Walther Rathenau (1867-1923): Jewish Foreign Minister and Tormented Jew
In the course of our long history Jews have occupied the highest government offices. An outstanding period of such excellence was the "Golden Age" in Spain lasting some 200 years. Shmuel ha-Naggid was the commander in chief of the Sultan’s army. Chasdai ibn Shaprut was minister of finance to his king. Besides the period of the Court Jews in Central Europe in the 17th and 18th centuries, it is only in recent times that Jews have reached Cabinet posts.
Luigi Lazzati was foreign minister in Italy before World War 1. Leon Blum was prime minister in France before World War II. Denmark had a Jewish minister of finance, Cohn, before World War 1 (in fact he was strictly Orthodox and is known as the minister who kept the three Scandinavian kings waiting until Shabbat was over before he would leave for an important royal conference in Malmoe in southern Sweden.) Finland’s Jewish foreign minister, Jakobson, almost became secretary general of the united Nations. Henry Kissinger’s name comes to mind as a recent Jewish secretary of state -- equivalent of foreign minister.
In these days the latest Jewish foreign minister has entered the arena of Jewish pride: Malcolm Rifkind of Great Britain. It is to Prime Minister John Major’s credit that he appointed Rifkind -- a traditional Jew from Scotland -- to the post, despite grumbling from Arab tyrants, such as Qadaffi or Libya. A hundred years ago, this could not have happened in the United States. When Henry Morgenthau helped Woodrow Wilson win the election as president, everybody expected that he would be appointed secretary of state or some other Cabinet post. But Wilson wavered and sent him to Constantinople to be American ambassador.
The case of Walther Rathenau, the German foreign minister after World War I, was, however, quite a different case.
Rathenau came from a highly cultured but assimilated Jewish family in Berlin. His father Emil Rathenau, had acquired Thomas Edison’s European patent rights and had founded the Allgemeine Elektrizitaets Gesellschaft (AEG), the equivalent of General Electric in this country.
His son Walther grew up in a very affluent and highly cultured home. Walther’s genius extended beyond science, he was also a deep-thinking philosopher and author. The conflict he felt with his Jewishness arose soon in his youth. On the one hand he admired the Nordic Germans, but on the other -- after years of brooding -- he realized that the Jews had a great future. He lived through the Dreyfus tragedy, which -- as in the case of Theodor Herzl -- turned his mind to Zion as a possible solution for the Jewish people.
Yet he was tormented throughout his life with the problem of finding a place for the Jew in German society. Although he reached the highest circles, even under the Kaiser before 1918, he knew that he was the eternal outsider. This almost drove him to hostility toward his town people, which however, he ultimately turned into sympathy and admiration. While he once thought the Jew was basically a tweckmencsh -- he later emphasized the Jewish geist (spirit) as the predominant Jewish feature.
In my childhood I saw rows of books of Rathenau’s writings, which were strictly literary and cultural. Very seldom was anything political found there, although he rose to the rank of minister of reconstruction. My late father was a great admirer of Rathenau and this admiration went beyond the tragic, almost predictable end of the great Jewish statesman.
After World War 1 the Weimar Republic appointed Rathenau as minister of foreign affairs. Rathenau did everything to alleviate the hardships that German’s surrender to the Allies incurred. His Nazi enemies, however, accused him of favoring Russia over Germany, which of course was preposterous. But to the Nazis, no Jew could be accepted as a true patriot.
And so in 1923, a handful of Nazi hoodlums ambushed Rathenau and shot him to death.
Here, however, follows a sequel to this sad story of which we heard more about in my childhood than about his accomplishment as foreign minister. The mother of Rathenau appeared before the judge, who was about to convict his murderers -- and pleaded for their lives and freedom! Only a Jewish mother could show such an extreme gesture of mercy and compassion. Once of his assassins upon being released from jail joined the French Foreign Legion, and in a gesture of atonement, is said to have helped a large number of Jews escape from the Germans in Marseilles in 1940.
The memory of Walther Rathenau, a true Renaissance man who lived centuries beyond his times, should live on as a source of pride to every student of Jewish history.
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