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  • The Father, the Son, and the Human Soul: Reflections on Walther Rathenau’s Life and Work
  • Shulamit Volkov (bio)

Walther Rathenau is best known as Weimar Germany’s foreign minister, murdered in full daylight on June 24, 1922, while riding in his open-roof coupe along the elegant Königsallee in Grunewald, Berlin-West.1 Some also identify him as the son of Emil Rathenau—that famous Generaldirektor of the pioneering electrical concern, the Allgemeine Elektricitäts-Gesellschaft (AEG)—and eventually an industrial baron in his own right, surely in his generation among Germany’s wealthiest and most powerful businessmen. The attitude of this highly assimilated Jew towards his co-religionists, publicly criticizing them for what he considered their foreign looks and foreign manners, was often considered paradigmatic for that famous or rather infamous Jewish self-hate, not unknown among other outstanding German Jews at the time, and chapters of his political career during and prior to the Weimar period are sometimes mentioned in the literature, too. Only specialists would know that he was also a very prolific writer, indeed an intellectual of some standing and some influence.2

Almost throughout his life, beginning in early adulthood, Walther Rathenau was in the habit of cultivating an ever-growing circle of friends and correspondents. Since the late 1890s, he moved in the intellectual circles of Berlin, part of the illustrious urban elite of the Prussian capital, including the rich, the powerful, and the bright, the upper crust of a prosperous metropolis. In the elegant salons of Grunewald, at the western outskirts of town, he met, among industrialists, financiers, and highly placed government officials, some of Berlin’s most successful authors and artists, and occasionally a sampling of the outstanding academic men in town. This, moreover, was never a provincial milieu. It was open to the right kind of visitors from elsewhere [End Page 625] in Germany as well as from abroad, especially from that other major metropolitan center of German culture, namely Vienna. By the early twentieth century, Hofmannsthal, for instance, was more often in Berlin than in his own hometown, as was Max Reinhardt, the renowned theater director, and others. With some of these Rathenau was on friendly terms; with others he corresponded, if only sporadically; and with a selected few he actually managed to preserve a friendly contact for many years.3 Stefan Zweig, Hermann Bahr, and Fritz Mauthner were among his Viennese acquaintances. At one point, he even exchanged letters with Theodor Herzl, a rather unlikely pen-mate for the deeply assimilated upper-bourgeois Jew from Berlin.4 If Robert Musil’s description of the milieu in which Rathenau—or his apparent namesake in Musil’s The Man without Qualities, Dr. Arnheim—had been moving when he visited Vienna is any indication, he was honored and welcomed in the most prestigious circles of the city’s high society.

This may explain why he never met Freud, who clearly did not belong to these circles. On the whole, neither the elite of Berlin nor that of Vienna included too many university men or medical doctors. A few did manage to be among the guests at such illustrious gatherings: the historian Friedrich Meinecke or the theologian Adolf von Harnack, for example; later on Einstein, though rather infrequently; but neither Max Weber, nor the Nobel Laureate bacteriologist Robert Koch, for instance; and not Freud. Pressing family responsibilities and a large practice made it difficult for him to socialize too intensively at home or travel too often abroad. And while being Jewish was usually not a sufficient reason for exclusion, neither did it help. In fact, other Jews, though usually converted ones, easily managed to become part of the German-speaking elites in Central Europe; the Rathenaus were clearly among them. But they were outstandingly rich and powerful, while Freud’s was neither. They were occasionally even brilliant, while his reputation was rather dubitable. Since he was for long not even a university professor, he could hardly become a member of this exclusive milieu. In addition, psychoanalysis was far from being in fashion among the mighty—in Berlin, Vienna, or elsewhere. As late as March 1918, Rathenau wrote dismissively about a series...


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pp. 625-650
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