Life & Culture

The country home of an assassinated Jewish German politician is transformed by art

The killing of Walther Rathenau was a turning point in German history


A hundred years ago, on June 24 1922, Walther Rathenau — Germany’s first and only Jewish Foreign Minister — fell victim to an assassin’s bullet. His murder heralded the rise of the violently antisemitic German nationalism that would tear the continent apart.

“Republican and monarchist Germany met at the crossroads today”, the New York Times reported. “Between them lay the body of Walther Rathenau… torn to bits of hand-grenade and bullets. This body, which tomorrow will lie in the Reichstag… will become a symbol for a coming war to the death between those who follow the Kaiser and those who follow democracy.”

A wealthy industrialist whose father founded AEG, Rathenau was a patriot who played a leading role in the German war effort — and called on his country to fight on as late as November 1918. But now, he was a prominent member of Weimar Germany’s new government, personally responsible for negotiating the Rapallo Pact with Bolshevik Russia which many saw as a betrayal. His assassins chose to commit suicide rather than hand themselves over to the police, but Ernst Techow, who drove the car for them, was captured, tried and convicted. His fear of “Judeo-Bolshevism” — and belief that Rathenau was one of the “three hundred Elders of Zion” featured in the infamous Protocols — underlined the role of antisemitic conspiracy theories in Germany’s most infamous political crime.

The great Habsburg Jewish writer, Joseph Roth, was one of many journalists who came to Berlin for the trial. He marked the second anniversary of Rathenau’s assassination with a visit to his home in the plush suburb of Grunewald — by then a museum, but with limited public access. “He lived wonderfully”, Roth wrote. “Among great books and rare objects, amid beautiful paintings and colours… surrounded by the evidence of the human past, of human wisdom, human beauty, human strength, and human suffering; by the breath of the eternal human... In one room, on one table, in peaceful and significant proximity I found the wise old Shulchan Aruch …and the old [Lutheran] Weissenfelsische Songbook. Pervading the house and the being of this man was the spirit of conciliation.” Not every murder, he concluded, carried the same weight, “[t]his once counted for a thousand, to be neither forgotten nor revenged.”
The truth would be more complicated. In 1933, when the Nazis came to power, they tore down Rathenau’s official Weimar memorial and turned his murderers into national heroes. The memory of their victim was resurrected in 1946, when “the liberal-democratic parties of Germany” unveiled a new memorial at the site of his death. “The health of a people is determined by its inner life — the life of its soul and its spirit”, read the inscription, invoking both Rathenau’s qualities and the horror of Germany’s recent past. Even today, you sometimes see flowers at this place.
Yet those who would truly remember Walther Rathenau might do better to take the train from Berlin to Bad Freienwalde, a picturesque historic town deep in rural Brandenburg, with an architecturally remarkable Schloss built in 1798/9 for Queen Friederike Luise. Like many early 20th-century Jewish millionaires, Rathenau had a country house and this little palace was a place he loved.

In 1909, Rathenau bought Schloss Freienwalde and everything that remained of its contents, with a view to restoring this neglected gem in the spirit of the Prussian 18th century. For Rathenau was an intellectual and aesthete as well as a politician, who saw the overblown architecture of Wilhelmine Germany as a symptom of its political overreach. In contrast, this little palace, designed by the great Prussian architect David Gilly, symbolised for him a now forgotten but better Prussia: both politically — through its association with the Prussian Reform Era — and aesthetically. So it was that the Prussian queen’s summerhouse rapidly acquired a new face through a series of subtle architectural refinements — refinements that gestured towards the needs of the present while remaining imbued with the spirit of the past.
To its owner, the political symbolism of this undertaking was clear; for contemporaries, it was less obvious. Most found Rathenau’s Schloss alienating, with its beautifully preserved wallpaper, carefully restored furniture, and spartan 18th-century layout. Yet Rathenau felt at ease in it. Here — only here —he found the peace to paint, in a style reflecting the influence of his cousin and teacher Max Liebermann. Here too, he produced his major works, including his wartime bestseller, Of Things to Come (1917).
There was something transgressive about all this, and Rathenau knew it. This was a man once deemed unfit to serve as a Prussian reserve officer simply because he was Jewish. Small wonder that he insisted on keeping the Prussian royal crown atop the flagpole at Schloss Freienwalde, and on maintaining its formal appellation as a “royal castle”. Even Rathenau’s erstwhile mentor, Maximilian Harden, was inclined to lump him in with other so-called Kaiserjuden — men who used their wealth and taste to curry favour in court circles.
With time, the trope of the rich Jewish businessman who sought to buy his way into the Prussian elite by aping (and displacing) the Hohenzollerns would become a central element of the antisemitic critiques levelled at Rathenau. In a way, this was understandable. It hardly behoved a man who spoke so readily of “equal rights” and “social community” to vaunt his wealth so publicly amid the poverty and suffering that characterised the last years of the war. Yet the vitriol aimed at Rathenau’s appropriation of Schloss Freienwalde amounted to more than class envy. To assert (as völkisch agitators did) that he had set a sculpture above the palace gate featuring the heads of European dynasties in a sacrificial bowl, was to articulate — in brutally graphic form — the calumny that Rathenau and his Jewish co-conspirators had been plotting to overthrow the Hohenzollern monarchy from the start of the war.
In 1926, his heirs gave Schloss Freienwalde to the local authority as a memorial to its Jewish owner and the “old-Prussian” culture of the late 18th century. After 1933, all trace of his memory was eradicated. The house suffered terribly during the Russian invasion at the end of the Second World War, but survived the GDR as a cultural centre.
After 1989, it finally became possible to resurrect Rathenau’s memory here, but the excellent small museum is over an hour from Berlin: too far from the tourist trail to receive many visitors. This is troubling. Rathenau is a martyred icon of German democracy and remains the country’s most successful Jewish politician — a man whose fate heralded the destruction of his world and all he represented.
This has long been a space characterised by loss: Rathenau’s assassination, its lost history during the GDR, and ongoing efforts to fill the gaps with artefacts and furniture. Now, with the help of the University of Oxford’s Jewish Country Houses Project and Berlin-based curator Ruth Ur, museum director Dr Reinhard Schmook is staking out a more dynamic future.
This month, the leading British German painter Sophie von Hellermann has been invited to use the Schloss as a studio in which to paint scenes from Rathenau’s life in her characteristic expressive style, and to breathe new life into this sleeping beauty of a house by painting directly on its walls.

Combining historicism and modernity in a way absolutely in keeping with Rathenau’s life, this intervention promises to revive his legacy at Schloss Freienwalde and — perhaps — establish its importance as a site of German, Jewish and European memory. There was never a better, or more fitting, time to visit and contemplate the tragic life of its owner.

Abigail Green is Professor of Modern European History at the University of Oxford and directs the Jewish Country Houses Project.
Sophie von Hellermann at Schloss Freienwalde from June 26, 2022 and Galerie Wentrup Berlin from July 22, 2022. Curated by Ruth Ur for the Jewish Country Houses Project.
Schloss Freienwalde, Rathenaustraße 3, D-16259 Bad Freienwalde (Oder). Email:, Tel +49 3344 300367. Opening times: Thursday to Sunday apart from public holidays, 11am to 5pm

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