! Things have got to such a pitch that I cannot go about without this little instrument. [34]

"And I Feel It Cruelly"

But perhaps a more difficult prospect for Rathenau, over the years, than even the thought of his early physical demise, was his suffering over his increasing isolation from friends and collaborators, due, first to the effects of the slander campaign run against him, and, only secondarily, by that later environment of threats of physical violence.

Even before the war, the attacks on his writings had brought him much anguish. He wrote to a friend, Herman Kroepelin, in 1912:

You want to write about my book? My friend, I must warn you. If you depart an inch from the stereotyped judgment: ‘witty, cold, a dilettante in sixteen subjects, and a tolerable business man,’ you will be laughed to scorn. This is what people will have me to be, and I am content to be tolerated as a harmless fool. They ask me: ‘How do you find time for such nonsense?’ and if I told them that that is my life, they would send for the doctor. Be prudent, dear friend; it is not considered good form to treat me kindly. [35]

Even Lili was affected by the accusations charging him with an unbridled egoism, and of having a split personality, i.e., that he was a hypocritical millionaire businessman who practiced "socialism" as a hobby. Rathenau answered her charges by developing a metaphor of how the human soul could be tuned to the music of the universe:

It is true that my nature is polyphonic. The melody rises like a treble above the other parts, but it is very seldom unaccompanied. And in the bass and tenor other sounds are heard, sometimes harmonizing, sometimes in utter discord with the song. I know incomparably better men, in fact great men, in whose every word and thought I detect the same phenomenon; in this I find I do not stand alone. Indeed, it sometimes seems as if it were this very strength or weakness which like a shell re-echoes, though faintly, the rush and roar of the whole world. Meanwhile the pure flute notes of more simple natures seem to me monotonous, charming and rather dull.

Now, this is why people are mistaken in me, because in this medley of voices they fail to recognize a melody. But I recognize one, and know that it is there, and that it controls all the rest.

And the proof of it is this: Life itself does not deceive, even if all else does. Now, consider my life. Do you know of another more earnest, more self-denying? And this is not due to lack of sensibility, or dullness. Nor is it due to any wish of mine. For I wish nothing. Ruthlessly though I have questioned my inner self, I have never found anything of this world that I wish. I wish what I must, otherwise nothing. And what I must, I see, as a wanderer by night sees by the light of his lantern only a few steps in front of him. That this my life is an oblation, offered gladly and willingly to the powers above, not for reward, nor in hope, this I may say, and you yourself know it; that I forfeit the love of my fellow-men in the process I know, and feel it cruelly.

And, in another letter, he answered her more directly:

On two points you do me an injustice. Over-estimation of self, indeed! I realize my limitations very precisely and have always respected them. But you do not realize them, for one does not exhaust a man’s possibilities in conversation. And despite everything, you are bound by the established opinion: ‘witty, subtle and cold.’ No matter...

God be thanked. You may squabble as much as you like. For in the long run I would rather be scolded by you than praised by any one else. [36]

And then, with the initiation of his post-war political career, Rathenau found that, aside from Einstein, and Lili and her husband, Felix Deutsche, and a handful of his musician friends [37], very few of his old collaborators wished to be associated with him.

On May 17, 1922, he wrote to Lili, just before his departure from the Genoa Conference (April 10-May 19.) He had triumphed there with a promise won from the Allies of a provisional debt moratorium, won despite—or perhaps because of—his separate economic agreement negotiated on the side with the Russian delegation, at a short distance from Genoa, in the small seaside town of Rapallo. Rathenau had triumphed, but he knew that he would return to Germany, not as just that pernicious Jew who wanted to negotiate with the Allies rather than to prepare to fight them again; but, now, he would be that Communist Jew, who preferred to negotiate, above all, with the Bolsheviks, even more than with the other enemies of the state. But, in spite of it all, Rathenau was able to write, with the remarkable calm of a Joan of Arc at her trial, or of a Martin Luther King giving his Mountaintop speech, in what would be his last letter to Lili:

Why trouble to ponder over it all? When we look back over these years, hasn’t everything that happened and had to happen been for the best?

I often think, and it is my greatest comfort: What a wretched sort of life is that which merely runs its even course untroubled! The wonderful thing is that all true sorrow is beautiful. Only the stupidly awry and the arbitrarily distorted is ugly. In our life everything has been Law; thus were the facts, and thus their predestined course. Nothing has been in vain, nothing can now be thought away or given up.

