“Antisemitism is strong here and political reaction is violent,” Albert Einstein wrote Paul Ehrenfest from Berlin in December 1919.608 The letter coincides with Einstein’s discovery by the popular press, the beginning of his years of international celebrity. “A new figure in world history,” the Berliner Illustrirte Zeitung described him under a cover photograph on December 14, “. . . whose investigations signify a complete revision of our concepts of nature, and are on a par with the insights of a Copernicus, a Kepler, a Newton.”609 Immediately the anti-Semites and fascists set to work on him.
Einstein was already, at forty-three, respected in the first rank of theoretical physicists. He had been nominated for the Nobel Prize in all but two years since 1910, the secondings increasing in number after 1917; Max Planck, who was not given to exaggeration, wrote the Nobel Committee in 1919 that Einstein “made the first step beyond Newton.”610, 611 The award might have come sooner than in 1922 (belatedly for 1921: the 1922 prize was Bohr’s) had relativity been less paradoxical a revelation.
Physically Einstein was not yet the amused, grandfatherly notable of his later American years. His mustache was still dark and his thick black hair had only begun to gray. C. P. Snow would observe “a massive body, very heavily muscled.”612 The Swabian-born physicist’s friends thought his loud laugh boyish; his enemies thought it rude. “A powerful sensuality,” Snow suspected, suspecting also that Einstein took his sensuality to be “one of the chains of personality that ought to be slipped off.”613 Nor had he yet learned, in the psychoanalyst Erik Erikson’s words, “to look into cameras as if he were meeting the eyes of the future beholders of his image.”614 In the past year Einstein had endured a stomach ulcer, jaundice and a painful divorce; he had lost and partly regained fifty-six pounds; his mother was dying of cancer: fatigue stained his expressive face. Leopold Infeld, a young Polish physicist who knocked at his door in postwar Berlin seeking a letter of recommendation, found him “dressed in a morning coat and striped trousers with one important button missing.” Infeld knew Einstein’s face from magazines and newsreels. “But no picture could reproduce the shining glow of his eyes.”615 They were large and dark brown, and the diffident young visitor was one of many—Leo Szilard was another—who found comfort in those cold days in their honest warmth.
The immediate occasion for world notice was an eclipse of the sun. Einstein had presented a paper to the Prussian Academy of Sciences in Berlin on November 25, 1915, “The field equations of gravitation,” in which, he reported happily, “finally the general theory of relativity is closed as a logical structure.”616 The paper stands as his first finished statement of the general theory. It was susceptible of proof. It explained mysterious anomalies in the orbit of Mercury—that confirmed prediction was the one which left Einstein feeling something had snapped in him. The general theory also predicted that starlight would be deflected, when it passed a massive body like the sun, through an angle equal to twice the value Newtonian theory predicts. The Great War delayed measurement of the Einstein value. A total eclipse of the sun (which would block the sun’s glare and make the stars beyond it visible) due on May 29, 1919, offered the first postwar occasion. The British, not the Germans, followed through. Cambridge astronomer Arthur Stanley Eddington led an expedition to Principe Island, off the West African coast; the Greenwich Observatory sent another expedition to Sobral, inland from the coast of northern Brazil. A joint meeting of the Royal Society and the Royal Astronomical Society at Burlington House in London on November 6, under a portrait of Newton, confirmed the stunning results: the Einstein value, not the Newton value, held good. “One of the greatest achievements in the history of human thought,” J. J. Thomson told the assembled worthies. “It is not the discovery of an outlying island but of a whole continent of new scientific ideas.”617
That was news. The Times headlined it REVOLUTION IN SCIENCE and the word spread. From that day forward Einstein was a marked man.
It rankled German chauvinists, including rightist students and some physicists, that the eyes of the world should turn to a Jew who had declared himself a pacifist during the bloodiest of nationalistic wars and who spoke out for internationalism now. When Einstein prepared to offer a series of popular lectures in the University of Berlin’s largest hall—everyone was lecturing on relativity that winter—students complained of the expense for coal and electricity.618 The student body president challenged Einstein to hire his own hall. He ignored the insult and spoke in the university hall as scheduled, but at least one of his lectures, in February, was disrupted.619
He was challenged more seriously the following August by an organization assembled under obscure leadership and extravagant but clandestine financing that called itself the Committee of German Scientists for the Preservation of Pure Scholarship. The 1905 Nobel laureate Philipp Lenard, seeing relativity hailed and Einstein come to fame, retreated into a vindictive anti-Semitism and lent his respectability to the Committee, which attacked relativity theory as a Jewish corruption and Einstein as a tasteless self-promoter. The organization held a well-attended public meeting in Berlin’s Philharmonic Hall on August 20. Einstein went to listen—one speaker, as Leopold Infeld recalled, “said that uproar about the theory of relativity was hostile to the German spirit”—and stayed to scorn the crackpot talk with laughter and satiric applause.620
The criticism nevertheless stung. Einstein mistakenly thought the majority of his German colleagues subscribed to it.621 Rashly he struck off an uncharacteristically defensive statement. It appeared in the Berliner Tageblatt three days after the Philharmonic Hall meeting. “My Answer to the Antirelativity Theory Company Ltd.”622 shocked his friends, but it presciently identified the deeper issues of the Committee attack. “I have good reason to believe that motives other than a desire to search for truth are at the bottom of their enterprise,” Einstein wrote. And parenthetically, leaving his implications unstated in elision: “(Were I a German national, with or without swastika, instead of a Jew of liberal, international disposition, then . . .).” A month later his sense of humor had returned; he asked Max Born not to be too hard on him: “Everyone has to sacrifice at the altar of stupidity from time to time . . . and this I have done with my article.”623 But before then he had seriously considered leaving Germany.
