Harry Graf Kessler and the Biography of Walther Rathenau

The writing of a biography of this Jewish statesman, by a Christian, no less, cannot be taken for granted

The cover of Walther Rathenau's biography by Harry Graf Kessler, 1928

The year 1928 saw the publication of a comprehensive biography of Walther Rathenau, a Jewish industrialist who served as Foreign Minister of the Weimar Republic until his murder in June 1922. Although Rathenau was a key figure in the last days of the German Empire and during the first years of the Weimar Republic, the writing of a biography of this Jewish statesman, by a Christian, no less, cannot be taken for granted. The biographer was Harry Graf Kessler (1868-1937), and the book sold well. Within a short time, two editions were printed in German, as well as translations into Dutch, English and French. The picture of Rathenau’s life as presented in the biography is today considered reliable and important, in part because the author knew the Jewish politician and was in direct and ongoing contact with him during the first years of the Weimar Republic. Who was Harry Graf Kessler? What caused him to delve into Rathenau’s life story in such an intensive manner?

Harry Kessler was born in Paris to a German banker and his Irish wife. During his early years, he lived in the city of his birth, where he attended a French school. Later, he studied for several years in England, and ultimately, took his matriculation exams in Germany. Thus, from a young age, Kessler had a good command of several languages and had the benefit of a diverse education. Following his matriculation exams, Kessler enrolled in law school. Shortly afterwards, he served in the German military. Due to his noble lineage, he was assigned the job of officer in an elite battalion, and naturally, he encountered no difficulties in his path to a career as a senior clerk in the German government. In addition, the Kessler family’s personal acquaintance with the imperial family and Chancellor Otto von Bismarck was certainly helpful in the advancement of the ambitious nobleman. And yet, this young jurist was not satisfied with a career in public administration, but developed a clear proclivity for culture and the arts

A portrait of Harry Graf Kessler, taken by Rudolf Dührkoop, 1917

In the last years of the 19th century, the art journal, Pan began publication in Germany. Among the editors were well known and influential artists; Count Kessler also played a role. The journal stood out for its attractive design, high-quality printing standard, and innovative content. To this day, Pan is considered to have been a trailblazer in the Art Nouveau style. Kessler’s close acquaintance with the world of art and his refined aesthetic sensibilities lead him to establish a private artistic press known as Cranach-Presse in the city of Weimar. During the first decade of the 20th century, Harry Kessler was appointed director of the Museum of Arts and Crafts in Weimar. During this period, he was also close with several important poets in Germany, such as Rainer Maria Rilke and Hugo von Hofmannsthal. Together with von Hofmannsthal, he composed the libretto for the well known opera Der Rosenkavalier by Richard Strauss.

The libretto of Der Rosenkavalier by Richard Strauss, 1911. On the cover only Hofmannstahl’s name appears, but in the book itself he thanks Graf Kessler for his help.

During the early years of the Weimar Republic, Harry Kessler was active in politics and diplomacy, advanced Germany’s membership in the League of Nations (precursor to the UN) and even was a member of the German-Democratic Party (DDP). Both as a member of this party and as a diplomat, Kessler maintained contact with Walther Rathenau, who, for his part, beyond his activity as an industrialist and politician, was also interested in cultural and artistic matters. At the same time, other items in Kessler’s detailed diaries reveal that while the relationship between the two was one of respect, they did not share a feeling of mutual appreciation. Despite this, Rathenau’s murder in June 1922 shocked Kessler deeply, and also undermined his belief in the possibility for the development of a true democracy in Germany. A number of years later – after Kessler tried (to no avail) to run for the German national parliament, the Count abandoned his political aspirations and devoted most of his time to artistic activities at the press and to writing, among other things, the biography of Walther Rathenau.

During the preparatory research, Kessler interviewed acquaintances of the murdered man as well as many of his family members, and even corresponded with a number of individuals who knew the Jewish politician. One of his correspondents on the matter was the philosopher Martin Buber. Buber’s archive at the National Library includes a file containing handwritten and typed letters from Kessler. Kessler wanted to know to what extent Rathenau had been interested in Hasidic ideas. During the late 1920s, Buber was already considered an expert in the mystical-Hasidic tradition, and therefore, Kessler approached the scholar, who also had been in personal contact with Rathenau. After reading some of Rathenau’s early compositions, Kessler ascertained that he had been influenced by Hasidic ideas, and Buber indeed confirmed this in a letter to Kessler, and even agreed that the latter quote from the letter in its entirety in Rathenau’s biography.

