Christopher Gravallese '14

Joseph Roth, Harry Kessler and political violence in Walther Rathenau's Weimer Germany

For my honors project, I researched the 1922 murder of Walther Rathenau, the German Foreign Minister during the early Weimar Republic.  I became interested in the subject of Weimar political murder when I took Professor Smith’s Berlin: Sin City, Divided City, City of the Future class in my sophomore year.  As a double major in German and Government & Legal Studies, the topic provided a suitable intersection of interests.  I also integrated my interest in imaginative writing, which contributed heavily to my project’s research.

My research the involved close reading, analysis, and interpretation of imaginative primary source texts, such as Joseph Roth's Das Spinnennetz (1923) and Rechts und Links (1929).  These two imaginative works demonstrate Roth’s prescience regarding the far-right ascendency in the Weimar Republic: the former sounds the alarm of rightist violence, while the latter vindicates Roth’s grim predictions.  Das Spinnennetz, which was published via a serialization that ended days before Hitler’s Beer Hall Putsch in Munich, outright names Adolf Hitler and Erich Ludendorff as dangers to society.  Roth also published newspaper articles which effusively portrays Rathenau as a person who harmonizes human difference.  Harry Graf Kessler's diaries and biography of Rathenau complement Roth’s portrayal, but add a layer of complexity to the Rathenau narrative.  As a friend of Rathenau, Kessler also describes the Foreign Minister’s feeling of being a perennial outsider.

Academics have historically neglected the connection between Rathenau and Roth's writing.  Using Kessler's first-hand knowledge of Rathenau, as well as Roth’s journalistic texts regarding the Foreign Minister, I assess Rathenau as an outsider who harmonizes human difference.  Building upon this characterization of Rathenau, I identify a specific mediator figure in Rechts und Links who evokes Rathenau: Nikolai Brandeis.  When viewing these works synoptically, one realizes the extreme prescience of Roth; Roth documents the rise of far-right extremism, recognizes Rathenau as a slain victim of the forces who could have mediated the political and social conflict, and represents him in Rechts and Links via the figure of Brandeis.