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052 Walter Rathenau and the raw materials for a war

Walter Rathenau

Walter Rathenau

Reconciliation vain hope in Germany

 It is Sunday 20 June 1915. It is the 52nd week after the shooting in Sarajevo.

During an attack on Gallipoli the French lose 2,500 men, but the Turks have to sacrifice almost double that number for their defence.

Lemberg, present-day Lviv in the Ukraine, falls into the hands of the Austrians again.

In Galicia the Eighth Army and Eleventh Army of the Russians beat the retreat.

German submarine U-40 thinks they are stopping a British trawler in the North Sea, but in reality this Taranaki is a Q-ship, a decoy vessel, which is in direct contact with a British submarine, which will torpedo U-40.

In East Africa British troops ‘celebrate’ a hard-won victory on the Germans with rape and pillaging in the port of Bukoba on Lake Victoria.

On the Isonzo front, between the Adriatic Sea and Monte Santo, the Italians start a large-scale attack  with an artillery bombardment.

Under pressure of parliament, the Duma, Tsar Nicholas II discharges his Minister of War, Vladimir Sukhomlinov, who is the man responsible for the deplorable state in which the Russian army went to battle.

And in Germany the industrialist Emil Rathenau dies, after which the management of the AEG-concern is passed on to his son Walther Rathenau.

‘Knallt ab den Walther Rathenau, die gottverdammte Judensau’. Those are the nauseating lyrics that mark the transition from the First to the Second World War. On 24 June 1922 Walther Rathenau is indeed shot dead like a damned Jewish pig. With his death the hope for lasting peace after a Great War is drowned. Of course this is an interpretation in hindsight, but also in the Weimar Republic of those days the assassination of the Minister of Foreign Affairs was like a blow with a sledgehammer, though Rathenau was not the first or last politician to be killed in the new Germany.

It is also tempting to draw a parallel between the murder of Walther Rathenau and the assassination of Franz Ferdinand, eight years earlier. Then it was Sarajevo, now it is Berlin. In both cases a handful of young conspirators, affected by extreme-nationalistic ideals. Then it was The Black Hand, now Organisation Consul. In Berlin the terrorists have not come on foot, but they drive their car by the side of Rathenau’s. One attacker opens fire, while the other throws a grenade. Then it was the starting signal for a war, now it is a shot in the back for peace.

Who was Walther Rathenau? In his own words: ‘I am a German of Jewish descent. My people is the German people. My Fatherland is Germany. And my religion is that German faith which is above all religious.’ And in his mother’s words, which she wrote to the mother of one of the assassins: ‘My son was the noblest man the earth bore.’ And finally in the words of publicist Sebastian Haffner: ‘He was an aristocratic revolutionary, an idealistic economic planner, a Jew who was a German patriot who was a liberal citizen of the world… He combined within himself qualities that in another person would have been dangerously incompatible. In him, the synthesis of a whole sheaf of cultures and philosophies became not thought, not deed, but a person.’

You could also call Walther Rathenau one of the most tragic characters of the twentieth century. A key figure in any case, in whom all hope and despair are joined. A Jew who could not be a German. The patriot who was seen as a traitor. The bachelor who passed for a homosexual. The captain of industry, who was in pursuit of a more just society. The war planner, who afterwards wanted to secure peace, but was not supposed to succeed in this.

He was born a child of a time that became more and more modern at a rapid pace. His father, Emil Rathenau, was introduced to Thomas Alva Edison’s electric light bulb in 1881. He immediately saw its potential and succeeded in acquiring the German rights. Two years later he founded the Allgemeine Elektrizitäts Gesellschaft, the AEG. When Emil Rathenau dies on 20 June 1915, his son Walther is the first man of the company, also in name. In fact he had already reached that position years before the war. But also outside the company Rathenau the younger had made his mark as a visionary economist, who had empowered the German economy especially through the formation of cartels. In the long run he also foresaw a mid-European customs union, with Germany as the epicentre.

Rathenau was also a cultured and well-read man. He painted, played the piano, wrote poetry and books on politics, philosophy and economics. As an intellectual and a society figure he was in touch with distinguished artists and writers. Author Joseph Roth once said about Rathenau: ‘In everything he read or wrote, there was always the urge to reconcile’. And yet it was this very man who supported the German war economy as no other. There are historians who maintain that Germany would have been swept away in the first year of the First World War, if Walther Rathenau had not raised his finger.

