As a minister in the German cabinets of 1921-2, writes David Felix, Rathenau faced formidable problems of post-war reconstruction.
It is surprising that comparatively little note was taken of the hundredth birthday of Walther Rathenau in 1967. Not much more was published than a collection or two of his writings and a few appreciations in newspapers and magazines. Yet Rathenau combined Germany’s and Jewry’s joint tragedy in his life and works. The effect was to lead him into the crossfire of some of this century’s most important problems and eventually to kill him.
Rathenau was already recognized as a social and economic theorist, and known as an organizer of the German war effort in 1914-15, when he entered the cabinet of the Weimar Republic on May 29th, 1921. He moulded German foreign policy with grace and distinction through a continuous series of crises until his assassination a year and a month later.
Rathenau’s ideas and acts were both important, but historians have not been clear about the connection between them. His ideas had to do with improving the morals and efficiency of German society; but in office Rathenau had to make practical responses to Germany’s immediate perils—and this involved some contradiction.