Walther Rathenau: The Life of Weimar’s Fallen Statesman

Shulamit Volkov, Author
Shulamit Volkov. Yale Univ, $25 (256p) ISBN 978-0-300-14431-4
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Imagine that Jeffrey Immelt, CEO of GE, were also an influential public philosopher who published numerous books on society and political affairs and you will begin to get a sense of Walther Rathenau (1867–1922). The longtime head of AEG, the German counterpart to GE, he was briefly Germany’s foreign minister before being murdered by fascist anti-Semites. In this entry in Yale’s Jewish Lives series, historian Volkov, professor emerita at Tel Aviv University, is, appropriately, particularly interesting on Rathenau’s Jewishness. He declared his identity outright in Germany’s increasingly hostile atmosphere and, unlike many ambitious German Jews, refused to convert. Yet he internalized some of the worst anti-Semitic stereotypes, writing of the “medieval qualities” of the Jewish proletariat. Volkov also examines the nuances and contradictions of Rathenau’s writings. Here was one of Germany’s leading industrialists yet he wrote critically of the “mechanization” of modern life. Volkov captures especially well the socially awkward and often lonely man who never married and may have been gay (an issue she judiciously never resolves). Volkov’s well-researched and written book has a few of the gaps and flaws of a short biography, but it has far more strengths as a fascinating introduction to an important, multifaceted early 20th-century figure. (Jan.)
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