Albert Ballin & Walther Rathenau

Commentary by Dr. Gerhard Falk


Two German Patriots


Albert Ballin (1857-1918, pronounced as in Marleen) was the youngest of thirteen siblings. He was born in Hamburg of a Jewish family which had immigrated there from Denmark. His father, Samuel Joseph (1804-1874), had founded a travel agency in Hamburg in 1852. That travel agency was mostly concerned with emigrants seeking to go to America. Upon the death of his father in 1874, Albert, then only 17 years old, took over his father's business. Consequently he became a partner in another travel agency called Morris & Co. which was also engaged in the emigration business to England and America. In 1881, Morris & Co. began to represent the Carr Line which later united with this Sloman Line. Together with yet other shipping companies, these formed the Hamburg Amerika Paket Aktien Gesellshaft, or HAPAG, which became the largest shipping company in Europe under the direction of Albert Ballin.

It was Ballin who developed the first so-called middle passage on all long-distance passenger ships, which made it cheaper for emigrants to travel. In fact, Ballin wrote that “without the middle passage I would be bankrupt within a few weeks.” In 1887, Ballin promoted he rapid passenger service Hamburg-New York and subsequently developed the HAPAG to such an extent that the company was able to build the then largest and fastest ships in the world. In fact, in 1900, the Deutschland won the blue ribbon for the fastest ship ever. In 1906, the biggest ship in the world was put into service. It was called Kaiserin Augusta Victoria or Empress Augusta Victoria. In 1912 the Imperator followed. All this came to the attention of the German Emperor or Kaiser (Caesar).

It was in that year in that Ballin developed Ballinstadt, which consisted of 30 separate buildings devoted to the comfort of Eastern European Jews seeking to migrate to America. Included were separate buildings for sleeping accommodations, several baths, and eating accommodations, as well as rooms for medical examinations. The purpose of Ballinstadt was to allow emigrants who waited for transportation to America an opportunity to live in a secure place.

Although Ballin was so successful in business and a well-known philanthropist as well, Hamburg society would not accept him because he was a Jew. This was despite the fact that the Emperor of Germany, Kaiser Wilhelm II, not only visited Ballin but also invited him repeatedly to his palace in Potsdam, a suburb of Berlin. There, too, the Kaiser's underlings snubbed Ballin as a Jew. The Kaiser himself was also a Jew baiter, but, like all bigots, he found one Jew, in this case Ballin, to be an exception. After all, even Hitler exempted his mother's Jewish doctor from murder on the grounds that he had alleviated her suffering from cancer.

Shortly before the outbreak of the First World War, Ballin used his international contacts to prevent the fighting which finally erupted anyway. After the war began, Ballin made every effort to prevent the entrance of the United States into the war bur failed in this as well. After the war was over he was asked by the German government to discuss peace with the allies, which he did. However, at the total defeat of Germany, and its surrender on November 11, 1918, Ballin viewed his life as having been destroyed and therefore poisoned himself to death.

Today a street in Hamburg is named after him, as is a building at Feldbrunnerstasse #58. Ballin died a suicide because he could not tolerate the defeat of a Germany which never really accepted him and which after him became the graveyard of his people.

Walther Rathenau (1867-1922, pronounced as in cart a now) was born the son of a prominent Jewish businessman in Berlin. His father had been the founder of an electrical engineering company. Walther studied physics, chemistry and philosophy at the University of Berlin and worked as an engineer before joining the board of directors of his father's company in 1899. Prominent in the German Empire before the First World War, he urged German Jews to assimilate, to give up Judaism, to oppose Zionism and to integrate themselves into German society, policies which he believed would lead to the end of anti-Jewish hatred. This attitude did not save him from being caricatured by the German anti-Jewish movement as the archetypical Jewish capitalist.

During the First World War, Rathenau held senior posts in the raw materials department of the War Ministry. Upon his father's death in 1915 he became chairman of the Allgemeine Eletricitäts Gesellschaft.  He became the leading figure in putting Germany's economy on a war footing and enabling Germany to continue its war effort for four years despite acute shortages of labor and raw materials.

After the First World War Rathenau became one of the founders of the German Democratic Party.  In 1921, upon the resignation of the Kaiser, a new democratic German government appointed him minister of reconstruction and in 1922 he became foreign minister. He wanted Germany to fulfill its obligations under the Treaty of Versailles. This, and particularly because he was a Jew, angered German nationalists immensely. They claimed that he was part of a Jewish-Communist conspiracy, and so, on June 24, 1922, Rathenau was murdered by two army officers.

He, like Ballin, died an unnatural death. Both fervently believed that Germany was their Fatherland and that eventually the Jews of that country would have a glorious future there. Neither of them knew how wrong they were. Yet, none of us have a right to second guess them now, for no one foresaw the Holocaust.  Furthermore, even during and after the Holocaust, the American Jewish community refused to help the German Jews during the peacetime years 1933-1941 when that was still possible. Instead, American Jews totally rejected the few German Jews who survived and labeled these immigrants with the same opprobrium, such as arrogant, self seeking and pushy, as had the German haters whom they had just escaped.

Shalom u’vracha.

Dr. Gerhard Falk is the author of numerous publications, including Football & American Identity (2005) &  Youth Culture and the Generation Gap (2005) with Dr. Ursula A. Falk.

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