A letter from Kessler to Martin Buber, 1928

Rathenau’s personal connections with Count Kessler on the one hand, and with Buber on the other, were not Rathenau’s only ties with well known Jews of his time. Albert Einstein was also among Kessler’s acquaintances, together with many other figures. His fascinating diaries contain no fewer than 12,000 names of individuals from the period, which makes them a first-rate historical-cultural resource on the history of Central Europe from 1880-1937. Count Kessler left Germany with the Nazi rise to power and lived out his days in France and Spain.

Translation of Count Kessler’s letter to Martin Buber

28 Kattenstraße, Berlin W

Weimar, January 15, 1928

Dear Herr Doktor,
Your “Hasidic books” are of great benefit to me. They illuminate Rathenau’s world view on a particular point in a very interesting manner. Might you allow me, without transgressing the boundaries of privacy, to ask if you ever had direct contact with Rathenau, and if you spoke with him about Hasidism, or if you are aware that he took an interest in Hasidism? His character was such that he did not easily accept outside influence, but I have almost no doubt that he was familiar with Hasidism and that its teaching influenced his world view. However, it is of utmost importance to me to base this assumption on facts of some kind.


The Nazi Period, World War II and the Holocaust

How did the Nazis, within a short time, destroy general conventions of the modern world pertaining to humanity, law and culture?

During the twelve years between 1933 and 1945, a series of developments and vicissitudes completely altered the face of the country. The changes that Germany underwent during these years illustrate to this day that a high level of culture cannot necessarily prevent a takeover by barbaric forces, the likes of which may exist in any society. The persecution of the Jews, the silencing of pluralist views, and the conquest and devastating destruction of considerable parts of Europe in World War II superseded Germany’s image as a “land of the poets and thinkers” (Land der Dichter und Denker) and gave credence to the saying of the playwright Karl Kraus, that Germany had become the “land of judges and hangmen” (Land der Richter und Henker).

Even today, 70 years after the end of this terrible chapter in world history, this period remains a center of attention for many historians, sociologists, psychologists, artists, writers, and others. At the core of their interest is the question: How was this possible? How did the Nazis, within a short time, destroy general conventions of the modern world pertaining to humanity, law and culture? How can it be that a significant portion of the population supported this process, or at least, did not oppose it? There is no other period in German history that has been studied so intensively as the Third Reich, and there is no other period that has served as the basis for so many literary and cinematic works as the years of terror under Nazi rule.

The list of events that took place and the atrocities during these years is long and uncompromisingly horrifying. Adolf Hitler’s National-Socialist Party, though founded in the early 1920s, became significant towards the end of the decade. In the two elections of 1932 – in the shadow of mass unemployment and a deep economic crisis – the party received a majority of votes, but not an absolute majority. Following the party’s success, German president Paul von Hindenburg believed that there was no choice but to appoint Adolf Hitler as Chancellor of Germany, which he did at the end of January 1933. Immediately following the Nazi rise to power, they invested great effort in silencing democratic voices in Germany’s public sphere. In the March 1933 elections – the last to be held for many years – Hitler’s party again improved its lot, ultimately outlawing the existence of all competing parties and ideologies. Democrats and left-wingers were arrested and sometimes even murdered. Just a few months after the political ascendance of the Nazis, anti-Semitic persecution began: the firing of many Jewish state workers, the dismantling of Jewish businesses, the arrests of outstanding German Jewish figures, and other types of terror against the Jews. In response, approximately two-thirds of Germany’s Jewish population left the country for America, Palestine and other countries. German emigration to Palestine is known as the Fifth Aliyah. In Palestine, there was an immediate public response in the form of a ban on German goods, reflected in placards and demonstrations at that time.

During the years leading up to the outbreak of World War II, the Nazi Party succeeded in strengthening its status and buttressing its hold on the general population. Almost all realms of society were under centralized oversight. In autumn of 1935, the Nuremberg Race Laws were passed. These laws determined who was a Jew and who was considered to be of Jewish extraction. Based on these definitions, civil rights were denied to all people who met the criteria, any connections with “Aryan” families were prohibited, and in effect, the lives of Jews thus became impossible. In 1936 the Olympic Games were held in Berlin, and the Nazis seized the opportunity to demonstrate the strength of the “new Germany” and to convince the nations of the world that Germany was “striving for peace”.

Two years later, Adolf Hitler decided to annex Austria to the Third Reich and from that time on Germany became known as “Greater Germany” (Großdeutschland). Most of the Austrian population excitedly welcomed German rule, as Austrians remembered well that Hitler was of Austrian descent. Austria’s Jews immediately began suffering from the Nazi oppression. In September 1938, Hitler received the approval of France and Germany to also annex Sudetenland (most of whose population was German), which until then had been part of Czechoslovakia. Forces from the West thus hoped to satisfy Hitler’s aspirations and to preserve world peace, the end of which had already been decided upon in Berlin long before. The annexation of all of Bohemia in March 1939 was just another step towards another world war, which came in September 1939 with the Germany’s invasion of Poland.