And if you honestly reflect you will find that even what seemed to be Chance was really Necessity. And is Chance going to have his own way now? My life has run too far along its course for that to be possible.

Now at last I am free of my fellow-men. Not in the sense that I could ever be indifferent to them. On the contrary, the freer I am the nearer and dearer—despite all—they are to me; and I joyfully recognize that I exist for them, not they for me...

Certainly there is not much more that I can do. The flame burns low. But you know it is my destiny to be ready to lift from others the burden that oppresses them and to remain myself without desire...

Affectionately, W. [38]

"Responsibility Exerted to the Utmost"

During the war, Rathenau had not only served with the War Raw Materials Department, but he had played a role as an unofficial advisor to Erich Ludendorff, the Head of the Supreme Command, and, also, in 1916, as a negotiator for peace.

In his diary, Rathenau described his negotiations with Colonel Edward House, who served, officially, as President Wilson’s personal representative in Europe, but was, in actuality, the top agent of London in Washington, D.C. In January of 1916, while the United States was not yet involved in the war, House was in Berlin, pretending to be an honest broker between the Germans and the British. Rathenau met with House at the home of U.S. Ambassador Gerard, the evening of January 30:

[After dinner] House kept me back in the dining room and the table was cleared. He had been in Paris for only one day, whereas he had spent several days in London...He considers that [British Foreign Secretary] Grey is ready to conclude a peace, and, what is more, under the unchanged, original English conditions, namely: surrender of [German occupied] Belgium and northern France without compensation [to Germany]...There would be compensations to be gained (Belgian, Congo, etc.) He can see no fear of France being disappointed, but America would, above all, use all its power to guarantee the so-called freedom of the seas and to eliminate every future possibility of a blockade [of Germany.] [39]

House then proceeded to London, where he and Grey issued a completely contrary memorandum, one that House knew would be totally unacceptable to the Germans. It not only excluded any compensation to Germany, but it also included the demand that Germany cede the Alsace-Lorraine to France.

Germany’s response, against Rathenau’s advice, was to escalate with a policy of unrestricted submarine warfare. The British certainly rejoiced: they knew that this could be the provocation that would bring the U.S. into the war on the side of Britain. The U.S., in fact, declared war on Germany April 6, 1917.

Rathenau, unlike his more fantasy-ridden countrymen, knew that this was the end for Germany, that there was no longer any way to win the war: There had to be a halt to the submarine warfare, and an immediate negotiated peace. Rathenau described a dinner party debate, recorded in his diary of May 2, 1917:

At dinner I sat between the Chancellor [Bethmann] and Countess Zech and conversation, which [Secty. of the Interior] Helfferich kept steering towards political and business matters, naturally turned to submarine warfare. I said jokingly to Helfferich, who was sitting diagonally opposite to me and who was bringing up the familiar arguments, that I believed his predictions would be completely borne out: by the New Year 120-150 percent of the English merchant fleet would be sunk, nevertheless England would still be feeding herself and shooting. The Chancellor remained very reserved; Helfferich repeated his arguments and I asked him whether he was aware of England’s daily subsistence level, expressed in tons. This was not the case, and those present seemed rather surprised when I gave the figure of 12,000 tons—that is to say, the contents of one big, two medium or three smaller ships.

After dinner the Chancellor took me into a side room, and our conversation regarding the submarine question was continued confidentially.

"A Question of World History"

General (and later President) Paul von Hindenburg and General Erich von Ludendorff, head of the Supreme Command. Rathenau advised both of them; if only they had listened more attentively.

But Bethmann, although in complete agreement with Rathenau’s assessment, suffered a failure of nerve. Then, in July, Rathenau had a private, 3-hour meeting with Ludendorff, where he again pursued the problem with the submarine warfare, and the need to sue for peace while it were still possible to have it on honorable terms. The diary of July 10, says:

Ludendorff now explained that he was not at all opposed to a negotiated peace, and never had been; that he merely considered the mood in the country as important and that one had only to bring in the negotiator to him...I answered that I did not consider mood as an applicable measurement...

