On 24 June 1922 the German Foreign Minister, Walther Rathenau, was assassinated by right-wing extremists. It was a significant moment in the history of the Weimar Republic and the rise of Nazism, but the centenary of his murder has barely been mentioned in the English-speaking world.
In Germany, by contrast, there have been a number of events commemorating the assassination of one of Germany’s leading industrialists, intellectuals and statesmen. The week of events began with a wreath-laying ceremony on the morning of June 24 at the site of the murder in Koenigsallee in Berlin-Grunewald. Wreaths were laid by the German President and the Mayor of Berlin. Two things were surprising about this event. First, there were so few people there. Second, the spectators were outnumbered by security men. Presumably, the authorities feared some extremist attack. Whether by anti-Semites or far-Right terrorists, it is hard to say.
After the wreath-laying, there were two conferences, the first at the German Historical Museum on Unter den Linden; the second, a public panel discussion, “From Rapallo to Mariupol: Walther Rathenau and the German relationship to Russia”, at the University of Applied Sciences in Berlin. There was also a Commemoration event at the Rathenau family grave in the forest cemetery on the outskirts of Berlin and an exhibition in Rathenau’ s country home, Schloss Freienwalde.
Rathenau was the older son of Emil Rathenau, one of the great industrialists of late 19th century Germany, founder of the (AEG), Germany’s pre-eminent electrical engineering company. It was one of the great Jewish dynasties of late 19th century Europe, along with the Gunzburgs, the Rothschilds and the Ephrussis. Walther Rathenau held senior posts in the Raw Materials Department of the War Ministry during the First World War and became chairman of AEG upon his father’s death in 1915. Appointed Foreign Minister in February 1922, he soon angered right-wing extremists by negotiating the with the , which was signed on 16 April 1922. In fact the treaty implicitly recognised secret German –Soviet collaboration begun in 1921 that provided for the rearmament of Germany, including German-owned aircraft being manufactured in Russian territory.
When Rathenau was murdered, Kafka famously remarked that it was “incomprehensible that they should have let him live as long as that”. That same year, in 1922, Kafka watched students of the German University in Prague riot rather than receive their diplomas from a Jewish rector. In Ukraine, between 1918-21, there were more than a thousand pogroms. In central and eastern Europe, from Berlin and Prague to Kyiv, there was an extraordinary outburst of antisemitic violence. The murder of Rathenau was just one of the most famous examples.
In November 1921, a few months before his assassination, his friend Stefan Zweig met Rathenau in Berlin. In his memoir, The World of Yesterday, Zweig wrote, “ With some hesitation I called him in Berlin. How could I think of bothering a man who was busy shaping the destiny of our time?”
On the subject of Rathenau’s appointment as Germany’s first Jewish Foreign Minister, Zweig wrote, “He was fully aware of the twofold responsibility he bore because he was a Jew. There can have been few men in history who have taken on a challenge with so much scepticism and so full of inner misgivings, knowing that the problem could not be solved by him but only by time – and fully aware of the risk to him.”
Zweig was right. So was Kafka. Rathenau was picked up by his chauffeur from his palatial villa in Grunewald and driven to the Foreign Ministry in an open-top car every morning. He was an easy target. Zweig wrote in his memoir, “Seeing the photographs later, I realised that the road we had travelled together was the very one where the murderers lay in wait, not long afterwards, for the same car; it was only by chance, really, that I was not on the scene to witness this historically fateful act at first hand… [This was] the tragic episode that marked the beginning of Germany’s – and Europe’s – calamity.”
Of course, Rathenau was just one of a series of assassinations by the far-Right in Germany during this period. Other victims included Rosa Luxemburg, Karl Liebknecht, Hugo Haase and Matthias Erzberger. As the historian Sir Richard Evans wrote in The Coming of the Third Reich, “Political violence reached fresh heights in 1923, a year marked not only by the bloody suppression of an abortive Communist uprising in Hamburg but also by gun battles between rival political groups in Munich and armed clashes involving French-backed separatists in the Rhineland… It was in this atmosphere of national trauma, political extremism, violent conflict and revolutionary upheaval that Nazism was born.”
Less than twenty years later, members of Rathenau’s family fled to Oxford, Paris, New York and Switzerland. Others were less lucky. Dr. Kurt Rathenau (1880-1942) and his wife Else died in the Minsk Ghetto in 1942. Georg Rathenau’s second wife died in Munich in 1942. Her cause of death was apparently “Holocaust: suicide?”
Finally, it is worth noting that the US TV news networks and the British media were not very interested in the centenary of Walther Rathenau’s murder. He was one of Europe’s leading industrialists and statesmen immediately after the First World War and also a writer of considerable originality. Yet the centenary of his murder has passed almost unnoticed in the English-speaking world. It is just one sign of the troubling parochialism of our media.
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