The Séance of Walter Rathenau

“They arrive at Peter Sachsa’s well after dark. She finds a séance just about to begin… The objective tonight is to get in touch with the late foreign minister Walter Rathenau… There are specific messages tonight. Questions for the former minister.” (pg. 163).


The séance of Walter Rathenau, conducted by Peter Sachsa at his home, is a strange and somewhat eerie moment in Gravity’s Rainbow that alludes to the consequences of the war and what will become of the world in its wake. It’s simultaneously odd and appropriate that Walter Rathenau, an actual deceased foreign minister and industrialist of Germany who died four years after World War I, was the spirit being sought after in this séance because the people trying to reach him, Nazis wearing “silver-lapel swastikas” (pg. 163), are the same ones who assassinated him in 1922. They did so because he was Jewish and because they saw the Rapallo Treaty, which he had pushed for, as sympathizing with the Russians, who were left-wing communists and idealistically different from the right-wing Nazis.

Rathenau had been in charge of reconstruction after World War I, and the Rapallo Treaty had been part of his efforts to bolster Germany’s economy, which was suffering under heavy sanctions and financial penalties imposed by the Treaty of Versailles after World War I. The Rapallo Treaty actually benefited Germany because it opened up trade with Russia, but the Nazis assassinated Rathenau before it had a chance to work. This makes this séance somewhat symbolic. The Nazis now need advice from a Jewish industrialist who more or less resurrected Germany after its last war.

One of the main points of discussion in this séance is the IG Farben scandal, “whose entire management are about to be purged” (pg. 163) for sharing a weapon design that could turn populations “stone blind” (pg. 163) They’re facing such punishment because they neglected “what such a weapon could do to the dye market after the next war” (pg. 163). IG Farben, it should be noted, is a German company synonymous with war crimes. It is the company responsible for providing Nazis with gas for the chambers in their concentration camps. The allusions to dye-making are in direct reference to it, since its full name translates to “Syndicate of Dye-making Corporations.”

This also indicates that a shift in what constitutes power after World War II, a move into post-colonial society. The fall of the colonial world, I think, is slyly alluded to with the mention of Julius Caesar’s last words: “Et tu Brute, the official lie” (pg. 164). This signals the end of traditional colonialism to me, not only because the end of World War II marked a change in how countries colonize, but because the Roman Empire was one of the first and most powerful empires ever to have existed, and its mention at this time is symbolically significant.

Rathenau goes on to give advice to the Nazis via Peter Sachsa, the crux of which seems to be this: “The real movement is not from death to any rebirth. It is to death-transfigured. The best you can do is polymerize a few dead molecules” (pg. 166) and “You must ask yourself two questions. First, what is the real nature of synthesis? And then: what is the real nature of control” (pg. 167)? The former suggests that the past, in which death has occurred, can’t be eradicated. Polymerization, or combining molecules to make a more complex product, is the only option. The latter — and more importantly Rathenau’s conclusion that the Nazis will cling to their beliefs and fail to let them go — suggests that synthesis and a better understanding of control are the means to progress into the post-colonial industrial economy successfully.

All along, though, the Nazis fail to take any of Rathenau’s message seriously: “Gallows humor. A damned parlor game. Smagard cannot really believe in any of this” (pg. 165). And, of course, a Nazi punctuates the whole affair with an anti-Semitic comment, confirming what the narrator has already told us: “Whatever comes through the medium tonight they will warp, they will edit, into a blessing” (pg. 165). They were never listening, it was a novelty act to them.


Works Cited


I.G. Farben., Mar. 2014. Web. 22 Mar. 2014.


I.G. Farben. Wikipedia, Mar. 2014. Web. 23 Mar. 2014.


Rathenau, Walter (d. 1922)., Mar. 2014. Web. 22 Mar. 2014.


Polymerization., Mar. 2014. Web. 22 Mar. 2014.


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One Response to The Séance of Walter Rathenau

  1. Pingback: Gravity’s Rainbow – The Séance of Walter Rathenau | Frozen Warnings

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