[Ludendorff] repeatedly asserted that he himself neither maintained the annexationists’ point of view, nor did he intend to interfere in political developments...I said to him that whatever the future Government looked like, close co-operation between it and the Supreme Command, that is himself, was absolutely indispensable for the good of the country. He underestimated his power, as I had already told him months before; he possessed an authority close on dictatorship and with it responsibility as well, and history would hold him to it.

He replied that I still overestimated his power, that he could not approach the Kaiser and that he was hemmed in on all sides.

I answered by emphasizing the incredibly confused leadership in our power structure: the Under-Secretaries of State are powerless because the Chancellor is above them. The Chancellor cannot do anything if he does not have the sanction of Headquarters. At Headquarters Ludendorff is hampered by [President] Hindenburg, who switches over to the Kaiser whenever he taps him on the shoulder. The Kaiser himself thinks that he is obeying the constitution and thus the circle is complete. However, here it is a question not of ‘uniform hierarchy’ but rather of world history.

As we know, Ludendorff failed the test of history. Germany pursued the war, the submarine warfare and all, to its disastrous conclusion. On Sept. 28, 1918—much too late— Ludendorff finally asked political leaders in Berlin to sue for peace. He would resign his office Oct. 26.

But on Oct. 7, Rathenau had swung into action. He wrote in the "Vossische Zeitung" against a precipitous armistice. Rathenau wanted, instead, a mobilization of all possible reserves, "a national defense, the rising up of the nation...It is peace we want, not war. But not a peace of surrender." [40]

General Maximilian Hoffman supported Rathenau’s idea of a levee en masse, of an additional one and one half million soldiers for a last stand against an invasion of Germany. This was to be done at the same time that all submarine warfare would be ended. Through this, Germany would regain the moral high- ground; otherwise, the country would suffer more from its own internal divisions and recriminations of left vs right, than it would from either a desperate war on its own territory or from a subsequent full occupation. The worse horror would be that of Germany losing its "soul."

That prescient thought would drive every action taken by Rathenau in the next four, short years left to him.

At the same time that Rathenau was organizing for a last-stand defense, he was also preparing for the possibility of the alternative. On Oct. 15, he had a meeting with the War Minister to discuss a demobilization plan that would avoid civil disturbances and that would transition industry to peaceful production.

Colonel Edward House and Mrs. Wilson, the controllers of President Wilson on behalf of the British Empire, leave Versailles after the signing of the treaty. Colonel House had earlier betrayed his negotiations with Rathenau.

But soon everything began to unravel. With the abdication of Kaiser Wilhelm, and the complete collapse and resignation of Ludendorff, the new Scheidemann government, in a panic, signed a "Pre-Armistice Agreement" on November 9, that pledged Germany to compensation for all damage done to the civilian population of the Allies. In January, the Paris Peace Conference began, with no representation from Germany even allowed until after the terms of the treaty would be agreed upon by the Allies—which did not happen until May. In the meanwhile, Germany was racked by chaotic violence and food shortages. While the negotiations were moved to Versailles, and dragged on through May, Rathenau wrote for the journal, "Zukunft" (The Future), May 31st:

What is to be done? At Versailles we must do our utmost to effect some radical improvement in the Treaty. If we succeed, well and good—then sign it. But if we do not, what then? In that case neither active nor passive resistance should be attempted. In that case the negotiator, Count Brockdorff- Rantzau, must deliver to the enemy governments the duly executed decree dissolving the National Assembly, and the resignation of the President and ministers, and invite them to take over without delay the sovereign rights of the German Reich and the whole machinery of government. Hereby the responsibility for the peace, for the administration, for all Germany’s actions, would fall to the enemy; and before the world, before history, and before their own peoples, they would be faced with the care of sixty millions. It would be a case without parallel, the unprecedented downfall of a nation, but at the same time a course compatible with honor and conscience. For the rest, we must trust to the inalienable right of mankind—and the clearly predictable march of events. [41]

Again, Rathenau went unheeded. In January of 1920, the Versailles Treaty went into effect and the Reparation Commission began operation. The unpayable debt was to be collected, at all costs.

The reaction to Versailles: Top left, political cartoon depicting the "Big Three" (Wilson, Clemenceau, Lloyd George) preparing a guillotine for the German. Top right, the "Council of Four" (includes Orlando of Italy) and their pill, "Peace Terms." "You've got to swallow it whether you like it or not." Bottom, demonstration before the Reichstag, May 15, 1919, against proposed peace terms.

