Einstein in Berlin

Einstein in Berlin

by Thomas Levenson

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In a book that is both biography and the most exciting form of history, here are eighteen years in the life of a man, Albert Einstein, and a city, Berlin, that were in many ways the defining years of the twentieth century.

Einstein in Berlin

In the spring of 1913 two of the giants of modern science traveled to Zurich. Their mission: to offer the most prestigious position in the very center of European scientific life to a man who had just six years before been a mere patent clerk. Albert Einstein accepted, arriving in Berlin in March 1914 to take up his new post. In December 1932 he left Berlin forever. “Take a good look,” he said to his wife as they walked away from their house. “You will never see it again.”

In between, Einstein’s Berlin years capture in microcosm the odyssey of the twentieth century. It is a century that opens with extravagant hopes--and climaxes in unparalleled calamity. These are tumultuous times, seen through the life of one man who is at once witness to and architect of his day--and ours. He is present at the events that will shape the journey from the commencement of the Great War to the rumblings of the next one.

We begin with the eminent scientist, already widely recognized for his special theory of relativity. His personal life is in turmoil, with his marriage collapsing, an affair under way. Within two years of his arrival in Berlin he makes one of the landmark discoveries of all time: a new theory of gravity--and before long is transformed into the first international pop star of science. He flourishes during a war he hates, and serves as an instrument of reconciliation in the early months of the peace; he becomes first a symbol of the hope of reason, then a focus for the rage and madness of the right.

And throughout these years Berlin is an equal character, with its astonishing eruption of revolutionary pathways in art and architecture, in music, theater, and literature. Its wild street life and sexual excesses are notorious. But with the debacle of the depression and Hitler’s growing power, Berlin will be transformed, until by the end of 1932 it is no longer a safe home for Einstein. Once a hero, now vilified not only as the perpetrator of “Jewish physics” but as the preeminent symbol of all that the Nazis loathe, he knows it is time to leave.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780525508953
Publisher: Random House Publishing Group
Publication date: 05/23/2017
Sold by: Random House
Format: NOOK Book
Pages: 496
Sales rank: 1,199,562
File size: 1 MB

About the Author

Thomas Levenson is a professor of science writing at MIT. He is the author of several books, including The Hunt for VulcanEinstein in Berlin, and Newton and the Counterfeiter: The Unknown Detective Career of the World's Greatest Scientist. He has also made ten feature-length documentaries (including a two-hour Nova program on Einstein) for which he has won numerous awards.

Read an Excerpt

Chapter One

"Suspicion against every kind of authority"

The Berlin suburb of Dahlem remains a pretty place, quiet, dominated by its university and the science institutes renamed after the disasters of two World Wars in honor of Max Planck. In 1914 it was less than an hour by train on a good day from the heart of Berlin, and its houses are large and comfortable, ideal for a professor and his family. On his arrival, Einstein moved into an apartment in one of those houses, a flat that his wife, Mileva, had chosen on a visit the previous winter. She and their two sons, aged twelve and four, joined him in mid-April, two weeks later. That household was to survive less than four months.

Marriages end. People once consumed with love grow older, more distant. In this, Einstein and Mileva made a relentlessly ordinary couple. They married; they separated; eventually (despite Einstein's promise to the contrary) they divorced. At first glance, only the speed of the collapse surprises. In Zurich, the Einsteins had seemed to be a functioning family. In Berlin, within weeks, Einstein refused to remain in the same building as his wife. It was no coincidence that the break coincided with the move. A transition that had first appeared as a simple career boost became, or he used it, as the chance to forge a much deeper breach with his past. He had married Mileva at the tail end of a tumultuous adolescence. Moving to Berlin at the near edge of midlife, Einstein found that he could--or would--no longer tolerate the consequences of that choice. Arrival in Berlin was not merely a beginning; it marked the dismal end of a drama in which Einstein had once been the hero.

Albert Einstein was born in the south German city of Ulm in 1879, the first child of Hermann and Pauline Einstein. Hermann came from Buchau, a small town in WYrttemberg, one of the petty Germany states. He was one of what were known as the "meadow Jews," from long-established communities scattered through the small towns and farm villages of south Germany. There had been Einsteins, originally Ainsteins, in Buchau since 1665, but by the time of Hermann's birth in 1847, small-town routines had begun to crumble. The emancipation of Germany's Jews had begun in the wake of Napoleonic reforms, though it took until 1862 for the kingdom of WYrttemberg to grant its Jewish subjects full civil rights. For Hermann, the first step was to attend secondary school in a big city--Stuttgart. He did well there, showing a marked mathematical bent, but his family was large and his two sisters needed dowries, so university was out of the question. Faced with the need to make a living, he abandoned Buchau, this time for the old cathedral city of Ulm, where he sold feathers for mattress stuffing. There, in 1876, he married a young woman--a teenager--named Pauline Koch. They remained in Ulm until 1881, when the young family moved to Munich.

