In This Review

Walther Rathenau: Weimar's Fallen Statesman
Walther Rathenau: Weimar's Fallen Statesman
By Shulamit Volkov
Yale University Press, 2012, 256 pp

During the first decades of the twentieth century, Walther Rathenau headed one of Germany’s largest corporations, penned thoughtful works of social philosophy, and served briefly as the Weimar Republic’s foreign minister, before anti-Semitic radicals gunned him down in 1922. As a businessman, intellectual, moderate politician, unconverted Jew, and perhaps also gay man, he symbolizes the progressive forces that eventually failed to block the Nazi cataclysm. Much has been written about him, but Volkov’s short biography focuses uniquely on Rathenau’s inner ambivalence and conflict. His arrogant, distant, contradictory, and meddling persona triggered vicious hatred but also fascinated great novelists, such as Robert Musil. In his public writings and speeches, Rathenau criticized capitalists, Jews, partisan politicians, nationalists, and modern artists, yet in his private life, he cultivated and emulated them. Volkov believes Rathenau’s inner turmoil stemmed largely from his Jewishness, which set him apart. Yet perhaps Volkov underestimates how much Rathenau was a man of his times. With so many social conflicts swirling about, anyone who sought to reconcile and reform the disparate elements of German society was destined to become a man with too many qualities.