100th anniversary of the death of Walther Rathenau
Apl. Prof. Dr. Ewald Grothe / History
Photo: UniService Transfer

"The enemy is on the right!"

Jahr100Wissen interview with historian apl. Prof. Dr. Ewald Grothe on the 100th anniversary of Walther Rathenau's death.

German industrialist, writer and liberal politician Walther Rathenau was assassinated in Berlin on June 24, 1922. Who was this man?

Grothe: He was a very fascinating man. It's not for nothing that there are portrayals that say he is, so to speak, a portrait of the entire era, i.e. the era of Wilhelminism and also the beginning of the Weimar Republic, in which there were many political, economic, social and cultural upheavals. The greatest turning point was, of course, the First World War. Rathenau was an intellectual, a cosmopolitan, he was Jewish and he combined various activities that were unusual. He united in himself the entrepreneur, politician and writer, three activities, which he also carried out in parallel, whereby already one activity would be enough for a whole life.

"From the outset, I want to confess that I am a Jew." With this sentence Rathenau begins his article entitled "Listen to Israel" in 1897 in the magazine "Die Zukunft." What was his purpose in doing so?

Grothe: It was a statement in the journal "Die Zukunft," edited by Maximilian Harden, which clearly contrasted with Theodor Herzl's writing "Der Judenstaat." In his study, Herzl had called for a separate state for the Jews, and it was to this that the Jews later referred when they founded the state in Israel. In it, Rathenau -- himself a Jew -- advocated the assimilation of the Jews, that is, the strongest possible integration of the Jews into the German nation. There was quite a lot of discussion in the 19th century about how Jewry now related to the German nation. The Jews living in Germany felt themselves to be Germans, but they had diminished rights, and this was discussed within and outside of German Jewry. Is emancipation, is assimilation, or is acculturation appropriate? The question was how far would German Jewry integrate, and Rathenau favored assimilation.

Rathenau was heavily involved in German armaments production during World War I and was also involved in the Reich government's war planning until he left the War Ministry in 1915. At a conference in the Prussian War Ministry on November 16, 1916, he called for the deportation of Belgian civilians for forced labor due to a war-related labor shortage. That was an extreme position, both economically and politically, wasn't it?

Grothe: It was an extreme attitude, certainly. It can be explained by Rathenau's general activities during the war. He was initially skeptical at the beginning of the war. There were also opponents of the war; not everyone was enthusiastic about the war in 1914. But Rathenau saw himself as having a responsibility, and he took it. In 1914/15, he headed the War Raw Materials Department in the Prussian War Ministry and also had hopes of being appointed State Secretary in the Reich Treasury, but unfortunately this did not materialize. Through this responsibility, he changed his attitude from an opponent of war to a supporter, whereby his main concern was that if Germany was now at war, it naturally had to end the war successfully. Anything else, from his point of view, would have been a disaster economically and politically with all its social consequences, i.e. he organized the armaments production of AEG, which was after all the company he worked for, and was prepared to invest a great deal in ideas on how Germany could now win the war. That was where this attitude came from, the question of how such necessary work could be carried out successfully under state management in cooperation with private companies. And then he went so far as to say that since there were Belgian civilians available, they would have to do forced labor to make Germany fit for war. He made a similar demand elsewhere: He wanted to bomb London by zeppelin, which is also a curious and also brutal idea, but his point was that Germany should win the war victoriously. Rathenau conceptually supported such offensive demands, but was neither concretely involved nor did he actively initiate this. Of course, he knew that this violated the Hague Convention (1907). Nevertheless, this led to his being threatened with a court martial after the war, which then did not materialize.

Rathenau took a hard stance on the war and even advocated its continuation. Why?

Grothe: He feared that the consequences of war would be quite considerable in the event of defeat. In general, he already considered the war a doom, but in the situation of the war itself, he was ready to go any way. Even shortly before the end of the war, he still advocated general mobilization. His call in October 1918, however, was not aimed at victory, but at improving his position for the armistice negotiations he was advocating at the same time. Rathenau advocated peace negotiations at a very early stage and opposed maximum demands for a peace treaty.

In 1918, he participated in the formation of the "Central Working Group of Industrial and Commercial Employers and Employees," which concluded the Stinnes-Legien Agreement. In this, employers and employees negotiate collective bargaining agreements. The following year, he published several programmatic writings on the restructuring of the economy and society. His model of a centrally planned economy was adopted by Lenin and Hitler's armaments minister Albert Speer, and later by Ludwig Erhard, for example. Can one say that his bright mind was ahead of its time?

Grothe: Yes and no. It has to be said that a great many plans were being considered at that time as to how to organize work, how ultimately to organize industrialization. People were looking for a balance between the private economy and the state-controlled economy. In the period of the first half of the 20th century, many of these plans existed, so you can't necessarily say he was ahead of his time. He was certainly one of many political and economic leaders who considered such plans. That a planned economy suits dictatorships better, see the examples of Lenin or Speer, that is of course quite clear, because the planned economy is after all the economic form in a dictatorship, be it right or left. The fact that Rathenau has such plans also has to do with the wartime situation, in which the economy cannot be organized completely freely as a market economy, but is directed by the state for certain purposes of the state. In Rathenau's case, however, there is also another attitude behind it. It is his attitude against excessive profits, against social imbalances, so that a combination of state planning and market economy comes into play there as well. The key word for him is 'public economy'. Interweaving private, cooperative and trade union forms of economy under state management was what he had in mind.