From Technical Advisor to Foreign Minister

It was not until the July Spa Conference (Belgium,) that Germany, after having weathered a series of attempted coups in Berlin and failed insurrections in other cities, was stable enough to offer a proposed payment schedule for reparations, to be made in gold marks, and also a schedule for coal deliveries to France. Rathenau was part of the German delegation, having been designated "technical advisor" by the finance minister, Joseph Wirth, a former mathematics professor and a personal friend of Rathenau’s.

To no one’s surprise, Germany soon faltered in its payments of gold marks, and even struggled to produce the coal shipments. A conference of the Allies in Paris, in January, decided on a schedule of a series of payments, starting low, but rising astronomically over the next three years. A London Conference in March brought the German delegation back in to negotiate. Rathenau made a unique proposal: allow Germany to absorb the British and French war debts owed to the U.S.—The Germans of course would prefer to negotiate with the Americans. But this proposal, and all othe others from the Germans were rejected. The conference broke down and France occupied Dusseldorf, Duisburg and Ruhrort, threatening the entire Ruhr region.

A second London Conference was convened at the end of April with ultimata issued by London and Paris. On May 10th, the Fehrenbach government collapsed, and Joseph Wirth headed up a new government coalition. Wirth accepted the London Ultimatum; but at the same time he named Rathenau to a newly created post, "Minister for Reconstruction"—reconstruction of northern France, that is, not of Germany. From that position, Rathenau entered into secret negotiations with the French Interior Minister Loucheur—a reasonable man—with the aim of replacing cash reparations with payment-in-kind, including free German labor to reconstruct northern France.

On Oct. 6, the "Wiesbaden Agreement" was signed with Loucheur. On Oct. 12, the British-controlled League of Nations announced the partition of Upper Silesia. The Wirth government had to go into emergency session.

Rathenau urged the government to resign. The "Cabinet Minutes" for the day, characterized Rathenau’s speech to the ministers:

[Rathenau said] No one would understand if the Cabinet stayed together after territory had been taken from us. There was a point where logic must cease to operate and emotion take over. The Cabinet would no longer enjoy the respect of the nation. This was a question of character. Logic would have to give way to character. Determination and emotion were decisive at a moment like this...He recommended resigning today, while their hands were still free. Which is what they did. [42]

Here, finally, a seemingly outrageous proposal by Rathenau was implemented. And it worked. The right-wing was destabilized and unable to form a government. Wirth’s government reformed, but this time without Rathenau’s participation. This allowed Rathenau, who was the particular target of the right-wing, to keep his hands clean of the partition question; but, at the same time, Wirth continued to use him as his most valuable negotiator: this time as Private Citizen Rathenau.

By the end of November, Rathenau was back in London, this time alone, to negotiate a bridge loan, which, in actuality, would be a moratorium on German debt. Rathenau telegraphed back to Wirth, Dec. 6, 1921: Prime Minister Lloyd George and Bank of England head Montagu Norman had made three demands of Germany, these to be in exchange for a combination of moratorium and the promise of further reparation conferences, a smaller one to be held at Cannes, then a larger one at Genoa. The three demands: "cessation of [government] subsidies, balancing the budget, closing down of the money printing presses." [43]

Rathenau and Wirth agreed to present London with a deflationary program by Jan. 28, that was to include mass layoffs of workers in national enterprises, such as the railroads. The hope was to achieve wiggle room at the upcoming conferences.

In his Cannes, Jan. 11, 1922, speech, Rathenau argued against both the inflationary reparations program and the deflationary austerity program. He said that unemployment and doubling or trebling of taxes would equal the ruin of the German economy.

France’s Prime Minister Briand was receptive; but he was abruptly recalled to Paris, where he was forced to resign while the conference was still ongoing. But the Reparations Commission did grant the postponement of Germany’s debt payments that were to be due in January, February and April, and were replaced by payments-in-kind.

Rathenau was appointed foreign minister on January 31st.

