On January 30, 1933, Adolf Hitler (1889-1945) became Chancellor of Germany and established the Third Reich, formed under the banner of national socialism, as the country’s ruling party. The Sturmabteilung known informally as the “Brown Shirts”, embarked on a campaign of terror across the nation persecuting opponents of the Reich and those determined to be “undesirable” of Aryan citizenship. Millions of Jews had already fled the country, alarmed by the rise of Hitler’s party and the anti-Semitism spreading like wildfire. Among those who left was famed scientist Albert Einstein (1879-1955), who never returned to the nation of his birth after his departure in 1932. And though he had left Germany, he remained on the radar of the Third Reich which moved swiftly to erase his name from Germany literature. After leaving, Einstein moved across Europe before finally settling in the United States. But what is often neglected in discussions of his life and fame is the time he spent in England as the Nazi party gained strength and war with Germany became a reality.
Admittedly, I knew little of Einstein’s life after fleeing Germany. Today he is remembered for the theory of relativity and his equation E=mc2. Both were groundbreaking events in science but while Einstein was making a name for himself in Britain, Hitler was ramping up efforts to eliminate his opponents abroad and those around Einstein remained keenly aware of the threat. Author Andrew Robinson has examined the late scientist’s time on the run and compiled a story that is both unbelievable and tragic. And though it contains biographical information on Einstein, the book was not written as a definitive account. But the information is crucial to understanding Einstein’s motives and his complicated life.
There is an incident revisited in the book that played an integral part in Einstein’s decision to leave. The murder of journalist and government official Walter Rathenau (1867-1922), served as a wake-up call for German Jews indifferent to growing anti-Semitism and a new group of rebels calling themselves National Socialists. Rathenau’s assassination remains one of Germany’s darkest moments and a pivotal moment in resentment towards Jews. Einstein knew Rathenau personally and was disturbed by his murder. The crime removed any illusions that he would be safe in Germany should Hitler gain power and ten years later, Einstein and second wife Else (1876-1936) left for good. Their arrival in England as captured by the author, shows a Britain receptive and in awe of the Germany scientist. And it is here that Einstein accomplishes some of his greatest feats. However, he was still a man without a home and as Robinson shows, no one knew where he would finally end up. The couple moved around quite a bit and, in the book, Einstein reports from multiple locations playing host to the man awarded the Noble Prize in 1921.
Though the threat of assassination is always present and one on occasion, a high possibility, the author provides valuable insight into Einstein the person. I did not know previously, how Einstein felt about Zionism and his Jewish faith. His relationship with Chaim Weizmann (1874-1952), the First President of Israel, is interesting and shows that Einstein was able to view an issue from both sides when necessary. Further, his relationships with both wives, his son Eduard (1910-1965) and stepchildren from Else are complex and reveal his shortcomings. Fans of Einstein will find these parts of the book both shocking and hard to accept but the reality is that despite his brilliance, he struggled in other aspects of his life. Frankly, we see the human side of Einstein and all his faults. But despite his personal life, he remained at the forefront of science and paved the way for nuclear fission. Interestingly, Robinson provides information about the atomic bomb and Einstein’s role that is often misunderstood. Further, the idea of nuclear fission did not belong to Einstein who was quite indifferent to his own successes. However, after the bomb’s development and use against Japan in August 1945, Einstein became an ardent opponent of its use and earned himself a spot on the subversive list of none other than former Federal Bureau of Investigation Director J. Edgar Hoover (1895-1972). I cannot say I was too surprised by this as Hoover was fanatical about “communists” and others he deemed threats to the United States.
Einstein’s stay in England was temporary and the couple eventually settled in Princeton, New Jersey. The author provides plausible explanations for the decision to leave Europe for America and the simplest reason is correct, in that Einstein needed to be far away from the threat of Nazi terror and in a place where he could find peace. America was not perfect, but it was nothing like Europe being forced to confront the growing German menace. Einstein never returned to Europe, remaining in America until his death in 1955. Today his image can be found on posters, t-shirts, websites, and other memorabilia, but there was a time when his image meant persecution and death. Hitler never succeeded in punishing Einstein, but the Nazis did confiscate everything they found belonging to him. Had they succeeded in capturing Einstein before he left, history and World War II might be quite different today. But as the saying goes, everything happens for a reason. Fans of Albert Einstein will appreciate this book.