The history of the war is well-known: The Axis Powers (Germany, Italy and Japan) conquered and destroyed large parts of the world; more than 50 million people paid with their lives, including six million Jews who were victims of the Holocaust. Ultimately, for the second time in 27 years, Germany was unconditionally defeated. After almost six years of brutal war, the Allies had defeated the Axis armies, liberating conquered areas, and ultimately taking control of Germany itself, which had, once again, been devastated and destroyed.

The Nazi Rise to Power Through the Eyes of Sebastian Haffner

Everything went "strictly by the book," using means that were permitted by the constitution

Beginning in 1928, German voters were called to the polls at least every two years as the political system suffered from instability due in part to the world economic crisis and the ensuing mass unemployment, but also due to the diffusion of political force between the many parties that gained representation in the National Parliament. In 1932, the situation was so dire that the German government disintegrated twice in the same year, leading to general elections in July and in November.

Hitler and his party had already succeeded in convincing many voters to support them in previous elections, but in July 1932 the Nazis garnered the largest number of votes and entered the Reichstag as the strongest party. Together with the Communist Party representatives (both parties were anti-Democratic), the Nazis achieved an absolute majority in the National Parliament, precluding the establishment of any type of coalition. At this stage, Hitler refused to cooperate with a government that would not be under his leadership, but President Paul von Hindenburg was not yet prepared to appoint Hitler as the Chancellor of Germany. There was no choice, then, but to hold a re-election in November 1932.

These elections created the impression that the unabated rise of the Nazis had been halted: for the first time in years, they had lost votes. And yet, they were still the strongest party in the Reichstag. Despite this development, there was still no realistic possibility of forming a stable coalition. The president appointed the Prussian General Kurt von Schleicher as the Chancellor of Germany. He tried to build a government in collaboration with various moderate political forces, including the moderate branch of the Nazi Party, hoping to thus split the Nazis. Nevertheless, the attempt failed and on January 28, 1933, he was forced to resign from his post. Two days later, President Von Hindenburg appointed Adolf Hitler as Chancellor of Germany, though most of the government portfolios were still in the hands of other parties. Nonetheless, Hitler and his people knew how to seize control, both politically and through violent means. Within months, the Nazis already held all of the political and state power – with almost no resistance on the part of the German people, most of whom had not voted for the Nazis in the elections.

On the evening of January 30, endless lines of uniformed Nazis bearing torches marched towards the Brandenburg Gate, in order to celebrate the “victory”. There are reports that upon seeing this sight, the well-known Jewish painter Max Liebermann, who lived in the building adjacent to the Brandenburg Gate, said, “I cannot eat as much as I would like to puke.”

The German publicist Sebastian Haffner (1907-1999) reported on the Nazi rise to power, and more generally, on the developments in Germany during that period. Haffner was a law student at the time, and opposed the Nazis and their barbaric political style. In 1938 he emigrated from Germany to England where he began writing political-historical works about Germany and contemporary history. He authored a series of books and even wrote for an anti-Fascist German paper published in England. Haffner’s first composition on the topic, 1939’s “Defying Hitler (Geschichte eines Deutschen – The Story of a German)”, was neither completed nor published during his lifetime. The work was ultimately published in 2000, a year after Haffner passed away. In this work, which has been translated into various languages including Hebrew, Haffner describes the political and social developments in Germany in the years 1914-1933 from a personal, everyday perspective. Writing about the events beginning in 1933, after the Nazis’ political strength had been strongly established, Haffner observed:

The whole façade of everyday life remained basically unchanged. The cinemas, cafes and theaters were full; couples danced in the open air and in the dance halls, people strolled down the streets, while others sunbathed on the beaches. The Nazis used this to great effect in their propaganda: “Come and see our peaceful, quiet country. Come and see how well even the Jews are doing. The secret vein of madness, fear and tension, of living by the day and dancing a dance of death: those one could not see. (Adapted from p. 154 of the English edition, entitled, Defying Hitler – A Memoir by Sebastian Haffner, translated from the German by Oliver Pretzel, 2002).

On the Nazis’ rise to power and the concurrent political changes, he wrote:

What is a revolution?