The Russian Question

The trump card held by Rathenau was Russia. Rathenau had been engaged in a dialogue with the Russians since he had established a "Commission for the Study of Russian Affairs," in February of 1920. On March 10, 1920, he wrote a letter to Professor Hoffmann at Wilhelmshaven, on the project:

I am in complete agreement with you as to the necessity of finding some common ground between Russia and ourselves. At the present time Bolshevism is only a facade; what we are really confronted with is a rigidly oligarchic agrarian republic, which in spite of all its difficulties is, I believe, destined to last. True, it will be a long time before Russia is strong enough to grant us economic compensations...It is my hope that the labors of the Commission will bring about the first and decisive rapprochement in the economic sphere, to be followed, let us hope, by a corresponding rapprochement in the political sphere. [44]

February, 1918, Brest-Litovsk (now Brest, Belarus). German and Russian delegations greet each other at the train station, at start of negotiations for Brest-Litovsk Treaty. The Russians agree to pay compensations to Germany; but the later Treaty of Versailles will nullify the entire agreement. The man in the center, in the black cap, is Adolf Abramowitsche Joffe, later Russian ambassador to Berlin, and Rathenau's ally at Rapallo.

The Versailles Treaty’s nullification of the German/ Russian 1918 Treaty of Brest-Litovsk had left relations between the two countries in limbo. Bolshevik Russia had not been invited to the Paris Peace Conference, and, later, when the Allies established relations with the Russian government, the main item on the agenda was the question of Russia’s pre-war debts to the West.

The British planned to use the Genoa Conference in April—the first conference to which Russia was invited—to disrupt the dialogue which Rathenau had been conducting with the Russian ambassador to Germany, Adolph Joffe. Joffe would be at the Genoa Conference, accompanying Russian Foreign Minister Georgi Chicherin.

Lloyd George had promised Rathenau open public discussions at Genoa of the Russian question; but (not for the first time) he lied. Several days into the conference, Rathenau was handed the Allies’ proposal for a German/Russian treaty, negotiated with maximum pressure on Chicherin, and without German participation. Rathenau said to the Chair of the Genoa Conference, the Italian politician, Gianni:

"The agreement with Russia has been made without consulting us. You have arranged a nice dinner party to which we have not been invited, and now you ask us how we like the menu." [45]

On the morning of April 16, while the Genoa Conference was ongoing, Rathenau met with the Russian delegation at a seaside town outside of Genoa, called Rapallo, where they drew up a treaty of their own design, based on economic cooperation among equals. They presented the Rapallo Treaty as a fait accompli to the conference that afternoon. After a few days of hysteria, the delegates, and the international media gathered there, settled down, and Germany was even allowed to continue negotiations on its debt payment extensions. Rathenau was to return to Germany a success.

April, 1922: Rathenau and the Italian ambassador to Berlin, Alfredo Frassati, in Genoa, Italy, during the Genoa (Rapallo) Conference. Frassati was another of Rathenau's allies at the conference.

Afternoon of April 16, 1922: Following the Rapallo Treaty signing, Rathenau returns to the site of the Genoa Conference and is the center of attention.


But Rathenau knew what that "success" meant for him, personally. We saw earlier he had soberly written to Lili from Genoa, soon after his Rapallo victory: "There is not much more that I can do. The flame burns low."

In what was likely to have been a British Intelligence probe of his security, Rathenau was visited at his home, just a few days before the murder, by a Colonel Stuart Roddie, who was a member of the British embassy in Berlin, and what Count Kessler called a "confidant" of Lloyd George. Kessler interviewed Roddie later, and reported in his diary Roddie’s description of the evening. Whether or not events transpired as described by Roddie, the report is chilling:

He recalled how he visited Rathenau’s house in Grunewald three or four days before the assassination. As he drove up, he was stopped by two men in civilian clothes. Whom, they asked, did he want to see? He produced his papers and was allowed to pass. Going into the house, he heard music in a room to the right of the entrance, went in, and saw Rathenau seated at the piano, playing by candlelight. Rathenau jumped up and apologized. Roddie told him that he was glad to find that he was taking security precautions. This excited Rathenau immensly. He hurried to the telephone, rang up some office, and demanded categorically that the police protection be removed, saying that he forbade the molestation of his guests. By the time Roddie left, the police guard had disappeared. [46]

"He Lived Wonderfully"

On June 24th, Rathenau was shot multiple times, as he was driving just a few blocks from his house.