In August 1914 Rathenau is the man chosen to keep the German war machine afloat. After Krupp, his own AEG becomes the biggest supplier to the army and the navy. But Rathenau’s war effort extends itself to far beyond his own company. When the British trade block forces the Germans to cut their coats according to their cloth, Rathenau introduces the Kriegsrohstoffabteilung, the KRA, in the German Ministry of War. He starts this Raw Materials for War Department with three employees and after some sampling he comes to the conclusion that German industry will have bled to death within six months. At the end 2,500 people are employed by the KRA and Germany can face up to the war. In October 1915 The Times calls Rathenau’s KRA ‘one of the best ideas of modern times’. Rathenau was personally in charge until March 1915.

Rathenau masters recycling and finding Ersatz raw materials to perfection. Companies have to present their balance of raw materials on a monthly basis. That is also the core of his influential management philosophy: separation of ownership and control.

He had warned that war would break out. On 1 August 1914 he wrote in his diary that he was very pessimistic about what was to come. But Rathenau, too, will embrace the war as a purification of the narrow-minded middle-class. We see him again as a true patriot, a hawk even, who recommends, for example, to use tens of thousands of Belgians as forced labour in German industry. He gets along extremely well with Erich Ludendorff, who will implement the war agenda together with Paul von Hindenburg.

Walther Rathenau wants to be more German than German. Already in 1897 he called upon the Jews of Germany to assimilate completely in the German people, who he admired for their courage and robustness. This pamphlet was called ‘Höre, Israel’. Later he would be ashamed of it. This embarrassment went hand in hand with the painful awareness that antisemitism was unavoidable, that he, too, was doomed to remain a second-rate citizen in Germany. Bernhard von Bülow, Reich’s Chancellor in the first decade of the twentieth century, remembered his first meeting with him. Rathenau introduced himself as follows: ‘Let me, before I am honoured by the favour of being received by you, make a statement that is at the same time a confession.’ Then he paused for a little while. ‘Your Highness, I am a Jew.’

He should never have been able to get through to the officer’s exam, but now, thanks to the war, he had the rank of general. Could it be that the war provided new opportunities for a fairer society for everyone? Rathenau, who had seen his political aspirations go up into thin air before the war, must have believed in it. But he was terribly wrong.

Immediately after the outbreak of the First World War the German government was under pressure of the right wing to scrutinize the war effort of Jews with a Judenzählung. Later it would become clear that more Jews had left the war dead, wounded or decorated than could have been expected on the basis of their numbers in society. But the picture of the treacherous Jew, ducking away, was ineradicable, creating its own dynamics. An increasing number of Jews started to long for a new Germany, a post-war Germany.

Meanwhile at the end of the war Walther Rathenau turns against a hasty armistice. He thinks that a Germany that keeps on fighting could secure better conditions with the allies. That attitude will indeed sidetrack him in the years following the war. It is Catholic Chancellor Joseph Wirth who calls upon him in 1921 to  tackle the reconstruction of Germany. Erfüllungspolitik would be part of the game. Wirth and Rathenau think that it would be advisable if Germany complied with the provisions of Versailles, including the war reparations, as best as possible. Their Germany would have to walk the extra mile and reconcile with the new realities. That policy turns them into traitors of the German cause for every rightwinger. When on top of that Rathenau concludes a treaty with the Soviet Union in 1922, the red Jew’s reputation as a traitor is a fait accompli. The extreme-right free corps march the streets, singing ‘Knallt ab den Walther Rathenau’.

According to British ambassador Edgar d’Abernon, Rathenau knew he was going to be assassinated. He had told him often enough. A month before his death papal nuncio Eugenio Pacelli also paid a visit to Chancellor Wirth. A priest had told the later Pope Pius XII that there was a conspiracy against minister Rathenau of Foreign Affairs. Wirth then insisted that Rathenau started working on extra police protection, but the latter continued to refuse.

On the day of his funeral hundreds of thousands of workers paraded the streets of the German towns. It was a protest against political violence and a tribute to the man the new democracy had needed so badly, a man who had promised them a just society where an even distribution of property and income were both morally and economically imperative.

In the decade after his death Walther Rathenau remained a subject of worship. His death inspired democratic Germans to be vigilant. Already a day after the attack Chancellor Wirth had told the Reichstag where the danger came from in the new Germany: ‘The enemy is on the right.’ And we now know that he did not just stand there.

Once in power the nazis turned Walther Rathenau’s assassins into heroes. Two of them, Erwin Kern and Hermann Fischer, had fled after the attack. They had not succeeded in leaving the country and had decided to get away by bike. Both went into hiding in an old castle ruin in Thuringia, but soon the couple became too conspicuous. In a gunfight with the police Kern was shot in the head, after which Fischer ended his own life. From the castle tower they had called out to Germany: ‘We will die for our ideals.’

Next week: Luigi Cadorna

Tom Tacken (translation Peter Veltman)



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