Constitutional lawyers define it as a change of constitution by means not foreseen therein. By this definition the Nazi revolution of March 1933 was not a revolution. Everything went “strictly by the book,” using means that were permitted by the constitution. At first there were “emergency decrees” by the president of the Reich, and later a bill was passed by a two-thirds majority of the Reichstag, giving the government unlimited legislative powers. (Defying Hitler, p. 124)

Reading Haffner’s book is both riveting and spine-chilling from the reports of the violent political takeover to the April 1st ban on Jewish businesses and the slow infusion of Fascist poison into broad segments of the general population. Haffner’s writings prove that it was already possible in 1933 to know where Germany was headed.

Those like Haffner, who so desired, could see it clearly.

The Aliyah of Central European Jews (the “Yekkim”) and the “German Immigrants’ Association News”

In the great frenzy that ensued, many Jews who lived on German territory understood that their lives and property were in imminent danger, and that they had to find alternatives to carry on living

German Immigrants’ Association News

​Until the Nazi rise to power, some half a million Jews lived in Germany, over 150,000 of them in Berlin alone. Most found their place in society-at-large and took part in economy, politics, science, and of course German culture, both as producers of culture (authors, journalists, musicians, artists, etc.) and consumers of culture of all types. The Zionist movement found it difficult to penetrate German-Jewish society, since most of it was well established; and Zionist groups in Germany never became mass movements.

The picture changed in 1933, when the Nazis rose to power. The blatant anti-Semitism and the unbridled Nazi aggression (across large segments of German society) made it clear to German Jews that their integration into the greater society was only a brief episode that was drawing to an end with the political change.

In the great frenzy that ensued, many Jews who lived on German territory understood that their lives and property were in imminent danger, and that they had to find alternatives to carry on living. Approximately one half of Germany’s Jewish population emigrated from Germany to other countries, most to the United States, but many also moved to Israel as part of what is known as “the fifth Aliyah.” It is estimated that some 60,000 German immigrants came to Eretz Israel as part of this wave of immigration, in addition to 30,000 from other German-speaking areas, primarily Austria and Czechoslovakia.

Their situation in Eretz Israel was also quite difficult: the new climate, the language unfamiliar to most of them, the reservations of many locals from German language and culture due to the Nazi acts, and the unsuitable professions of many (a great deal of them were active in the fields of science, the humanities and culture) – all posed severe problems for many of the “Yekkim”, as they were called then and to this day. Their habits, style of dress, precision in all that related to timeliness, and their idiosyncratic humor, attracted much derisive humor. Tragically, while in Germany they were always considered Jews, in Eretz Israel they were considered “Germans.”

The German immigrants in pre-State Israeli society were quite diverse: the majority played a role in the sciences, arts and culture, unsurprisingly, but among them were also industrialists and entrepreneurs (the founders of companies including “Asis”, “Strauss” and others), publishers (e.g. the Schocken family), architects, (Richard Kaufmann and others from the famous Bauhaus movement). In many cases, however, the Yekkim were forced to find their place in the new society in Israel like all of the other immigrants, in professions in which they weren’t trained, while living in crowded housing and facing the large and small cultural difficulties that awaited all of the immigrants in their everyday lives.

The Yekkim settled in a number of cities and other types of localities: around Tel Aviv and Jerusalem (many of them in the Rechavia neighborhood), but also in the city of Nahariya, in Kfar Shmaryahu near Herzliya, and in other locations. The Rechavia neighborhood of Jerusalem was planned by the architect Richard Kaufmann beginning in the 1920s. It was inhabited by distinguished academics, including many lecturers from The Hebrew University: Gershom Scholem, Shmuel Hugo Bergmann, Akiva Ernst Simon, the well-known architect Erich Mendelsohn (who lived in the neighborhood for a few years only, in the 1930s) as well as Zalman Schocken, the owner of a successful department store chain in Germany and a publishing house on his name, that exists to this day.

With the aliyah of the “Yekkim,” new newspapers and periodicals in German were established. For example, the newspaper Yediot Hadashot (that later assumed the name Hadashot Yisrael), and the periodical Yediot Hitachdut Olei Germania (Mitteilungsblatt der Hitachduth Olei Germania, known also, simply, as MB). This publication was founded in 1933 and exists to this day, and the initials still appear on the cover, but the name has changed to Yakinton (hyacinth). Beginning with the first edition, it featured texts both in German and in Hebrew, at first with German dominating, while today, with the proportions have reversed. For many years, firms and businesses advertised in Yediot, mainly those owned by German immigrants or relevant to the German immigrant community. It is interesting to note that during the publication’s first years, even the Templar Bank in Palestine saw fit to advertise its services in this periodical, even though the orientation of many Templars – German-Protestant settlers who had no relationship with Judaism – was pro-Nazi. Other companies, some known to this day, already advertised there, in German of course, such as the “Asis” company.