His home was turned into a museum, with everything left as it was that morning. On the second anniversary of his death, a journalist, Joseph Roth, reported on his visit to the house, in an article for the "Frankfurter Zeitung," June 24, 1924:

"I’m sorry to say that the Rathenau Museum is not open to the general public. To inspect the house on Konigsallee, you will need a pass from the keeper of paintings. Foreign visitors on the whole don’t want to put themselves to the trouble of visiting government premises in Berlin...[and] for the most part it is foreigners who want to see where the man—who died so terribly—lived.

He lived wonderfully. Among great books and rare objects, amid beautiful paintings and colors, with useless, sublime, tiny, fragile, impressive, tenderness-eliciting, powerful, dreamy things; surrounded by evidence of the human past, of human wisdom, human beauty, human strength, and human suffering: by the breath of the eternal human. That is what makes outlandish things seem familiar and foreign things at home here. Even the downright ‘exotic’ doesn’t dazzle, doesn’t overpower, confuse, or startle. Its surprise is gently administered. Distancing things extend an invitation. Intimate things are discreet. A loving hand has instinctively created order here. Following hidden inner laws, a prophetic eye has searched. A brilliantly imaginative pedantry has had its way here, classifying and bringing together. Everything here—the books, the cabinets, the tables—is lovingly and indulgently allowed the secret rhythm of its natural being.

The house is an organic whole, wisely divided into above and below: the upstairs with bedrooms and bathroom, guest room, and small private study and the more professional, more official downstairs, where there is also the main study, the desk of the man in public life (the one upstairs is that of the private citizen and writer—I almost said: poet.) Everywhere there are the books, the symbols of this life...There is almost no name in the great and unending history of literature that is not represented here.

There is a New Testament with the Greek text and Luther’s translation. Rathenau compared the translation with the original, noted points of difference, sprinkled astonished and quietly plangent question marks in the margin. Discrepancies are shot down with discreet little arrows, the texts are treated roughly as a military strategist would treat his field of operations on a General Staff map. He campaigned with thoughts, put errors to flight, surrounded them, conquered new worlds and distant works, allied himself with lasting powers. He was like a peaceful commander of the intellect; with love for the little beauties of daily life, the ornamental culture of domesticity. Upstairs, on his own, his very own personal walls, he hung pictures that he’d painted himself, the works of a writer who liked to dabble in other arts...

On his desk upstairs I saw a book called: German Youth and the Needs of the Hour. Oh, he always overestimated that part of German youth whose victim he was to be. In one room, on one table, in peaceful and significant proximity I found the wise old Shulchan Aruch, the religious rule book of Diaspora Orthodoxy, and the old Weissenfelsische Songbook [Lutheran Hymms]. Pervading the house and the being of this man was the spirit of conciliation. His life is characterized by its attempt to bring together antiquity, Judaism, and early Christianity. A strong chord of conciliation is sounded in the books he read and those he wrote. It was the effort to bring the various instruments of different cultural worlds within the ambit of a single orchestra. By day he read and studied the New Testament. It lay beside his bed to fill him with its love. He was a Christian; you won’t find a better one...

I walk past the place where he met his end. It is not true that a murder is just a murder. This one here was a thousandfold murder, not to be forgotten or avenged. [47]

"The Unity of Spiritual Responsibility"

Many others in Germany felt the same grief, though more vague, less eloquent. Kessler reported:

Not since the assassination of Abraham Lincoln has the death of a statesman so shaken a whole nation. The trades unions had decreed a general holiday throughout the Reich from midday Tuesday to early Wednesday morning. Stupendous processions, such as Germany had never witnessed, marched in order under the Republican flag through all the cities of the land. Over a million took part in Berlin, a hundred and fifty thousand in Munich and Chemnitz, a hundred thousand in Hamburg, Breslau, Elberfield, Essen. Never before had a German citizen been so honored. The response which had been denied to Rathenau’s life and thought was now accorded to his death. [48]

Left: June 25, 1922: One million people rally in Berlin- Oberschonenweide, in tribute to their fallen foreign minister. Count Kessler said: "The response which had been denied to Rathenau's life and thought was now accorded to his death." Right, a float bearing wreathes, in one of the rallies honoring Rathenau.


We end with a fitting eulogy, taken from the last section of John Finley’s article on Rathenau, written for the NY Times one week after the assassination. Finley lamented how brief his meeting with Rathenau had been. If only he had known the sure way to prolong the visit: ask Rathenau to play something on the piano for him. Rathenau likely would have obliged with the Waldstein, always his favorite.

