On June 24, 1922, on a cold, cloudy Saturday morning, Walter Rathenau left his villa in Grunwald and climbed into a black convertible coupe to be taken to his office in central Berlin. Despite all the death threats and warnings of an attack, he was driving unaccompanied.
Five minutes later, at 10:50 a.m., he was overtaken by a car from which right-wing nationalist assassins shot dead Königsallee. The Reich Foreign Minister was martyred in the still young Weimar Republic.
The five-minute journey forms the time and framework for Stephen Abarbanel’s fast-paced novel about Walter Rathenau. Abarbanell reviews his life in these five minutes as if he were in the passage of time.
As if he expected his end and accepted it out of pride, challenge or resignation, the most important episodes pass him again. They line up like main scenes or movies, and are assembled from Abarbanell in an interesting way to form a spectacle of shimmering miniatures.
This is where fact and fiction meet
It is Abarbanel’s third novel, which, like its predecessors “Morgenland” (2017) and “Das Licht der Tage” (2019), is about German-Jewish history and the question of identity. This appears to have been placed in the cradle of Stephane Abarbanel. Because the Abarbanells were Sephardic Jews who, unlike Rathenau, converted in the empire.
In the field of tension between assimilation and difference, the author finds a hero in Rathenau who embodies “the essence of German-Jewish history.” As Shulamit Volkoff sums it up in Rathenau’s biography published in 2012: “The life of a German and a Jew who struggled for his dual identity but insisted that the two were compatible. Which time and again proved his profound humanity.”
It wasn’t Abarbanell’s entry, but Rathenau’s first biography by Harry Graf Kessler from 1928, which is still groundbreaking to this day and which immediately fascinated the former rbb cultural director. His extensive reading, meticulous research, and psychological sympathy lay the deep foundation upon which fact and fiction fuse.
Theologian and rhetorician teacher, Aparnell, has not only linguistic means at his disposal, but also photographic, cinematographic and musical means. Pointy dialogues, brief details, and subtle metaphors such as the figurative vocabulary of electricity (current, contact, voltage) make this historical novel lively and multi-layered.
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On the historical-political level, we delve into the turbulent beginnings of the Weimar Republic, where Rathenau accepted his political duties despite anti-Semitic animosities and against his mother’s will. After the disaster of the First World War and the peace imposed on Versailles, it was important for him to realize his vision of a “politics of fulfillment” with the goal of a peaceful Europe.
You can experience firsthand the diplomatic tightrope law that the newly elected Reich Foreign Minister had to do toward the Allies at the Genoa Conference in 1922. Under great pressure, against his own domestic convictions, he finally signed the separate Treaty of Rapallo with Russia, which he was undone .
At the biographical level, we meet an impressive, strong and ripped man who has many talents. He was an industrial leader, a war-raw materials manager, a reconstruction minister, an automobile enthusiast, a literary star, a brilliant speaker, a gifted painter, an art lover—in short: a dazzling figure of his era.
On a psychological level, Abarbanel portrays a complex, complex man full of contradictions. In his struggle with his father Emile Rathenau, the successful founder of AEG, he struggles to be recognized; Walter is in competition with his younger brother Eric.
The dominant idea is what is not achieved in this life
But after his early death, he was forced to hand over the presidency of the company to his rival, Felix Deutsch. Posture, order and composure are the formative principles of the mother, “as if the law of Sinai had been extended by a Prussian appendix.” Walter is closest to his younger sister Edith, who, with her intellectual and artistic inclinations, runs one of the most prominent Berlin salons.
From a humanistic point of view, the virtues of the Prussian Rathenau – a sense of duty and patriotism, loyalty and courage, education and stability, ambition and vanity – stand in the way of his happiness in life and his love. He is attracted to those who have the courage to be happy. But happiness appears to him only in a few moments when he allows himself to be seduced.
In this way, the inability to accomplish becomes a prevalent idea, which is reflected in the failure of his political mission, which is ultimately unfulfillable, as well as in the unfulfilled love of and from Lili Deutsch. She’s been a close friend and girlfriend for many years – and as the wife of rival and CEO Felix Deutsch, she’s been a taboo subject.
The unexplained and unfulfilled homosexuality of Walter Rathenau was a taboo. Abarbanell has a clever trick ready for this: he invents the anti-romantic character of young photographer Amos Roth, who not only captures a “certain lack of quality in life” but encourages Rathenau to make a daring trip to Luna Park. No, Roth also takes the opposite Zionist position regarding the future of Jews in Germany.
In light of anti-Semitism in Germany and the far-right NSU murders, Stefan Abarbanel wrote “10:50, Grunewald,” a historical novel with frightening themes—and a biographical novel full of knowledge about human nature and humanity.