It would not be the first time. Einstein had renounced German citizenship and departed the country once before, at the extraordinary age of sixteen. That earlier rejection, which he reversed two decades later, prepared him for the final one, after the Weimar interlude, when Adolf Hitler came to power.
Germany had been united in empire for only eight years when Einstein was born in Ulm on March 14, 1879. He grew up in Munich. He was slow to speak, but he was not, as legend has it, slow in his studies; he consistently earned the highest or next-highest marks in mathematics and Latin in school and Gymnasium. At four or five the “miracle” of a compass his father showed him excited him so much, he remembered, that he “trembled and grew cold.” It seemed to him then that “there had to be something behind objects that lay deeply hidden.”624 He would look for the something which objects hid, though his particular genius was to discover that there was nothing behind them to hide; that objects, as matter and as energy, were all; that even space and time were not the invisible matrices of the material world but its attributes. “If you will not take the answer too seriously,” he told a clamorous crowd of reporters in New York in 1921 who asked him for a short explanation of relativity, “and consider it only as a kind of joke, then I can explain it as follows. It was formerly believed that if all material things disappeared out of the universe, time and space would be left. According to the relativity theory, however, time and space disappear together with the things.”625
The quiet child became a rebellious adolescent. He was working his own way through Kant and Darwin and mathematics while the Gymnasium pounded him with rote. He veered off into religion—Judaism—and came back bitterly disillusioned: “Through the reading of popular scientific books I soon reached the conviction that much of the stories in the Bible could not be true. . . . The consequence was a positively fanatic free-thinking coupled with the impression that youth is intentionally being deceived by the state through lies; it was a crushing impression. Suspicion against every kind of authority grew out of this experience, a sceptical attitude towards the convictions which were alive in any specific social environment.”626
His father stumbled in business, not for the first time.627 The family moved across the Alps to Milan to start again, but Albert stayed behind in a boardinghouse to complete his Gymnasium work. He was probably expelled from the Gymnasium before he could quit. He acquired a doctor’s certificate claiming nervous disorders. It was not only the autocracy of his German school that he despised. “Politically,” he wrote later, “I hated Germany from my youth.”628 He had thought of renouncing his citizenship while his family was still in Munich, as a rebellious adolescent of fifteen. That began a long family debate. He won it after he moved from Milan to Zurich to try again to finish his schooling; his father wrote the German authorities on his behalf. Einstein renounced his German citizenship officially on January 28, 1896. The Swiss took him aboard in 1901. He liked their doughty democracy and was prepared to serve in their militia but was found medically unfit (because of flat feet and varicose veins); but one reason he quit Germany was to avoid the duty of Prussian conscription, Kadavergehorsamkeit, the obedience of the corpse.629
The boy and the young man rebelled to protect the child within—the “victorious child,” Erik Erikson has it in Einstein’s case, the child with its uninhibited creativity preserved into adulthood.630 Einstein grazes the point in a letter to James Franck:
I sometimes ask myself how it came about that I was the one to develop the theory of relativity. The reason, I think, is that a normal adult never stops to think about problems of space and time. These are things which he has thought of as a child. But my intellectual development was retarded, as a result of which I began to wonder about space and time only when I had already grown up.631
“Relativity” was a misnomer. Einstein worked his way to a new physics by demanding consistency and greater objectivity of the old. If the speed of light is a constant, then something else must serve as the elastic between two systems at motion in relation to one another—even if that something else is time. If a body gives off an amount E of energy its mass minutely diminishes. But if energy has mass, then mass must have energy: the two must be equivalent: E = mc2, E/c2 = m.632 (I.e., an amount of energy E in joules is equal to an amount of mass m in kilograms multiplied by the square of the speed of light, an enormous number, 3 × 108 meters per second times 3 × 108 m/s = 9 × 1016 or 90,000,000,000,000,000 joules per kilogram. Dividing E by c2 demonstrates how large an amount of energy is contained within even a small mass.)
Einstein came to that beautiful, harrowing equivalency in 1907, in a long paper published in the Jahrbuch der Radioaktivität und Elektronik. “It is possible,” he wrote there, “that radioactive processes may become known in which a considerably larger percentage of the mass of the initial atom is converted into radiations of various kinds than is the case for radium.”633 Like Soddy and Rutherford earlier in England, he saw the lesson of radium that there was vast energy stored in matter, though he was not at all sure that it could be released, even experimentally. “The line of thought is amusing and fascinating,” he confided to a friend at the time, “but I wonder if the dear Lord laughs about it and has led me around by the nose.”634 He had his Ph.D. then from the University of Zurich and Max Planck had begun to correspond with him, but he had not yet left the patent office where he worked as a technical expert from 1902 to 1909, the years of his first great burst of papers including those on Brownian motion, the photoelectric effect and special relativity.