Hermann had married up. The Koch family had been small-town merchants, but they made their move sooner and more aggressively than the Einsteins had. Pauline's father and uncle had entered the wholesale grain trade in the 1850s, building a business near Stuttgart that ultimately became a government supplier. The Kochs educated their daughters. Pauline was thus relatively rich, raised to city customs, sophisticated and smart; eleven years younger than her husband, she nonetheless was the sparking center of her household. She became pregnant in 1878, and almost from the moment that Albert emerged, she fixed on him all the ambition a bright, ambitious young mother could bring to bear.

Einstein inspired some worry early on--his grandmother complained that baby Albert was "fat, much too fat," and he was slow to speak. Family legend had it that he remained silent until his third year, when he finally came out with complete sentences. His first recorded utterance came when he was two. Pauline was pregnant with her second child and Einstein was promised a toy when mother and baby came home from the hospital. On seeing his sister, Maja, for the first time, he is supposed to have asked "But where are its wheels?" He could be a willful child, prone to tantrums that could extend to the point of real violence. He struck out at his sister, once trying to drive a hole in her skull with a toy hoe, and he valiantly resisted the first imposition of formal education, finally striking his tutor with a chair. The woman fled in horror, never to be seen at the Einstein house again. But Albert was Pauline's prize, and she would persuade, flatter, labor as necessary to nurture him. Maja remembered her mother sitting for hours at the piano coaxing, cajoling and ultimately compelling the cantankerous six- and seven-year-old Albert through his violin practice, until finally the boy discovered his genuine love of the instrument. Behavior like this did not go over well at school. At the start, Maja recalled, he was "considered only moderately talented, because he needed time to mull things over, and he wasn't even good at arithmetic, in the sense of being quick and accurate." Unfortunately, in Einstein's first encounter with modern German methods of instruction, his teacher held his pupils' attention by rapping the knuckles of any child who did not answer fast or precisely enough to please him. Einstein suffered.

But not too much. Despite Maja's claim, Einstein was always capable of fine performance, to his mother's immense satisfaction. In his first year of elementary school, when he was seven, she wrote to a relative that "Albert got his grades yesterday. He was ranked first again." The myths that Einstein did poorly at school or that he failed mathematics are only that--myths. With a few exceptions, his marks ranged from good to excellent from primary school into university--and that included creditable work in fields far removed from those he truly cared for. He performed acceptably in the required Greek and Latin lessons at gymnasium, and at university he followed his father's wishes that he gain at least a sliver of useful knowledge by taking--and passing--business classes like Banking and the Stock Exchange and the Mathematical Foundations of Statistics and Personal Insurance. There is no evidence that he ever made any significant use of what he learned in those courses, but the image of Einstein on Wall Street has its charms.

But while Pauline could boast of his ability there was always cause for concern. Even as a small child, Einstein could not hide his contempt for whatever seemed to him arbitrary, coercive or simply stupid in school. For example, Bavaria required all students to take religious instruction, so despite his parents' lack of interest in Judaism, the nine-and-a-half-year-old dutifully began to study with a more pious relative. Almost immediately, he found himself entranced by Jewish tradition, a devotion that lasted about two years. He refused to eat pork, composed religious songs to sing on his way to school, and pondered the biblical stories of creation and miracles. But when he turned eleven he received as a gift Aaron Bernstein's series of popular science books--brightly illustrated introductions to the big ideas of the day. The shock was enormous and immediate. More than half a century later, Einstein recalled that he read the Bernstein series "with breathless attention," and that "through the reading of popular scientific books I soon reached the conviction that much in the stories of the Bible could not be true. The consequence was a positively fanatic orgy of freethinking, coupled with the impression that youth is intentionally being deceived by the state through lies."

Einstein went on to write that this loss of faith was "crushing," and that "suspicion against every kind of authority grew out of this experience, a skeptical attitude towards the convictions which were alive in any specific social environment--an attitude which has never again left me . . ." The immediate consequence of this revelation came in secondary school, where he found himself virtually at war with the faculty at Munich's prestigious Luitpold Gymnasium. As he remembered it decades later, the school had been a maelstrom of arrogance and stupidity, its acts of intellectual violence directed at his independence of mind and will, committed not only by the school but by the state of which it was an arm.

One almost pities his teachers. As Maja recalled, one of his instructors lost patience one day and snapped that nothing would ever become of him. When Einstein complained that he had done nothing wrong, the teacher replied that it was impossible to lead a class with him in the room because his attitude lacked the required respect. He hated being treated like this. "The style of teaching in most subjects was repugnant to him," Maja wrote, adding that "the military tone of the school, the systematic training in the worship of authority that was supposed to accustom pupils at an early age to military discipline was also particularly unpleasant for the boy."

The crisis came in 1894, when his parents, uncle and sister moved first to Milan, then to Pavia, in northern Italy, so that Hermann Einstein and his brother could establish a new business there. Einstein remained behind with distant relatives to complete his schooling at the gymnasium. He fought yet again with one of his instructors, and using the incident as a pretext, he persuaded his family doctor to write a note saying he was suffering from an unspecified nervous ailment that prevented him from attending school. He left Munich, made his way to Italy, arrived at his parents' house without warning, and announced his decision to them: he was going to renounce his German citizenship. Statelessness was preferable to allegiance to a Germany he already disdained.