As it was, the American was deeply affected by his visit with the industrialist/politician/poet/artist/musician. He ended his article with the following:

[Our meeting] was but a month before he came into office. And he did not forswear his views when entering the Cabinet. He was still convinced that the whole system of economic organization was to undergo a great change, under new capitalistic forms. But all this, he contended, must await popular support. He would not ‘drill firemen during a fire; ‘he would not, to use Lincoln’s homely illustration, ‘swap horses while crossing a stream.’ He was joining a cabinet ‘for doing things,’ and would try to find a way to reconcile the German people with the rest of the world—a way of coming to an understanding with their neighbors.

How fearlessly and effectively he began this reconciliating task, his successful negotiations with Loucheur showed. Heavy as the burden of reparations was, he insisted that the confidence of the world could be recovered only in the degree that the obligation was fulfilled, that the people of the earth were not 100 per cent chauvinists, that some people were fair-minded, that the only question was how great the sacrifice must be and that it was necessary to fulfill a duty which is a world duty.

It is difficult to believe that one who spoke these words could have signed the Rapallo Treaty with other than the honest purpose, which he states in his own apologia, as sent to me, or as Chancellor Wirth stated it, with his Minister of Foreign Affairs sitting near him in the attitude of the Penseur before the Reichstag. For Rathenau’s one possessing desire was to see the planetary spirit ‘struggling as an integer’ for the unity and solidarity of the human commonwealth and for the ‘unity of spiritual responsibility.’...

It would seem, he said, that the thing we seek, like the red glow of the sunset, could not spread across the skies and cover the earth ‘until the sun from which it radiates had set.’ But of this certainty he died possessed: that ‘that which has been created becomes part of the consciousness of the planetary spirit,’ and that it ‘matters nothing if the records on parchment, metal and stone have been destroyed.’ He would doubtless have added that it matters nothing if individuals go.

In his first speech before the Reichstag as Minister of Reconstruction he referred to the legend of Parsifal. The wound of Europe, he said, as that of Amfortas, chief of the Knights of the Holy Grail, would be healed only by the touch of the spear which had caused this otherwise mortal hurt. I had hoped that Rathenau himself would be the Knight Parsifal, who would recover the spear and touch with friendly hand the wound. Perhaps in his death he has actually accomplished this.


[1] "Open Letter to All Who Are Not Blinded by Hate," Dec., 1918, printed in Nach der Flut, As quoted in Rathenau: His Life and Work, Count Harry Kessler, 1930 (original German version, 1928)

[2] I am assuming that this musical evening, mentioned briefly in Rathenau’s diary, would have had all the musicians playing their customary instruments. It is possible that Rathenau may have played in informal ensembles that included Joachim, himself—the diary entries do not begin until 1907, the year of Joachim’s death. Walther Rathenau: Industrialist, Banker, Intellectual, and Politician: Notes and Diaries, 1907-1922, Hartmut P. von Strandman, editor, 1985.

In 1917, in a memorial on the death of Robert Mendelssohn, his friend, the violin dealer, Arthur Hill, wrote: "The death of Robert Mendelssohn removes a fine amateur violoncellist... I remember [him] calling upon us with Piatti and noted that his execution, for an amateur, when he played, was quite exceptional." Mendelssohn’s teacher, Carlo Alfredo Piatti, a professional cellist, played with Felix Mendelssohn, Joseph Joachim, and Johannes Brahms. For more on the Felix Mendelssohn, Joseph Joachim story, see: David Shavin’s article in EIR.

For the story of Einstein and his Violin, see Shawna Halevy’s article in EIR, May 11, 2012: "Einstein the Artist."

[3] As quoted in Kessler.

