Rulers and Political Situations During Rathenau’s Life

During Rathenau’s life, a number of different kings or Emperors ruled Prussia, which became the German Empire in 1871. Friedrich Wilhelm III ruled for the first two years of Rathenau’s life. Friedrich Wilhelm IV ruled from 1840-1861 and Wilhelm I followed, ruling Prussia from 1861 to 1871. Beginning in 1871, Wilhelm I ruled as Emperor of the German Empire until 1888. For less than one year, Friedrich III ruled the German Empire in part of 1888. For the last years of Rathanau’s life, Wilhelm II ruled Prussia from 1888 to 1918.

In 1848, a rebellion in Austria and Hungary ended with much bloodshed both during the fighting and after due to executions. When the rebellion was ended, a change in political power in Austria to heads of government spurred Frederick Wilhelm IV to move against political opponents in his own country to prevent a rebellion in his country. He ordered 13,000 soldiers to march into Berlin to end street demonstrations. Frederick Wilhelm IV also replaced his prime minister, who was a constitution monarchist with a conservative military commander, Count Friedrich Wilhelm von Brandenburg. Fifty thousand more troops were moved into Berlin to keep order. The bloodshed in other countries influenced Germans greatly and many thought if such violence and disorder occurred during reform, like in Austria and in the French Revolution, then it might be better to have slow reforms.

After the uprisings in 1848, Prussia became a constitutional monarchy under Friedrich Wilhelm IV. In 1861, Wilhelm I began his rule. He wanted to spend 90% of the nation’s budget on rebuilding the army that was in day after fighting with Austria and the southern German states in 1848 and 1849. However, when the Parliament disagreed with Wilhelm I and rejected his plans, Wilhelm I ignored the Parliament. He hired Otto von Bismarck to be prime and foreign minister. Bismarck raised the money to rebuild the army by implementing increased direct taxation. Rebuilding the army became somewhat necessary since, in 1866, a German-German war took place between Prussia and Austria. In the end, under Prussia, the North German Federation was founded (without Austria). A few years later, a German-French war occurred in 1871, provoked by Bismarck. As a result of this war, the Deutsches Reich (German Empire) was founded. Wilhelm I was Emperor, “Kaiser”, of this new empire and Bismarck was the Chancellor. Berlin became the seat of government for Prussia and the German Empire as a result of the 1871 war. The German Empire would last under Wilhelm II until 1918, the end of WWI. In 1884, the first colonies were claimed by the German Reich. Wilhelm II also fired Bismarck and was determined to create a navy larger than Britain’s because he felt threatened. His bad sense of diplomacy regarding Britain and alliance with Austria with made him largely responsible for WWI.

Treatment of Jews During Rathenau’s Life

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.


Working & Living Conditions During the Late 1800s

The uprisings in 1848 were encouraged by mass unemployment and reduced wages due to a decline in the textile industry, couple with increased food prices due to poor harvests. However, unemployment decreased in the 1850s when the industrial production and foreign trade in Berlin doubled. Amongst this working population, the living standards began to worsen. The spread of disease increased with the rapid urbanization brought on by this industrial revolution. Berlin became the financial and industrial capital of Germany after the 1871 war with the French. It also became a center for science and medicine at some point in the 50s. Living standards slowly increased but were still not at high levels. During 1890, the average income for a working-class family was 1700 marks, varying between the level of the job held. In order to pay for all expenses, such as rent, heating, and food, families had to be frugal.

Due to the industrial revolution in the late 1800s and the large influx of immigrants, the population of Berlin increased from two to four million people, becoming the 6th largest city in the world at the time.  The rapid growth industrial revolution contributed to the development of the worst industrial slums of Europe in Berlin at the end of the 19th and beginning of the 20th centuries. Additionally, the industrial revolution attracted immigrants, as people moved to Berlin in search of new job opportunities.  The less than ideal working and living conditions were responsible for many protests and strikes that became more frequent during the time as well, especially those due to workers’ rights. However, Berlin had a number of regulations that protected workers against exploitation by employers, such as minimum wage, inspected working conditions and banishment of child labor.



Technology Development in 19th and Early 20th Century

Industrial revolution and engineering were the backbones of the 19th century, both in Europe and in United States. During this time, many advancements in many fields were made and new inventions were constantly being dream of and produced by people all over the world, including Germany. In 1835, English engineer George Stephenson introduced the 1435 mm gauge on the first German line between Nuremberg and Turth in Bavaria. In 1838, the first Prussian railway line opened, running from Berlin to Potsdam. In 1841, August Borsig, a young engineer from the Industry School under Beuth, built his first locomotive following an American model and designed his own locomotive in 1844. In 1848, Siemens & Halske, the company founded by Werner von Siemens and Johann Georg Halske, built 500 km telegraph line from Berlin to Frankfurt am Main, the first long-distance telegraph line in Europe. In 1858, Hamilton Smith invented and patented the rotary washing machine and less than a decade later, Christopher Scholes invented the first modern typewriter in 1867. In 1884, Charles Parson patented the steam turbine while Hubert Booth invented the first compact and modern vacuum cleaner in 1901. As an electronic appliances giant, AEG produced all the above-mentioned products in the consecutive years. During the same decades, Berlin developed into the center north German railway network. By the 1890s, Berlin was shaped by long-distance passenger and goods railways stations, the Ringbahn (Circle Line) and the U-Bahn, which was the newly developed electric underground railway. Machines represented progress and significantly improved German people’s living standards as the 20th century progressed.

Rathenau stayed at the front line of technology development through extensive traveling across different continents. He visited Philadelphia in 1876 to attend World Exhibition and was inspired by the newest inventions of the day. The most important American inventions that significantly changed the world were light bulb, electricity, and transmission systems. Rathenau was particularly inspired by the light bulb. In 1878, Edison started working on the improvement of electrical illumination to replace gas and oil based lighting.  Later that same year, Edison founded the Edison Electric Light Company in New York City. After exploring numerous possible materials and going through endless trials, Edison obtained the patent of the first commercially practical incandescent light in 1880. In 1892, Thomas Edison’s Edison General Electric Company of Schenectady and Charles Coffin’s Thomason-Houston Electric Company of Lynn merged together and formed General Electric in New York. Rathenau later obtained the exclusive rights to use Edison’s light bulb in Europe. Machines and inventions defined the age.