He habilitated as a Privatdozent at the University of Bern in 1908 but held on to the patent-office job for another year for security. Finally in October 1909, after receiving his first honorary doctorate, he moved up to associate professor at the University of Zurich. A full professorship enticed him to isolated Prague—he was married now, with a wife and two sons to support—but happily the Polytechnic in Zurich drew him back a year later with a matching offer. The academic hesitations measure how radically new was his work. It was 1913 before Max Planck, Fritz Haber and a muster of German notables, recognizing the waste, offered him a triple appointment in Berlin: a research position under the aegis of the Prussian Academy of Sciences, a research professorship at the university and the directorship of the planned Kaiser Wilhelm Institute for Physics. After the Germans left, Einstein quipped to his assistant, Otto Stern, that they were “like men looking for a rare postage stamp.”635
He arrived in Berlin in April 1914. In the war years, separated from his first wife and living alone, he completed the general theory. To Max Born that “great work of art” was “the greatest feat of human thinking about nature, the most amazing combination of philosophical penetration, physical intuition, and mathematical skill” even though “its connections with experience were slender.”636 Einstein’s crowning achievement ameliorated for him the universal madness of the war:
I begin to feel comfortable amid the present insane tumult, in conscious detachment from all things which preoccupy the crazy community. Why should one not be able to live contentedly as a member of the service personnel in the lunatic asylum? After all, one respects the lunatics as the people for whom the building in which one lives exists. Up to a point, you can make your own choice of institution—though the distinction between them is smaller than you think in your younger years.637
Einstein raised funds for the Zionist cause of a Hebrew university in Palestine on a first trip to the United States, with Chaim Weizmann, in April and May 1921. He had seen the crowds of Eastern Jews stumbling into Berlin in the wake of war and revolution, watched the German incitement against them and decided to take their part. His guide to Zionist thinking was the eloquent spokesman and organizer Kurt Blumenfeld, who also served in that capacity to the young Hannah Arendt. It was Blumenfeld who convinced him to accompany Weizmann to America—his relations with the forceful, single minded Weizmann, Einstein told Abraham Pais once, “were, as Freud would say, ambivalent.”638 He lectured on relativity at Columbia, the City College of New York and Princeton, met Fiorello La Guardia and President Warren G. Harding, conceived “a new theory of eternity” sitting through formal speeches at the annual dinner of the National Academy of Sciences and spoke to crowds of enthusiastic American Jews.639
Back home he wrote that he “first discovered the Jewish people” in America. “I have seen any number of Jews, but the Jewish people I have never met either in Berlin or elsewhere in Germany. This Jewish people which I found in America came from Russia, Poland, and Eastern Europe generally. These men and women still retain a healthy national feeling; it has not yet been destroyed by the process of atomization and dispersion.”640 The statement implicitly criticizes the Jews of Germany, whose “undignified assimilationist cravings and strivings,” Einstein wrote elsewhere, had “always . . . annoyed” him.641 Blumenfeld propounded a radical, post-assimilatory Zionism and had taught him well. A decade later Hannah Arendt would write that “in a society on the whole hostile to Jews . . . it is possible to assimilate only by assimilating to anti-Semitism also.”642 Einstein specialized in driving assumptions to their logical conclusions: clearly he had arrived at a similar understanding of the “Jewish question.”
He was now not only the most famous scientist in the world but also a known spokesman for Jewish causes. In Berlin on June 24, 1922, right-wing extremists gunned down Walther Rathenau, the Weimar Republic’s first Foreign Minister, a physical chemist and industrialist friend of Einstein and a highly visible Jew. It appeared that Einstein might be next. “I am supposed to belong to that group of persons whom the people are planning to assassinate,” he wrote Max Planck. “I have been informed independently by serious persons that it would be dangerous for me in the near future to stay in Berlin or, for that matter, to appear anywhere in public in Germany.”643 He lived privately until October, then left with his second wife, Elsa, on a long trip to the Far East and Japan, receiving notice of his Nobel Prize en route. He spent twelve days in Palestine on the way back and stopped over in Spain. By the time he returned to Berlin, German preoccupation with politics had temporarily retreated behind preoccupation with the Dadaistic mark, then soaring toward 54,000 to the dollar.644 Einstein went on with his work, including the Einstein-Szilard refrigerator pump and his first efforts toward a unified field theory, but began frequently to travel abroad.
* * *
The anti-Semitism Einstein found strong in Berlin in December 1919 was rampant in Munich. Pale, thin, thirty-year-old Adolf Hitler sat down that month at the single battered table in the cramped office of the German Workers Party, formerly a taproom, to draft his party’s platform. A grotesque wood carving served as inspiration. It would follow its master into history; a touring Australian academic encountered it again in 1936:
I was being shown round a famous collection of [Nazi] Party relics in Munich. The curator was a mild old man, a student of the old German academic class.645 After showing me everything, he led, almost with bated breath, to his pièce de résistance. He produced a small sculptured wooden gibbet from which was suspended a brutally realistic figure of a dangling Jew. This piece of humourless sadism, he said, decorated the table at which Hitler founded the Party, seventeen years ago.
His pale blue eyes shining, Hitler read out the twenty-five points of his party’s program the following February in the Festsaal of Munich’s Hofbräuhaus before nearly two thousand people, the largest crowd the little German Workers Party had yet attracted. “These points of ours,” he had shouted in triumph the day he finished drafting them, “are going to rival Luther’s placard on the doors of Wittenberg!” All or part of six of them applied specifically to Jews: that Jews were not countrymen “of German blood” and therefore could not be citizens; that only citizens could hold public office or publish German-language newspapers; that no more nonGermans might immigrate into the country and that all non-Germans admitted since the beginning of the Great War should be expelled.646 The twenty-five points were never officially declared the program of the Nationalsozialistiche Deutsche Arbeiterpartei, the Nazi Party, which the German Workers Party evolved to, but their power was felt nevertheless.
The Beer Hall Putsch on November 8, 1923, delivered Hitler to a comfortable, sunlit cell in Landsberg prison, where he dictated his personal and political testament to his bashful acolyte Rudolf Hess. Mein Kampf has much to say about the Jews. Across the nearly seven hundred pages of its two volumes it refers to Jewry more frequently than to any other subject except Marxism—and Hitler considered Marxism a Jewish invention and a Jewish “weapon.”647
Jews, the future Chancellor of Germany declares in Mein Kampf, are “no lovers of water.”648 He “often grew sick to my stomach from [their] smell.” Their dress is “unclean,” their appearance “generally unheroic.” “A foreign people,” they have “definite racial characteristics”; they are “inferior being[s],” “vampires” with “poison fangs,” “yellow fist[s]” and “repulsive traits.” “The personification of the devil as the symbol of all evil assumes the living shape of the Jew.”
