Tribal qualities

I’ve always been fascinated by Walter Rathenau, the German foreign minister who was assassinated by anti-Semitic nationalists in Berlin in 1922. The son of Emil Rathenau, the founder of the groundbreaking Berlin-based electrical company AEG, he had run the German ministry of war’s crucial raw materials department during World War I and created what some see as the first planned economy. However, after the war, he and other leading Jewish figures were blamed by the right for the German defeat as part of the so-called Dolchstoßlegende – the myth of a  “stab in the back”. In particular, as foreign minister, Rathenau became fatally associated with the humiliating terms of the Treaty of Versailles. In a sense, his assassination symbolises the beginning of the end of the dream of Jewish assimilation in Germany.

In his book The Pity of it All, Amos Elon (whose biography of Theodor Herzl I’ve previously mentioned) shows how the Rathenau family epitomised the German-Jewish community’s dream of assimilation. But despite the family’s apparent success at a time when the Jewish middle class was at its most confident and optimistic, Rathenau seems to have had a deep sense of anxiety about being a Jew in Germany. Elon suggests that, like Theodor Herzl, he idolised the Prussian officer class and was deeply hurt when he was refused a commission in the army after completing his military service. Afterwards he wrote of the “painful moment” when he realised that, as a German Jew, he was a “second-class citizen”. You get a sense of Rathenau’s mixture of pride and insecurity from Edward Munch’s famous 1907 portrait of him (above).

One expression of this sense of anxiety was “Hear, O Israel!”, a strange, desperate text aimed at German Jews that Rathenau wrote and pseudonymously published in a journal just as he was turning 30 in 1897. In it, he described the Jewish middle class as “an Asiatic horde on the sandy plains of Prussia, … not a living limb of the people but an alien organism in its body”. He urged Jews to look in the mirror to see the signs of their “bodily decline” and urged them to undergo a “bodily rebirth” through intermarriage. Like Max Nordau’s analysis of diaspora Jews at the Zionist Congress in Basle in 1898, Rathenau’s description of German Jews, and in particular their physical characteristics, echoed anti-Semitic tropes. Seen from today’s perspective, Rathenau and Nordau both look like examples of the phenomenon of Jewish self-hatred.

The interesting thing is that these two figures shared a negative view of disapora Jews but differed about the solution. Unlike Nordau, Rathenau believed that the Jewish “problem” could be overcome through assimilation and thus opposed Zionism. Instead of settling in Palestine, he urged German Jews to “breath German mountain and forest air” and to “consciously adopt the tribal qualities of the host country”. Thus whereas Herzl saw the Jews as a Volk in their own right (he famously declares in The Jewish State that “We are a people, one people”), Rathenau believed German Jews were part of – or at least could become part of – the German Volk. The similarities and differences between Rathenau and Nordau illustrate the way that both German assimilationists and German Zionists thought in terms of the concept of the Volk  – but differed on how to define themselves as Jews in relation to it.


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