The Business of Emancipation

The German-Jewish struggle for legal equality and economic prosperity

Rathenau

From economic to political participation

Jews were often only begrudgingly accepted by Germany’s political establishment after they became wealthy. Emil Rathenau was a mechanical engineer who immediately recognized the importance of Thomas Edison’s invention of the lightbulb, and founded what would become Germany’s General Electric Company (AEG) in 1883. His son, Walther, secured new markets and expanded the business. He also earned a literary reputation for his critique of antisemitism. During WWI, Walther helped organize Germany’s war effort and the occupation of Belgium. An energetic administrator and gifted diplomat, he co-founded the German Democratic Party (DDP), helped reduce Germany’s reparations obligations, and became Foreign Minister in 1922. His assassination in June 1922 by rightwing radicals led to public demonstrations of support for democratic rule, but it also underscored just how fragile the acceptance of Jews by other Germans remained.

Walter Rathenau, 1921. Bundesarchiv, Bild 183-L40010 / CC-BY-SA 3.0.

Commemoration for Walter Rathenau in Reichstag, June 27, 1922. Bundesarchiv, Bild 183-Z1117-502 / CC-BY-SA 3.0.

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