The attributes of the Jew are legion, Hitler goes on. The Jew is “a garbage separator, splashing his filth in the face of humanity.” Or he is a “scribbler . . . who poison[s] men’s souls like germ-carriers of the worst sort.” Or “the cold-hearted, shameless, and calculating director of this revolting vice traffic in the scum of the big city.” “Was there any form of filth or profligacy,” Hitler asks rhetorically, “ . . . without at least one Jew involved in it? If you cut even cautiously into such an abscess, you found, like a maggot in a rotting body, often dazzled by the sudden light—a kike!”
The Jew is “no German.” Jews are a “race of dialectical liars”; a “people which lives only for this earth”; “the great masters of the lie”; “traitors, profiteers, usurers, and swindlers”; a “world hydra”; “a horde of rats.” “Alone in this world they would stifle in filth and offal.”
“Without any true culture,” the Jew is “a parasite in the body of other peoples,” “a sponger who like a noxious bacillus keeps spreading as soon as a favorable medium invites him.” “He lacks idealism in any form.” He is an “eternal blood-sucker” of “diabolical purposes,” “restrained by no moral scruples,” who “poisons the blood of others, but preserves his own.” He “systematically ruins women and girls”: “With satanic joy on his face, the black-haired Jewish youth lurks in wait for the unsuspecting girl whom he defiles with his blood, thus stealing her from her people.” He is “master over bastards and bastards alone” and “it was and is Jews who bring the Negroes into the Rhineland, always with the same secret thought and clear aim of ruining the hated white race by the necessarily resulting bastardization.” Syphilis is a “Jewish disease,” a “Jewification of our spiritual life and mammonization of our mating instinct [that] will sooner or later destroy our entire offspring.” The Jew “makes a mockery of natural feelings, overthrows all concepts of beauty and sublimity, of the noble and the good, and instead drags men down into the sphere of his own base nature.” “An apparition in a black caftan and black hair locks,” responsible for “spiritual pestilence worse than the Black Death of olden times,” the Jew is a “coward,” a “plunderer,” a “menace,” a “foreign element,” a “viper,” a “tyrant,” a “ferment of decomposition.”
The sun shines in the wide windows of Hitler’s cell at Landsberg.649 Boyish in lederhosen, he remembers that he was blinded by mustard gas below Ypres.650 He wrote a poem during the war, a poem out of a dream, before he took shrapnel in the thigh on the Somme, before Ypres:
I often go on bitter nights651
To Wotan’s oak in the quiet glade
With dark powers to weave a union—
The runic letters the moon makes with its magic spell
And all who are full of impudence during the day
Are made small by the magic formula!
. . . . .
Hitler’s testament is almost finished. He dictates, his blanched face tumefying:
If at the beginning of the War and during the War twelve or fifteen thousand of these Hebrew corrupters of the people had been held under poison gas, as happened to hundreds of thousands of our very best German workers in the field, the sacrifice of millions at the front would not have been in vain.652
* * *
The dispersion of the Jewish people from Palestine—the Diaspora—began in the sixth century B.C. when Babylon conquered the southern Palestinian kingdom of Judah, destroyed Solomon’s temple and carried a large body of Jews into captivity.653 By the beginning of the Christian era, under Roman hegemony, Jews had established communities in Egypt, in Greece, around the Mediterranean and on the shores of the Black Sea and there were Jewish slaves with the Roman legions on the Rhine. Conditions worsened again for the Jews when the Empire was Christianized in the fourth century A.D. with the conversion of the Emperor Constantine; Christianity and Judaism competed, in a Darwinian sense, for the same Holy Land and the same holy books. Under systematic persecution only a small remnant of the Jewish people remained in Judea. The fantasy of Jews as a brotherhood of evil was invented during this era when Christianity fought its missionary way to dominance.654
In the disorder of the Dark Ages the Jews lost even their vestigial Roman citizenship. Those who sought protection won it from rulers like Charlemagne’s son Louis the Pious who knew their worth as merchants and craftsmen, but the price of protection was that they became the ruler’s property. Their rights were thus no longer inherent but chartered. Against that threatening insecurity Jews could count their gain of judicial autonomy: within their communities they were allowed to administer their own laws. In parts of Spain they had the power even of life and death.
The medieval Church, challenged by the spread of learning and the militancy of Islam to shore up its defenses against heresy, exercised its increasing power over the Jews balefully. The Lateran Councils of 1179 and 1215 made the baleful conflict visible by denying Jews authority over Christians, denying them Christian servants, relegating moneylending to Jews by forbidding it to Christians, forbidding Christians lodging in Jewish quarters and thus officially sanctioning the establishment of ghettos and, most onerously, requiring every Jew to wear a distinguishing badge—frequently, on local authority, the yellow Magen David that the Nazis later restored. Every Jew who ventured from the ghetto distinctively marked was a painted bird, exposed to attack.
The fantasy of Jews as a brotherhood of evil swelled in medieval times to a full-blown demonology. The Jewish Messiah became the Antichrist. The Jews became sorcerers of Satan who poisoned wells, tortured the consecrated Host and murdered Christian children to collect their blood for diabolic rites. When the Black Death struck in the fourteenth century, a supposedly demonic people who poisoned wells were obvious suspects: they needed only to have infiltrated some more vicious poison into the water supply. A quarter of Europe died of plague, and in that time of horror tens of thousands of Jews were burned, drowned, hanged or buried alive in retaliation. Massacre became endemic; 350 Jewish communities were decimated in German lands alone.
