Since he was a Jew, it is important to consider the attitudes of the people and government towards Jews during Rathenau’s life. Even before Rathenau was an adult, anti-Semitism was already beginning. Richard Wagner, a writer, wrote his first anti-Semitic article in 1850, called Das Judentum in der Musik, which condemned all Jews and proposed they be removed from cultural life. During the late 1800s, Hugo Preuss, a Jew and liberal politician, was denied for a professorship multiple times because of his Jewish background. Despite much negativity, almost all German states had given Jews full legal equality by 1868. By mid-April 1871, full rights for Jews became Imperial Law for the entire Prussia.
However, anti-Semitism was still rising during the time. In fact, the term anti-Semitism would not be used until it was coined in a book called The Victories of Judaism over Germanism by William Marr in 1879. It was also in 1879 that the anti-Semitism movement really took off. The “Christian Social Workers Party” was founded by Adolph Stoecker in 1879 and was a front for boycotting Jewish businesses. This was the first time that Jew became considered as an indicator of race instead of religion. Stoecker and his party made anti-Semitism a national issue over the next few years. Some influential people did speak against anti-Semitism and signed a declaration against anti-Semitism in 1880. However, this didn’t have much of an influence on Otto von Bismarck, who was Chancellor from 1871-1890. Bismarck accepted an anti-Semitic petition in April 1881 that included a ban on Jewish immigration.
Over the next years, anti-Semitism continued to grow. In September of 1882, the first international anti-Jewish congress was held in Dresden, with Stoecker presiding over it. In 1887, Theodor Fritisch founded an anti-Semitic publishing house, Hammer Publishing House. Despite the fall of Stoecker’s party in 1892, anti-Semitism was still respectable and somewhat popular.
Not all people hopped on the anti-Jewish bandwagon, however. In 1893, the Central Society of German Citizens of the Jewish Faith was created in order to defend Jews against libels and in 1901, the Relief Society for German Jews was founded to help Eastern European Jews immigrate to Germany. This helped increase the number of Jews in Germany, which also increased anti-Jewish feelings in some. Werner Sombart, an economist and historian, published a treatise in 1910 which blamed the evils of capitalism on Jews.
Despite anti-Jewish feelings from many, Jews were well represented in many aspects, such as science. Emilie Berliner, an inventor and writer, for example, believed that Orthodox Judaism was compatible with the world of science. Berliner, like Rathaneu, was also heavily influenced by Edison’s inventions. Along the same lines, other Jews proved that science could correlate with religion. Paul Ehrlich developed the ability to study blood cells by injecting dyes during the late 1800s. In 1906, Von Wasserman developed a test for the diagnosis of syphilis. Not all successful Jews of the time were scientists however. In 1912, there were 12 Jewish members of the Reichstag (out of a total of 100 members).
The Reichstag was not the only thing with increasing numbers of Jews. From about 47,500 Jews in 1871 to 200,000 Jews in 1910, the city of Berlin itself also saw an increase in the Jewish population. By 1910, the Jewish population accounted for about 10% of Berlin’s population.
In general, despite the rising anti-Jewish sentiment of the time by some, Jews during Rathenau’s life could still become successful, especially in science related fields. Rathenau himself is an example of this, running an extremely successful business, despite being Jewish.