- - Friday, May 4, 2012

By Shulamit Volkov
Yale University Press, $25, 240 pages

If, as historians have increasingly come to believe, the 20th century’s two world wars were in fact one conflict, then German Foreign Minister Walther Rathenau, murdered by anti-Semitic zealots in 1922, was as much one of its casualties as any soldier who died on its battlefields or perished in one of its death camps.

Rathenau was a talented businessman and statesman who helped build up Germany’s industrial might and served his country in some of its most trying times. Yet to those murderous thugs, caught up in the madness that would increase exponentially until it culminated in the foul ideology of Nazism, he was simply a Jew, whose patriotism and heroic efforts on behalf of their common Fatherland were anathema simply because of that. Although Shulamit Volkov, professor emerita of Modern European History at the University of Tel-Aviv, begins her book with Rathenau’s assassination, the focus of her brief but incisive and probing study is on his contributions:

“It was his life, many-sided, dramatic, full of inner conflicts, unusually productive and creative in so many ways, not his tragic death, that made a difference: The life of a German and a Jew, struggling with this double identity, insisting on the compatibility of its components, and thereby exposing again and again his deep, tender humanity.”

Published as part of Yale’s “Jewish Lives” series, Ms. Volkov’s biography, perhaps inevitably, focuses on this dichotomy, although certainly not to the exclusion of other aspects. It seems clear from her own text, though, that her subject would have been at best very uncomfortable - and perhaps outright enraged - at such a focus. For Rathenau was not only the very prototype of the assimilated German Jew, but a fervent nationalist, who rejected other identities and ideologies, especially socialism and Zionism.

To be sure, his nationalism was poles apart from that of his killers’ deathly creed. In the dark days following Germany’s defeat, when he and his compatriots were awaiting the judgment of the victors at Versailles, he wrote a passionate appeal to President Wilson’s right-hand man, Col. House, warning of the consequences of a harsh peace:

“The German spirit, which sang and thought for the world, will turn into a thing of the past … and a people still young and strong today, created by God for life, will exist in a state of living death.”

It is impossible to read these impassioned words without mourning that they went unheeded, of millions dying because of the “state of living death” he had prophesied.

For Rathenau, that German spirit was the very soul of the Enlightenment, fount of the literature and music and idealist philosophy which Germany had contributed to culture. He reveled in that tradition and in the political emancipation it had brought Jews with the proclamation of the German Empire in 1871, only four years after his birth. With a few exceptions, like the elite officer corps in the military, German Jews were free to benefit from and contribute to most aspects of society.

Emil Rathenau, Walter’s father, had acquired the European patent rights to Thomas Edison’s electrical inventions and built on that to create the continent’s dominant commercial conglomerate in that sphere. Despite Walther’s difficult relationship with Emil, he followed him into the family business, carrying it to new levels before he reluctantly entered politics in the crisis years of the postwar Weimar Republic. Although Ms. Volkov’s emphasis is necessarily on Rathenau’s public life, she does not neglect the private man, diffident, enigmatic yet passionate, hobbled but not undone by demons, examining all these facets intuitively and with tact.

A century and a half before Rathenau’s death, a seminal work of the German - and indeed the entire European - Enlightenment was written by Gotthold Ephraim Lessing. Titled “Nathan the Wise.” it took as its model the distinguished German Jew, Moses Mendelssohn (the composer’s grandfather). As one reads of Rathenau’s contributions, wisdom is the word which encapsulates them. As Ms. Volkov writes, “The story of such a life is doubtlessly the stuff of which tragedy is made.” That Rathenau’s wise counsel went unheeded was a great misfortune for his nation - and indeed for humanity as a whole.

• Martin Rubin is a writer and critic in Pasadena, Calif.

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