The English were the first to expel the Jews entirely. The Jews of England belonged to the Crown, which had systematically extracted their wealth through a special Exchequer to the Jews. By 1290 it had bled them dry. Edward I thereupon confiscated what little they had left and threw them out. They crossed to France, but expulsion from that country followed in 1392; from Spain, at the demand of the Inquisition, in 1492; from Portugal in 1497. Since Germany was a region of multiple sovereignties, German Jews could not be generally expelled. They had been fleeing eastward from bitter German persecution in any case since the twelfth century.
The Jews expelled from Western Europe fled to Poland, a large and thinly populated kingdom where elected monarchs welcomed them with generous charters. The medieval German of these emigrant Ashkenazim evolved to Yiddish; they founded villages and towns; they dispersed up and down the long eastern Polish frontier and lived in relative peace for two hundred years.
Twenty-five thousand at the end of the fifteenth century had increased at least tenfold by the middle of the seventeenth. Then, in violent wars with Russia and Sweden, Poland began to break up. Cossacks and their peasant allies murdered great numbers of Jews and sacked hundreds of their communities. The Ukraine was split in two; Poland lost the northern half to Russia. War and disorder continued into the eighteenth century with Prussia, Austria and Turkey variously joining battle. When Russia invaded Poland in 1768, Prussia proposed a three-way partition with Austria to forestall a complete takeover. That led to Poland’s partial dismemberment in 1772. In 1795, after another Russian invasion, the country was completely partitioned and ceased to exist. (Much truncated, it was revived by the Congress of Vienna in 1814 as Congress Poland, joined to Russia by the linkage of Polish kingship for the Czar.) Its Jewish population had increased by then to more than one million souls. Prussia acquired about 150,000 but promptly expelled them eastward. Austria acquired about 250,000. Russia, which soon controlled more than three-fourths of what had been the Polish commonwealth, then also controlled the fates of most of the Eastern Jews. But while Poland had welcomed them, Russia despised them. Its economy was too primitive to need their commercial skills and it abhorred their religion. To Catherine the Great her one million new subjects were first and foremost “the enemies of Christ.”655
The enemies of Christ became Russia’s “Jewish problem.” In Russia’s benighted intolerance it framed only two solutions: assimilation (by conversion to Christianity) or expulsion. For the interim it practiced quarantine. A decree of 1791 limited Jewish residence to the formerly Polish territories and the unpopulated steppes above the Black Sea, a region that extended north across 286,000 square miles of central Europe to the Baltic: the Pale of Settlement (“pale” in its old sense of “enclosed by a boundary”). The Ashkenazim numbered one-ninth of the Pale’s total population, and might have prospered there, but they were burdened with further restrictions. They were heavily taxed, they could not live in the villages as they had done for generations, they could not keep the village inns or sell liquor to the peasants. Their traditional local governments, the kehillot, were stripped of legal authority but required to collect Jewish taxes. More horribly, under Nicholas I after 1825 the kehillot were charged to conscript twelve-year-old Jewish children for a lifetime of forced service in the Russian Army—six years of brutal “education” followed by twenty-five years in the ranks—a fate that befell between 40,000 and 50,000 Jewish sons before the requirement was relaxed in 1856. The memory of that cruelty would endure: Edward Teller’s grandmother responded to his childhood misbehavior, he reminisced once with a friend, by warning him to be a good boy or the Russians would get him.656
While Eastern Jews toiled to survive in Mother Russia, emancipation was proceeding in the West. Small Jewish communities had reestablished themselves, made up partly of nominal converts to Christianity who had escaped Spain and Portugal for Holland and England and America, partly of Eastern returnees. The Austrian emperor Joseph II issued an Edict of Tolerance in 1782.
The edicts of emperors were less important to the political future of the Jewish people than the temper of the Enlightenment with its religious skepticism and its faith in the self-evident rights of man. The time had come in the evolution of European forms of government when no single group or class any longer had the power to dominate all others as the nobility had previously done. The nation-state evolved in part to remove this impasse by investing power in the state itself. Such a mechanism made no distinction between Jew and Christian. American Jews thus became American citizens automatically with the Revolution and the Bill of Rights.
The French, remembering ghettos and expulsions, found the emancipation of the Jews of France more difficult. “The Jews should be denied everything as a nation,” the Count of Clermont-Tonnerre argued in the French National Assembly, “but granted everything as individuals. . . . It is intolerable that [they] should become a separate political formation or class in the country. Every one of them must individually become a citizen.”657 When a Jewish community contracted its loyalty to a monarch in exchange for his protection it only did what other medieval classes and orders had done. But the nation-state was secular and it considered the autonomous Jewish theocracies lodged within its borders in secular terms. In secular terms a separate political body, theocratic or not, to which citizens gave their first loyalty was potentially a rival and inherently subversive. Much monstrosity would devolve from that reification. In the meantime Liberty, Equality and Fraternity prevailed and the Jews of France became citoyens on a September Tuesday in 1791.
Emancipations as they progressed within less revolutionary states included Holland-Belgium, 1795; Sweden, 1848; Denmark and Greece, 1849; England by a gradual unmuddling completely in 1866; Austria, 1867; Spain by the withdrawal of its 1492 order of expulsion in 1868; the new German Empire, 1871. Though they were influential out of all proportion to their numbers, the emancipated Jews of Western Europe, many of whom moved directly to assimilate, were only a minute fraction of the Diaspora. The preponderance of the Jewish people, increased by 1850 to 2.5 million, by 1900 to 5 million, struggled in increasing misery in the Pale.
At his coronation in 1856, amid remissions and amnesties, Czar Alexander II abolished the special conscription of Jewish children. Other alleviations followed, all designed to encourage Jewish assimilation. “Useful” Jews—wealthy merchants, university graduates, craftsmen and medical assistants—were allowed residence in the interior of Russia, beyond the Pale. The universities were restored to autonomy and Jews allowed to attend. Within the Pale Jews received limited civil rights and became eligible for local councils. But the Czar who freed 30 million peasants from serfdom was dismayed to discover that reform after so many centuries of repression might lead not to expressions of gratitude but to revolutionary agitation and revolt, as it did in Congress Poland in 1863, and the liberalization of Russian life stalled.