[4] "Report on Journey to the E. African Colony," 1907, in NOTES AND DIARIES, Strandman

[5] Einstein to Rathenau, March 8, 1917; Einstein to Pauline, Oct. 8, 1918, The Collected Papers of Albert Einstein, 2004. The second letter is as translated in Einstein in Berlin, Thomas Levenson, 2003

[6] "In Memoriam," printed in Neue Rundschau, Aug. 1922, as quoted in Einstein on Politics, David E. Rowe and Robert J. Schulman, 2007

[7] As quoted in The Einstein Dossiers: Science and Politics, Siegfried Grundmann, 2005

[8] Einstein much appreciated Rathenau’s writings on the subject. In a letter to Paul Mamroth, Einstein wrote: "The Judaism- Christianity issue must be answered variously...Rathenau himself wrote unofficially on the issue again, just a few weeks ago in eminently witty and fine style." From May 11, 1917, Collected Papers

[9] As quoted in Grundmann

[10] As quoted in Grundmann

[11] Einstein and the Poet: In Search of the Cosmic Man, William Hermanns, 2011

[12] As quoted in Kessler

[13] As quoted in Kessler

[14] "Rathenau’s Vision of a New World," John Finley, NY Times, July 2, 1922. or Search for "Rathenau’s Vision of a New World"

[15] As quoted in Kessler

[16] As quoted in NOTES

[17] Walther Rathenau and the Weimar Republic, David Felix, 1971

[18] NOTES

[19] As quoted in NOTES

[20] As quoted in Kessler

[21] As quoted in Kessler

[22] Rathenau to Fanny Kunstler, November 1, 1914, as quoted in Kessler.

[23] As quoted in NOTES

[24] As quoted in Kessler

[25] "Open Letter to All Who Are Not Blinded by Hate," Dec., 1918, printed in Nach der Flut, as quoted in Kessler

[26] Rathenau to Lili Deutsch, Dec. 22, 1911; Rathenau to Lili Deutsche, date unknown, as quoted in Kessler. Rathenau’s most revealing statements are taken from his correspondence with his women friends, particularly Lili Deutsch, the wife of his business partner, Felix Deutsch, Chairman of AEG. Rathenau’s relationship with Lili was intense, but not adulterous; and, despite the sometimes intimate tone of the letters, both correspondents wrote with an eye to future publication. In 1924, Lili turned the letters over to Count Harry Kessler for use in his account of Rathenau’s life, which, though hopelessly romanticized (with proto-fascist overtones, as his frequent references to Nietzsche reveals), yet has a particular usefulness, in that its English translation provides a wide selection of extensive quotes from Rathenau’s writings and correspondence, otherwise available only in the original German.

[27] As quoted in Kessler

[28] "Erlebte Judenfrage," by Kurt Blumenfeld, as quoted in Einstein in Berlin, Thomas Levenson, 2003

[29] Rathenau to Lili Deutsche, date unknown, as quoted in Kessler

[30] Rathenau to Frau Hindenburg, date unknown, as quoted in Kessler

[31] Einstein to Pauline, Oct. 8, 1918, The Collected Papers of Albert Einstein

[32] "In Memoriam"

[33] Rathenau to Lili Deutsche, June, 1921, as quoted in Kessler

[34] Kessler

[35] Rathenau to Herman Kroepelin, Jan. 20, 1912, as quoted in Kessler

[36] Rathenau to Lili Deutsche, date unknown; Rathenau to Lili Deutsche, July, 29, 1906, as quoted in Kessler

[37] Karl Klingler, first violinist of the Klingler Quartet, and formerly violist for Joseph Joachim’s quartet, not only maintained his close friendship with Rathenau, but also remained a close friend of Einstein, until Einstein left Berlin in 1933; and, beyond that time, remained a dear friend of Max Planck’s, throughout the war, including through that time that Planck’s son, a German officer, was killed by Hitler for his involvement in the resistance. A two-disc CD by the Klingler Quartet, recorded in London in the 1930’s, is available on It is called, "Klingler Quartet: The Joachim Tradition." Here is a recording of a Mozart violin/viola duet, played by Karl Klingler and an unnamed violist, likely his brother, Fridolin:

[38] Rathenau to Lili Deutsche, May 17, 1922, as quoted in Kessler

[39] NOTES

[40] As quoted in NOTES

[41] As quoted in Kessler

[42] As quoted in NOTES

[43] NOTES

[44] As quoted in Kessler

[45] As relayed by Kessler, himself, who was part of the German delegation to the conference.

[46] Berlin in Lights: The Diaries of Count Harry Kessler (1918-1937), Charles Kessler, ed., 2002

[47] What I Saw: Reports from Berlin 1920-1933, Joseph Roth, 2003

[48] Kessler