Weimar Intellectuals and the Threat of Modernity
For Rathenau reality meant the ultimately elusive battleground of external higher forces, distinct from the mere environment controlled by the mechanics of the mind. His rejection of the intellect directed by motivation, goal oriented, bound by self-interest and self-preservation shows an autocratic lack of concern for the world of the other to whom he wants to dedicate his life, his self. The intentions informing his arguments in Criticism of the Age (1912), The Mechanism of the Mind (1913), and In Days to Come (1917) could be understood as revolutionary: in these books he wanted to outline the new humane social, industrial, political world order which might prepare the way for the 'realm of the soul,' where competitive, fear-ridden, self-interested motivations of self-preservation were no longer needed. But his arguments, though often plausible in detail, were ultimately exhortatory and visionary rather than discursive, and they were quite often logically inaccessible. The fact that In Days to Come was something of a commercial success, selling sixty-five thousand copies in the first year, says more about a large educated audience's fears and hopes in and for their old world than about the reasonableness or desirability, let alone the feasibility of the projected new world. The majority of Rathenau's readers were not, one may assume, among Germany's youth on the left or the right; his readers were their despairing parents. And while his messianism as well as his predilection for a paradisiacal innocence of social intercourse could be found in both groups, they were also unmistakably his, rooted in his personal background and development.
Rathenau was born in 1867 in Berlin into what was then a middle-class Jewish family. His father, later an internationally important industrialist, was at that time a mildly successful engineer and businessman and member of the Berlin orthodox Jewish community. His mother had come from a cultivated Jewish middle-class family in Berlin, admiring of, interested in romantic intellectuals and artists. For the young Rathenau, Goethe was a saint in the religious hierarchy of art and, like Rembrandt, Bach, and Shakespeare, one of the 'evangelists of German culture.' His own quite considerable achievements as an industrial engineer had always seemed small to him in comparison to the performances of professional writers and musicians. This reflects a thoroughly German concept of culture, especially as it enabled the competent engineer and industrialist to appropriate Goethe's greatness to focus his own identity. In terms of his familiarity with the socioeconomic sphere, his awareness of the concrete rapid changes in industry and violent ruptures in sociopolitical conventions, Rathenau differed drastically from the large majority of his intellectual contemporaries. But in terms of his understanding the social cultural conflicts tearing at the troubled young century—soul vs. mind, organic life vs. mechanization, community vs. society, rebirth vs. death—he was indeed close to the prevalent contemporary intellectual preoccupation with dichotomies. And it was this closeness which enabled him to claim and sustain his distance from the concrete contemporary social world which, in turn, supported his never diminished sense of a unique and uniquely meaningful personal fate nurtured in the unique culture of Germany.
Culture in the more narrow sense of the arts and literature, and here especially Prussian culture, was for Rathenau the most satisfying, the most complete access to personal identity, its lawful development and unthreatened meaning. When he met, still young but already successful, an old lady who remembered the 1840s, whose mother had been the model for Schubert's 'Schone Mullerin,' who had heard Tieck read and seen Fanny Elsler dance, he remarked: 'To me it is something rare and strange that I, the little electrical engineer, should actually touch with my fingers the magic ring of the Romantics.' In an essay on the occasion of Max Liebermann's seventieth birthday in 1917, Rathenau's portrait of the important painter, his father's cousin, shows clearly his identification with this eminent Prussian artist. It is very important to him that Liebermann and he share an ancestor, one of the early Prussian industrial magnates under Friedrich Wilhelm III—he starts the essay stating the connection: 'His grandfather, whose life-size portrait painted by an unknown master is hung in his study, is my great-grandfather.' And he goes on to point out that Liebermann's highly controlled art in its cool sparseness, its muted colors and restrained lines shows discreet richness, self-confident nobility, occasional greatness, even monumentality. The painter's antisentimental attitude is sustained by passion rather than skepticism, the 'blood of emotions' glowing through the 'cover of objectivity.'
Men of will, of passion and sensuality, subjected to the pressures of external and internal battles, do not spend themselves [verschaumen] in unconscious and unmeasured instinctive creation. Rather, they produce in themselves the highest, even demonic individuality, the strength of perpetual youth, of change and regeneration in their self-created domain.None of the periods in Liebermann's work is one of youth or of age; they are all organically whole and mature; they all unfold within the circle of one personality, physiognomy, and signature. It is only mastery that grows, that renews itself and transcends.
This is precisely the way in which Rathenau strove to see and to form himself, especially in the many letters which he wrote with great care and consideration for his own and his correspondents' need for self-presentation. There is little spontaneity, no playfulness, no humor in these letters; the early ones seem as firmly adult as the later ones. The work (of art) is the self nurtured in (national) culture; selfhood, a task, can become a work of (national) art. And through the experience of the Great War, the vulnerability of Germany, of German culture, finally her near-destruction which he could not prevent, Rathenau came to see self-mastery in self-conscious service, the work of the self as its immersion in a collective other, a meaningful national community sustained by a cultural tradition. Ferdinand Tonnies's 1887 Gemeinschaft und Gesellschaft (Community and society) had become widely read, discussed, and overinterpreted in its second edition in 1912. Tonnies, accordingly, had warned readers in the prefaces to later editions to avoid simplifying and thereby distorting the distinction as a nostalgic attempt to resurrect an older more meaningful form of social organization. He does not, he asserts, deny the 'true facts' of progress, enlightenment, of liberal developments and civilization, distancing himself from a romantic glorification of the past. But Rathenau, as did so many of his intellectual contemporaries, viewed progress and civilization with deeply ambivalent feelings, uneasy about the rapidly changing organizational forms and priorities in a modern mass society, unable to accept, as largely irreducible, the very concrete manifold tensions between the needs and desires of the individual and his obligations to the collective whole.
Arguing against suicide in a letter to a friend in May 1919, a period when he was deeply depressed about the state of Germany and the frustration of his attempts to be of service to her, Rathenau writes:
Since I have ceased to take myself and my existence so seriously, simply because it does not belong to me and ought, rather, offer its services to the community, something has changed in my relation to men. Perhaps, too, because war has aged me so rapidly I feel that I ought to serve everyone and as I cannot serve anyone truly, I try to serve all.Self-mastery could not balance the experience of a self perceived as too split, too complex, too precarious, and too precious to serve anyone in particular. Such self needed to serve all—that is, it needed to embrace all in order to escape being limited by anyone. The realm of the soul was so important to Rathenau because, all-expansive, all-inclusive, it could transcend the limiting borders of intellectual differentiation. The intellectual processes in the Buddha differ from those of Plato, Rathenau writes to a friend in 1914; yet, in the realm of the soul both are congruent. This is true, too, for the relation between different races. The Teuton and the Papuan alike, he argues, are descended from ancestors very much below them on the ladder of evolution. But such differences—between the Papuan and the Teuton, between them and their ancestors—are meaningful only in the realm of the intellect. They are dissolved in the realm of the soul: 'How much more free it is, the world of the soul!' It may still be described by attributes associated with the Germanic type, but, borderless, timeless, it is accessible, in principle, to every human being. Merging, embracing, to become one, to be part of a larger whole had always been Rathenau's deeper and ever more urgent desire, articulated in his prolific and often vacuous writing, but also in concrete, highly effective industrial planning and administration in the service of Germany.