Revolutionaries—a splinter group that called itself “The People’s Will”—murdered Alexander on March 13, 1881, by lobbing a hail of small bombs into his open carriage in broad daylight on a main street of St. Petersburg as he drove home from reviewing the Imperial Guards. One member of The People’s Will, not a bomber, was Jewish; that was pretext enough, in the confused aftermath of regicide, to blame the assassination on the Jews. A wave of pogroms—the curious Russian word refers to a violent riot by one group against another—began that continued until 1884. “Jewish disorders,” the dogmatic new Czar, Alexander III, called these murderous raids of drunken mobs on Jewish quarters everywhere in the Pale.658 They erupted with the active participation or tacit consent of the authorities. More than two hundred Jewish communities were attacked. The first wave of pogroms—there would be more in later decades—left 20,000 Jews homeless and 100,000 ruined.659 Women were raped, families murdered. The government blamed the violence on anarchists and moved to expel even the “useful” Jews back into the ghettos of the Pale.
With the pogroms came the 1882 May Laws, revising or repealing previous reforms and imposing catastrophic new restrictions. Between 1881 and 1900 more than 1 million Jews emigrated from Russia and central Europe to the United States and another 1.5 million between 1900 and 1920. A much smaller number of emigrants, like Chaim Weizmann, chose Western Europe and England. Most found less opportunity there than their American counterparts and more virulent anti-Semitism.
One of the important sources of German anti-Semitism in the years after the Great War was the strange forgery known as The Protocols of the Elders of Zion. Adolf Hitler took the Protocols as a text, to the extent that National Socialism had a text, for world domination. “I have read The Protocols of the Elders of Zion” Hitler told one of his loyalists; “it simply appalled me. The stealthiness of the enemy, and his ubiquity! I saw at once that we must copy it—in our own way, of course.”660 Heinrich Himmler confirmed that connection: “We owe the art of government to the Jews.” To the Protocols, he meant, which “the Führer learned by heart.”661
The Protocols were Russian work. They link the Jewish experience in Russia with the Jewish experience in Germany, where so few Jews actually lived—only about 500,000 in 1933, less than 1 percent of the German population. If Russia’s hostility to the Jews was rooted in part in religious conflict, German anti-Semitism, by contrast, needed a secular myth. A half-educated apostate autodidact like Hitler especially needed some structure on which to hang his anti-Semitic pathology. German anti-Semitism had plentiful German antecedents—Richard Wagner’s foamings were high on Hitler’s list—but the Protocols happened to arrive at the right time and place to earn a prominent position well forward. In the 1920s and 1930s millions of copies of various translations and editions were sold throughout the world.
The book is cast in the form of lectures and begins in midsentence, its scene unset, as if torn from the evil hands of its perpetrators. To supply the missing background, editors usually bound in explanatory material. A popular preliminary was a chapter from the novel Biarritz, the work of a minor German postal official, entitled “In the Jewish Cemetery in Prague.” Editors offered this lurid fiction, like the fiction of the Protocols themselves, as fact. The historian Norman Cohn summarizes its setting:
At eleven o’clock the gates of the cemetery creak softly and the rustling of long coats is heard, as they touch against the stones and shrubbery. A vague white figure passes like a shadow through the cemetery until it reaches a certain tombstone; here it kneels down, touches the tombstone three times with its forehead and whispers a prayer.662 Another figure approaches; it is that of an old man, bent and limping; he coughs and sighs as he moves. The figure takes its place next to its predecessor and it too kneels down and whispers a prayer. . . . Thirteen times this procedure is repeated. When the thirteenth and last figure has taken its place a clock strikes midnight. From the grave there comes a sharp, metallic sound. A blue flame appears and lights up the thirteen kneeling figures. A hollow voice [the thirteenth figure] says, “I greet you, heads of the twelve tribes of Israel.” It is the Devil speaking; and the figures dutifully reply, “We greet you, son of the accursed.”
The Protocols follow. They are twenty-four in all—some eighty pages in book form. “What I am about to set forth, then,” explains the speaker at the beginning of the first Protocol, “is our system from the two points of view, that of ourselves and that of thegoyim” Much about the system set forth is incoherent, but the Protocols elaborate three main themes: a bitter attack on liberalism, the political methods of the Jewish world conspiracy and an outline of the world government the Elders expect soon to install.663
The attack on liberalism would be comical if the Protocols had not found such vicious use. Liberalism “produced Constitutional States . . . and a constitution, as you well know, is nothing else but a school of discords, misunderstandings, quarrels, disagreements, fruitless party agitations, party whims. . . . We replaced the ruler by a caricature of a government—by a president, taken from the mob, from the midst of our puppet creatures, our slaves.”664 A touching loyalty to the Russian ancien régime surfaces from time to time and must have given European readers pause:
The principal guarantee of stability of rule is to confirm the aureole of power, and this aureole is attained only by such a majestic inflexibility of might as shall carry on its face the emblems of inviolability from mystical causes—from the choice of God. Such was, until recent times, the Russian autocracy, the one and only serious foe we had in the world, without counting the Papacy.665
In brief, the Elders have stage-managed the invention and dissemination of modern ideas—of the modern world. Everything more recent than the Russian imperial system of czar, landed nobility and serfs is part and parcel of their diabolical work. Which helps explain how so obscure a study as physics came in Germany in the 1920s to be counted part of the Jewish conspiracy.
