During World War I Rathenau held senior posts in the Raw Materials Department of the War Ministry, while becoming chairman of AEG upon his father's death in 1915. He played a leading role in putting Germany's economy on a war footing, enabling wartime Germany to continue its war effort for years despite shortages of labor and raw materials.
Rathenau was a moderate liberal in politics, and after WWI he was one of the founders of the German Democratic Party (DDP). He rejected the tide of socialist thought which swept Germany after the shock of defeat and revolution, opposing state ownership of industry and advocating greater worker participation in the management of companies. His ideas were influential in post-war governments.
In 1921, Rathenau was appointed Minister of Reconstruction, and in 1922 he became Foreign Minister. His insistence that Germany should fulfill its obligations under the Treaty of Versailles, while working for a revision of its terms, infuriated German nationalists. He also angered nationalists by negotiating the Treaty of Rapallo with the Soviet Union. The leaders of the (still obscure) Nazi Party and other right-wing groups claimed he was part of a "Jewish-Communist conspiracy."
The British politician Robert Boothby wrote of him: "He was something that only a German Jew could simultaneously be: a prophet, a philosopher, a mystic, a writer, a statesman, an industrial magnate of the highest and greatest order, and the pioneer of what has become known as 'industrial rationalization'."
In fact, despite his desire for economic and political co-operation between Germany and the Soviet Union, Rathenau remained skeptical of the methods of the Soviets. In his Kritik der dreifachen Revolution (Critique of the triple revolution) he noted that:
We cannot use Russia's methods, as they only and at best prove that the economy of an agrarian nation can be leveled to the ground; Russia's thoughts are not our thoughts. They are, as it is in the spirit of the Russian city intelligentsia, unphilosophical, and highly dialectic; they are passionate logic based on unverified suppositions. They assume that a single good, the destruction of the capitalist class, weighs more than all other goods, and that poverty, dictatorship, terror and the fall of civilization must be accepted to secure this one good.
If ten million people must die to free ten million people from the bourgeoisie, then this is a harsh but necessary consequence. The Russian idea is compulsory happiness, in the same sense and with the same logic as the compulsory introduction of Christianity and the Inquisition.
Some believe that Rathenau's assassination may have significantly influenced the long-term political, economic, and social development of Europe (or was the result of such development, particularly the development of leftward-trending parties, class consciousness, nationalistic feelings, and antisemitism). It was certainly an early sign of the instability and violence which were eventually to permeate and destroy the Weimar Republic. The British writer Morgan Philips Price wrote:
In June 1922 Walter Rathenau, a big Jewish industrialist and progressive economist, was assassinated by gangsters of the extreme Right who were the heart and soul of the Freikorps. I was present at the memorial service in the Reichstag and noted an extraordinary outburst of enthusiasm among the workers of Berlin, as expressed in their trade union leaders and socialist parties, for the Republic and for President Ebert. The rank and file of the Majority Social Democrats were now thoroughly aroused...first Communists, then Socialists, and now a big industrialist were murdered for having Liberal views and, in the last case, for being a Jew. The situation in Germany was becoming more and more sinister.
But as great as was the impact of Rathenau’s death upon German domestic politics, it left an even greater mark upon the economic scene. Now the tumble of the mark could not be stopped. The dollar, still under 350 on the day of the murder, climbed to 670 by the end of July, to 2000 in August, and to 4500 by the end of October.
Foreign Minister Westerwelle at the 90th Anniversary Commemoration of Walther Rathenau's Death Foreign Minister Westerwelle at the 90th Anniversary Commemoration of Walther Rathenau's Death
Jun 25, 2012; BERLIN -- The following information was released by the Federal Foreign Office of Germany: State Secretary, Mr Mayor, Ladies and...
SPEECH BY FEDERAL MINISTER FOR FOREIGN AFFAIRS GUIDO WESTERWELLE ON OCCASION OF PRESENTATION OF WALTHER RATHENAU AWARD TO MR SHIMON PERES, PRESIDENT OF STATE OF ISRAEL, BERLIN, 27 JANUARY 201.
Jan 27, 2010; BERLIN -- The following information was released by the Federal Foreign Office of Germany: President Peres, Federal President, Mr...
SPEECH BY FOREIGN MINISTER WESTERWELLE HONOURING SECRETARY OF STATE HILLARY R. CLINTON AS SHE RECEIVED THE WALTHER RATHENAU AWARD IN BERLIN.
Apr 15, 2011; BERLIN -- The following information was released by the Federal Foreign Office of Germany: -- translation of advanced text --...
Walther Rathenau: Man of Many Parts; an Industrialist, Politician, Management Thinker and More, Rathenau's Intellectual Legacy Lives on, despite His Early and Violent Death
Sep 22, 2007; For a brief period after the First World War, the German banker and politician Walther Rathenau was one of the world's foremost...
Citation by Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle at the Presentation of the Walther Rathenau Award to Un High Commissioner for Refugees Antonio Guterres
Apr 24, 2013; BERLIN -- The following information was released by the Federal Foreign Office of Germany: -- Translation of advance text -- High...