There was a little more to the story, of course. Einstein had a very practical motive for escape. If he remained in Munich past his sixteenth birthday he was subject to conscription into the imperial army. Should he fail to appear when summoned, the law would consider him a deserter. It is hard now to even imagine him as a soldier. As the historian Fritz Stern put it, "The image of Einstein in a field-gray uniform does boggle the mind"--and pity the poor sergeant who would have had to try to turn the young Einstein into any sort of trooper. But the issue was more than just a simple desire to avoid military service. When Einstein became a Swiss citizen in 1901 (after Zurich's municipal police had concluded that he was "a very eager, industrious and extremely solid man"), he did so knowing that the privileges of citizenship brought with them the obligation to enter the Swiss army. As required, he presented himself to the military medical examiners on March 13, 1901, but they found that he had varicose veins and flat and sweaty feet and concluded that he was unfit for duty. There is no suggestion that he minded the snub. At this moment in his life he did not hate all uniforms, just the kaiser's.

Einstein did take minimal precautions before abandoning Munich. He used the doctor's note that declared he was unfit to attend classes to get his formal release from gymnasium, thus avoiding the stigma of school failure. When he reached his parents' new home in Pavia, he promised them he would study on his own for the entrance examination to Zurich's Polytechnic, which was not only a leading technical university but happily did not require candidates who passed the requisite examinations to have completed secondary school. Even so, Maja wrote, his parents were "alarmed by his high-handed behavior," and apparently tried to nudge him back on course; but he "adamantly declared that he would not return to Munich" under any circumstances. Of necessity, Pauline and Hermann "resigned themselves to the new situation with grave misgivings."

Einstein delivered. Maja reported that he worked systematically through the necessary textbooks, though she did admit that "his work habits were rather odd: even in a large, quite noisy group, he would withdraw to the sofa, take pen and paper in hand, set the inkstand precariously on the armrest, and lose himself so completely in a problem that the buzz of voices stimulated rather than disturbed him." The work was not only play for him, it was devotion, almost prayer. The religious metaphor is his. He dated the discovery of his vocation back to a gift he received when he was twelve: "A wonder . . . a little book dealing with Euclidean plane geometry." It was revelation: "Here were assertions," he was to write, "as, for example, that the intersection of the three altitudes of a triangle in one point, which--though by no means evident--could nevertheless be proved with such certainty that any doubt appeared to be out of the question. This lucidity certainly made an indescribable impression on me."

That book was a German version of Euclid, given to Einstein by Max Talmud, a medical student who was a friend of the family and tutored Albert on the side. Responding to the boy's hunger, Talmud followed with more advanced texts, which he also devoured, until, before long, the teacher could no longer keep up with his student.

The examination for the Polytechnic came in October 1895, ten months after Einstein had left Munich. As he had expected--and promised his parents--he did well on the math and physics tests. But his humanities papers were another matter, and Einstein admitted that although his examiners were perfectly kind to him, "that they failed me seemed . . . entirely just." Chastened just enough, Einstein enrolled at the cantonal secondary school at Aarau, a small town near Zurich, with the promise that after graduation, he would be guaranteed a place at the Polytechnic. Aarau gave him an academic experience unlike anything he had yet encountered. He lodged with Jost Winteler, the classics teacher at the cantonal school, and the Winteler family became a surrogate for his own. Winteler was liberal in his politics and contemptuous of what both he and his lodger saw as the German love of guns and bluster. In the evenings, the Wintelers would sit around the supper table, reading to one another and debating, and Einstein was welcomed into the circle and expected to speak his mind. The Aarau school was similarly progressive, with a new laboratory facility that could have been purpose-built as Einstein's playground. Even his musical talent drew praise. The contrast with the Luitpold Gymnasium could not have been more stark. Aarau became "an oasis of civilization within that European oasis, Switzerland."

Einstein responded exuberantly to the change in circumstances, and delivered on his side of the bargain. Final exams came in September 1896, and he ranked first in his class. Again, the math and natural science tests posed no difficulties, but a hint of what his year in Aarau meant for him came in his French examination. His thoroughly mediocre grade of 3 out of a possible 6 was entirely deserved, given his cavalier approach to the language's grammar and syntax. But he titled his essay "My Plans for the Future" (Mes Projets d'Avenir), and brief as it is, only three paragraphs, it conveys confidence, ambition, and a ready sense of irony: ". . . young people especially like to contemplate bold projects," he wrote, and "it is natural for a serious young man to envision his desired goals with the greatest possible precision." Since no one could be more serious than he, he detailed his prospects. Assuming he passed his exams, he expected to study mathematics and physics at the Zurich Polytechnic, with his objective a teaching job focused on "the theoretical part of these sciences." What drove him to this plan? "Most of all, my individual inclination for abstract and mathematical thinking"--though he also acknowledged that his "lack of imagination and practical sense" might have something to do with his choices. He saved the most telling statement for last. He would become a theoretician and a teacher because, in the end, he was "much attracted by a certain independence offered by the scientific profession."

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