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It was a bitter realization for Rathenau, as it was for many other Jews in Imperial-era Germany and the early Weimar Republic: no matter how successful they were professionally, no matter how much they supported the state and society, no matter how hard they they had fought in World War I, they ultimately remained marginalized in society. And the anti-Semites hated them simply because they were Jews.

In 1918 Rathenau wrote in his essay State and Judaism: a controversy that “early in life, every German Jew will experience a painful moment that he will remember all his life: when for the first time he realizes that he has come into the world as a second-class citizen and that there is no amount of hard work and no merit can free him from this position.

A Jew cannot be official

Young Rathenau was by no means lacking in skill or merit, or privilege. His father was Emil Rathenau, a renowned industrialist and founder of the AEG electrical corporation. Walther later joined the company, which would play a major role in weapons production during the First World War.

Before that, he had tried to make a career in the military and diplomacy. It was there that he experienced the “glass ceiling” for Jews: in the German Empire, positions as military officers or in the higher civil service were not an option for them. In German society at the time, Jews were considered untrustworthy or had unclear loyalties.

As a young man, Rathenau aspired to a career in the military.

Rathenau biographer Shulamit Volkov sees Rathenau’s biography as the “quintessence of German Jewish history”. For him, Rathenau embodied the “attempt to reconcile Jewish and German identities without ever feeling comfortable with one or the other.”

nationalist streak

However, Rathenau was definitely a nationalist, sometimes even a warmonger: as chairman of the supervisory board of AEG, he was involved in the planning of the First World War. For a time he organized the entire management of German raw materials for the war effort; recommended the deportation of Belgian civilians to Germany for forced labor; and even after the 1918 armistice he was still in favor of continuing the war.

All this only temporarily earned him the sympathies of the reactionary right, which had never come to terms with the defeat of Germany and the Versailles peace agreement of 1919. As Minister of Reconstruction in 1921 and then from 1922 as Foreign Minister under Reichscancellor Joseph Wirth, the politician The Right saw him as one of the politicians who gave themselves up to the victorious powers and tried to meet their unreasonable demands for redress. These critics failed to realize that the post-war German government had been left with no choice but to comply after the military surrender.

As a Jew, Walther Rathenau came under increasing attack in an increasingly anti-Semitic climate.

He received no credit for his role in negotiating the Treaty of Rapallo in April 1922, which was instrumental in normalizing the German Reich’s relations with the Soviet Union and led to the renunciation of claims for mutual reparation.

Right-wing assassination series

Rathenau was assassinated just six months after his appointment as foreign minister, on June 24, 1922, by members of the far-right organization Consul.

Other high-profile Jewish victims in the early years of the Weimar Republic included Communists Rosa Luxemburg and Kurt Eisner in 1919. Eisner’s assassin, Anton Graf von Arco auf Valley, showed no remorse, saying, “Eisner is a Bolshevik, he is a Bolshevik.” Jewish, he is not German, he does not feel German, he undermines all patriotic thoughts and feelings, he is a traitor to the fatherland.” Ironically, Arco himself had a mother of Jewish descent.

But after 1933, things were going to get much worse. When Adolf Hitler came to power, Jews were first removed from all prominent positions in social life, before being systematically murdered in the Holocaust.

A Jewish chancellor for Germany?

To this day, almost 80 years after the end of National Socialism, there has been no other minister of the Jewish government at the federal level in Germany.

The United Kingdom had a prime minister of Jewish origin already at the end of the 19th century: Benjamin Disraeli, a swell like several Jewish ministers in recent decades (such as Malcolm Rifkind and Nigel Lawson). In Hitler’s native Austria. Bruno Kreisky, whose father was Jewish, became chancellor in 1970.

In 2018, the Jewish writer and political scientist Rafael Seligmann told the Rhine Mail regional newspaper, was convinced that a Jew could become the head of Germany’s government: “If a Jewish candidate were to win over his competitors in his party, he too would have good prospects of being nominated and supported even by those with anti-Semitic tendencies.” «

While you’re here: Every Tuesday, DW editors round up what’s happening in German politics and society. You can sign up for the weekly Berlin Briefing email newsletter here.

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