The Elders work to establish a world autocracy ruled by a leader who is a “patriarchial paternal” guardian. Liberalism will be rooted out, the masses led away from politics, censorship strict, freedom of the press abolished. A third of the population will be recruited for amateur spying (“It will then be no disgrace to be a spy and informer, but a merit”) and a vast secret police will keep order.666 All these were Nazi strategies, and certainly Hitler’s debt to the Protocols is evident in Mein Kampf and explicitly acknowledged.667
Russia’s contribution to German anti-Semitism was plagiarized from a work of political satire, Dialogues from Hell Between Montesquieu and Machiavelli, written by a French lawyer, Maurice Joly, and first published in Brussels in 1864. Montesquieu speaks for liberalism, Machiavelli for despotism. The concoction of the Protocols was probably the work of the head of the czarist secret police outside Russia, a Paris-based agent named Pyotr Ivanovich Rachkovsky. Borrowing and paraphrasing Machiavelli’s speeches without even bothering to change their order and attributing them to a secret Jewish council, Rachkovsky was attempting to discredit Russian liberalism by showing it to be a Jewish plot. A St. Petersburg newspaper serialized the earliest version of theProtocols in 1903. It was one of three books belonging to the Czarina Alexandra Feodorovna—the other two were the Bible and War and Peace—found among her possessions at Ekaterinburg after the murder of the imperial family by Communist revolutionaries on July 17, 1918.
That coincidence returned the Protocols west. Fyodor Vinberg, who arranged the German translation and publication of the Protocols in Berlin in 1920, was a colonel in the Imperial Guard. The Czarina had been an honorary colonel of his regiment and he had worshiped her. He escaped to Germany at the end of the Great War convinced that her murderers had been Jews. Thereafter revenge on the Jews was the central fixation of his life. He was a friend to Hitler’s advisers, particularly the Nazi Party “philosopher,” Russian-born Alfred Rosenberg, who published a study of the Protocols in 1923.
The fiction of a Jewish world conspiracy had practical value for the Nazi Party. As it had done for earlier anti-Semitic parties, writes Hannah Arendt, who was on the scene as a student in Berlin in the 1920s, it “gave them the advantage of a domestic program, and conditions were such that one had to enter the arena of social struggle in order to win political power. They could pretend to fight the Jews exactly as the workers were fighting the bourgeoisie. Their advantage was that by attacking the Jews, who were believed to be the secret power behind governments, they could openly attack the state itself.”668
The fiction also served for propaganda, to reassure the German people: if the Jews could dominate the world, then so could the Aryans. Arendt continues: “Thus the Protocols presented world conquest as a practical possibility, implied that the whole affair was only a question of inspired or shrewd know-how, and that nobody stood in the way of a German victory over the entire world but a patently small people, the Jews, who ruled it without possessing instruments of violence—an easy opponent, therefore, once their secret was discovered and their method emulated on a larger scale.”669
But the scurrilities of Mein Kampf, which on the evidence of their incoherence are not calculated manipulations but violent emotional outbursts, demonstrate that Hitler pathologically feared and hated the Jews. In black megalomania he masked an intelligent, industrious and much-persecuted people with the distorted features of his own terror. And that would make all the difference.
* * *
A German journalist had the temerity in 1931 to ask Adolf Hitler where he would find the brains to run the country if he took it over. Hitler snapped that he would be the brains but went on contemptuously to enlist the help of the German class that still resisted voting the Nazis into power:
Do you think perhaps that, in the event of a successful revolution along the lines of my party, we would not inherit the brains in droves? Do you believe that the German middle class, this flower of the intelligentsia, would refuse to serve us and place their minds at our disposal? The German middle class would take its stand on the famed ground of the accomplished fact; we will do what we like with the middle class.670
But what about the Jews, the journalist persisted—those talented people, war heroes among them, Einstein among them? “Everything they have created has been stolen from us,” Hitler charged. “Everything that they know will be used against us. They should just go and foment their unrest among other peoples. We do not need them.”
At noon on January 30, 1933, Adolf Hitler, forty-three years old, gleefully accepted appointment as Chancellor of Germany. With the Reichstag fire and the subsequent suspension of constitutional liberties, with the Enabling Act of March 23 by which the Reichstag voluntarily gave over its powers to the Hitler cabinet, the Nazis began to consolidate their control. They moved immediately to legalize anti-Semitism and abolish the civil rights of German Jews. Meeting at his country retreat in Berchtesgaden with Joseph Goebbels, now his propaganda minister, Hitler decided on a boycott of Jewish businesses as an opening sally.671 The national boycott began on Saturday, April 1. Already during the previous week Jewish judges and lawyers had been dismissed from practice in Prussia and Bavaria. Now newspapers conveniently published business addresses and teams of Nazi storm troopers stationed themselves at storefronts to direct the mobs. Jews caught in the streets were beaten while the police looked on. The boycott was a nationwide German pogrom and it lasted through a violent weekend.
A month earlier, the evening after the Reichstag fire, Wolfgang Pauli had dropped in on a Göttingen group that included Edward Teller. The group had discussed Germany’s political situation and Pauli had declared emphatically that the idea of a German dictatorship was Quatsch, Pauli’s favorite dismissal: rubbish, mush, nonsense. “I have seen dictatorship in Russia,” he told them. “In Germany it just couldn’t happen.”672 In Hamburg Otto Frisch had mustered similar optimism, as indeed had many Germans. “I didn’t take Hitler at all seriously at first,” Frisch told an interviewer later. “I had the feeling, ‘Well, chancellors come and chancellors go, and he will be no worse than the rest of them.’ Then things began to change.”673 The Third Reich promulgated its first anti-Jewish ordinance on April 7. The Law for the Restoration of the Professional Civil Service, the harbinger of some four hundred anti-Semitic laws and decrees the Nazis would issue, changed Teller’s life, Pauli’s, Frisch’s, the lives of their colleagues decisively, forever. It announced bluntly that “civil servants of non-Aryan descent must retire.”674 A decree defining “non-Aryan” followed on April 11: anyone “descended from non-Aryan, especially Jewish, parents or grandparents.”675 Universities were state institutions. Members of their faculties were therefore civil servants. The new law abruptly stripped a quarter of the physicists of Germany, including eleven who had earned or would earn Nobel Prizes, of their positions and their livelihood.676 It immediately affected some 1,600 scholars in all.677 Nor were academics dismissed by the Reich likely to find other work. To survive they would have to emigrate.