On January 31, 1922, Rathenau became Reich Foreign Minister, but because of his contradictory political stance from the very beginning he was also opposed from many sides. He was repeatedly accused of having participated in the "fulfillment policy. What was meant by that?

Grothe: Under the heading of "fulfillment politics," politicians were criticized, especially from the right-wing political side, for going very far in fulfilling the demands of the Treaty of Versailles (1919). However, the strategy of these politicians was to use the "fulfillment policy" to show the Allies that many things could not be fulfilled at all. The reparations, for example, could not be fulfilled. Therefore, a reform was needed, and this was negotiated again and again in many conferences and agreements during the course of the Weimar Republic. Rathenau, and later Gustav Stresemann, were counted among the so-called fulfillment politicians, who were criticized as such from the far right. It had become a polemical catchword against this kind of foreign policy. Turned positively, it was a policy of understanding aimed at a balance between the Allies and the German Reich.

Who was responsible for his assassination?

Grothe: The opponents were mainly on the right-wing political side. In this case, it was the Ehrhardt Naval Brigade or a conspiracy that also called itself the Consul Organization. The Brigade Erhardt had been founded by Corvette Captain Hermann Ehrhardt in 1919. These were free corps of marines who joined forces and, motivated by nationalism and anti-Semitism, were ready to carry out political murders. This was the case as early as 1921 with the Center politician and Reich Finance Minister Matthias Erzberger, who was shot in the Black Forest. The Consul organization was also involved, for example, in the attempted assassination in June 1922 of Philipp Scheidemann, the SPD politician who had carried out the proclamation of the Republic in 1918. Finally, it was three members of the Consul organization who shot Rathenau while he was traveling by car in Berlin. He died on the spot. The murder was not only a political assassination attempt on his person, but ultimately, symbolically and actually, an assassination attempt on the Republic. Today, one hundred years later, we see that political assassinations from right-wing or left-wing groups are by no means a thing of the past. We all still vividly remember the assassination of Kassel District President Walter Lübcke by a right-wing extremist in 2019, and the fact that Rathenau, as a Jew, was the victim of anti-Semites is no coincidence either. The startling topicality of right-wing extremism and anti-Semitism one hundred years after Rathenau's assassination must give us pause for thought.

After his death, the government introduced a law to protect the republic. What did this law contain?

Grothe: The Republic Protection Act is very controversial. There were two such laws, one from 1922 to 1929 and then a second from 1930 to 1932. The first law was passed by the SPD, DDP and USPD after Rathenau's murder. It banned events and publications by organizations that violated the constitution, it toughened penalties against political assassinations, it established a state court to try political crimes. There was determined opposition to it, partly because there were also groups in the Reichstag that were quite sympathetic to anti-republican organizations. And it was also difficult to bring this law into line with the constitution, because the State Court then had the reputation of being a special court. It was a kind of emergency law, because people recognized the danger to the Republic. Reich Chancellor Joseph Wirth then formulated in the Reichstag, "The enemy is on the right!" He was undoubtedly right.

An English historian called Rathenau the "patron saint" of German democracy. Was he right?

Grothe: There are many similar terms for Rathenau. This formulation of the patron saint comes from the British historian Patrick Graham Williamson in 1975. Rathenau is someone who stood up for the Weimar Republic and therefore a symbolic figure, I would rather call it, who defended liberal democracy, the republic. There were several such symbolic figures, among whom I would also include Friedrich Ebert, Philipp Scheidemann, Hugo Preuß, and Moritz Julius Bonn. Several politicians are eligible for such a designation who were quite instrumental in the founding of the Republic, an adoption of a democratic constitution, the installation of the Republic and thus democracy. Rathenau's document estate of over 70,000 pages was confiscated by the Soviets in 1945 and is still stored in Moscow today. Is scholarly work even possible there now under the current political conditions?

Grothe: No, under the current conditions it is absolutely unthinkable. The documents were made available relatively late anyway. There was also a time when it was not known where the documents were stored at all. The scope of the estate is very large, over 900 files. I have once looked at the Findbuch online in German translation. One quickly realizes how valuable this estate is. It consists of correspondence, many articles, some of them still unpublished, speeches, diaries and also photos. So a Rathenau biography, of which there are surprisingly many, cannot be written with a scientific claim without the use of this estate. But at the moment such a thing is not possible at all. It is a problem anyway that there are holdings from German archives and libraries that have not been returned to this day. Rathenau's estate was confiscated in 1945 and then transported to Moscow. Unfortunately, negotiations on the repatriation of these archival records have not yet been successful. As long as the documents are at least accessible, we scientists are already greatly helped. It becomes very unfortunate when now, in wartime, the Russian archives are not accessible at all. This is a real hindrance to historical research.

Uwe Blass

Apl. Prof. Dr. Ewald Grothe studied history, public law and legal history in Marburg. He habilitated in Wuppertal in 2003 and teaches Modern and Contemporary History at Bergische Universität. He has been an associate professor since 2009.

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