6. In Germany, Walter Rathenau’s murder was first lamented but then celebrated by the Nazis
The period between the end of the First World War and the rise of the Nazi regime was a tumultuous one for Germany. The Weimar Republic might have been a golden age of culture, but it was also a political hotbed. Several prominent men and women on both sides of the political spectrum were subject to violence, with several of them assassinated. Among those who died was Walter Rathenau, the Foreign Minister of the fledgling Republic.
Born in Berlin in 1867, Rathenau’s father was a prominent Jewish businessman who ensured his son worked hard at school. As a young man, he worked as an engineer and then a journalist. Then, when the First World War broke out, Rathenau served his country in an office, taking charge of logistics. When peace returned, he embarked on a career in liberal politics. After a spell as Minister of reconstruction, he became Foreign Minister in 1922 – a position that attracted the ire of the regime’s enemies.
Under Rathenau, Germany signed the Treaty of Rapallo with the Soviet Union, making trade between the two countries easier. To his critics, this was a bold move to ally Germany with the Communists. Rathenau was called a revolutionary and the right-wing press called for his head (almost literally). On the morning of 24 June, 1922, Rathenau was assassinated. A trio of activists (all of whom would later join the Nazis) gunned him down in the street as he walked to work. The assassins hoped to ignite a Civil War between the right and left, but they failed.
Far from attacking one another, most German citizens united to show their disgust at the rising tide of political violence. Rathenau was seen as a hero of German democracy, and even a martyr against extremism. However, when the Nazis came to power, they made an effort to erase him from the history books. Not only were Rathenau’s politics ‘undesirable’, his Jewish heritage also meant that it was his assassins who were celebrated as the heroes. Only with the end of the Nazi regime in 1945 was Rathenau’s reputation as a liberal, moderate politician resurrected.