The beginning of the end of German Jewry


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2 April 1933

Letter from Fritz Rathenau to Otto Scheel

The day after the so-called April Boycott in Germany, Fritz Rathenau (1875–1949), an undersecretary at the Prussian Interior Ministry, wrote a letter to the historian and theologian Otto Scheel (1876–1954), whom he had known for many years and held in high esteem.

Rathenau, a cousin of former foreign minister Walther Rathenau who was assassinated by right-wing extremists in 1922, was deeply disturbed by political events and the hatred shown to Jews in Germany. His shock and dismay are expressed in his letter: for over 38 years, he had served as a Prussian official with an "impeccable record"—and now he and his sons were being declared "pariahs and persecuted."

However, his concerns about Germany weighed more heavily than his apprehension about his personal situation. He feared that the exclusion and persecution of Jews would have an adverse effect on the German economy and do irrevocable damage to the country‘s image abroad.

In the second part of the letter, Rathenau addresses Otto Scheel primarily as a theologian. Rathenau regarded religious tolerance as a major achievement of modern times and one of Prussia‘s cultural assets. It was therefore all the more incomprehensible to him that the two major German churches should remain silent on the new government‘s antisemitic policies. Yet despite his despair, Rathenau showed a fighting spirit: "Today I must quit the field as a member of a 'foreign race.' But I do so proudly and without shame."

A few weeks later, on 20 March, Rathenau was removed from his position. He was initially transferred to the Construction and Finance Department but then forced to retire in January 1935.

It is doubtful that Rathenau‘s letter met with sympathy or understanding from Otto Scheel. A member of the national-liberal German People‘s Party (Deutsche Volkspartei, DVP) in the Weimar Republic, Scheel joined the NSDAP in May 1933 and in subsequent years played an active role in the production of Nazi historiography.

Lea Weik

Categorie(s): Berlin | civil servants | occupational ban
Letter from Fritz Rathenau to Otto Scheel (copy, page 1), Berlin, 2 April 1933
Gift of Jan J. Rathenau