Some had already left, among them Einstein and the older Hungarians. Einstein read the signs correctly because he was Einstein and because he had borne the brunt of the attack since immediately after the war; the Hungarians had become connoisseurs by now of advancing fascism.
Theodor von Kármán departed first, from Aachen. He had pioneered aeronautical physics; the California Institute of Technology, then vigorously assembling its future reputation, wanted to include that specialty in its curriculum. Aviation philanthropist Daniel Guggenheim was prevailed upon to contribute. The Guggenheim Aeronautical Laboratory, with a tenfoot wind tunnel, began operation under von Kármán’s direction in 1930.
Caltech also courted Einstein. So did Oxford and Columbia, but he was attracted to the cosmological work of the dean of Caltech graduate studies, a Massachusetts-born physicist of Quaker background named Richard Chace Tolman. Ongoing observations at Mount Wilson Observatory, above Pasadena, might confirm the last of the three original predictions of the general theory of relativity, the gravitational red-shifting of the light of high-density stars. Tolman sent a delegation to Berlin; Einstein agreed to visit Pasadena in 1931 as a research associate.
He did, twice, returning to Berlin between, dining in Southern California with Charlie Chaplin, viewing a rough cut of Sergei Eisenstein’s death-obsessed film Que Viva Mexico! with its sponsor Upton Sinclair. As his second visit approached, in December, Einstein was ready to reassess his future: “I decided today,” he wrote in his diary, “that I shall essentially give up my Berlin position and shall be a bird of passage for the rest of my life.”678
The bird of passage was not to nest in Pasadena. Abraham Flexner, the American educator, sought out Einstein at Caltech. Flexner was in the process of founding a new institution, not yet located or named, chartered in 1930 with a $5 million endowment. The two men strolled for most of an hour up and down the halls of the club where Einstein was staying. They met again at Oxford in May and once more at the Einsteins’ summer house at Caputh, outside Berlin, in June. “We sat then on the veranda and talked until evening,” Flexner recalled, “when Einstein invited me to stay to supper. After supper we talked until almost eleven. By that time it was perfectly clear that Einstein and his wife were prepared to come to America.”679 They walked together to the bus stop. “Ich bin Feuer und Flamme dafür” Einstein told his guest as he put him on the bus: “I am fire and flame for it.”680, 681 The Institute for Advanced Study would be established in Princeton, New Jersey. Einstein was its first great acquisition. He had suggested a salary of $3,000 a year. His wife and Flexner negotiated a more respectable $15,000. It was what Caltech had been prepared to pay. But at Caltech, as in Zurich before, Einstein would have been expected to teach. At the Institute for Advanced Study his only responsibility was thought.
The Einsteins left Caputh in December 1932, scheduled to divide the coming year between Princeton and Berlin. Einstein knew better. “Turn around,” he told his wife as they stepped off the porch of their house. “You will never see it again.”682 She thought his pessimism foolish.
In mid-March the Nazi SA searched the empty house for hidden weapons. By then Einstein had spoken out publicly against Hitler and was returning to Europe to prepare to move. He settled temporarily at a resort town on the Belgian coast, Le Coq sur Mer, with his wife, his two stepdaughters, his secretary, his assistant and two Belgian guards: assassination threatened again. In Berlin his son-in-law arranged to have his furniture packed. The French obligingly transported his personal papers to Paris by diplomatic pouch. At the end of March 1933 the most original physicist of the twentieth century once again renounced his German citizenship.
Princeton University acquired John von Neumann and Eugene Wigner in 1930, in Wigner’s puckish recollection, as a package deal. The university sought advice on improving its science from Paul Ehrenfest, who “recommended to them not to invite a single person but at least two . . . who already knew each other, who wouldn’t feel suddenly put on an island where they have no intimate contact with anybody. Johnny’s name was of course well known by that time the world over, so they decided to invite Johnny von Neumann. They looked: who wrote articles with John von Neumann? They found: Mr. Wigner. So they sent a telegram to me also.”683 In fact, Wigner had already earned a high reputation in a recondite area of physics known as group theory, about which he published a book in 1931. He accepted the invitation to Princeton to look it over and perhaps to look America over as well. “There was no question in the mind of any person that the days of foreigners [in Germany], particularly with Jewish ancestry, were numbered. . . . It was so obvious that you didn’t have to be perceptive. . . . It was like, ‘Well, it will be colder in December.’ Yes, it will be. We know it well.”684
Leo Szilard in Berlin debated his future in a musing letter to Eugene Wigner written on October 8, 1932.685 He was apparently still trying to organize his Bund: the knowledge had got into his blood that he had work to accomplish at the moment more noble than science, he wrote—bad luck, it couldn’t be distilled out again. He understood he wasn’t allowed to complain if such work commanded no office space in the world. He was considering a professorship in experimental physics in India since it would be essentially only a teaching post and he could therefore turn his creative energies elsewhere. Only the gods knew what might be available in Europe or on the American coast between Washington and Boston, places he might prefer, so he perforce might go to India. In any case, until he found a position he would at least be free to do science without feeling guilty.
Szilard promised to write Wigner again when he had an “actual program.” He did not yet know that his actual program would be organizing the desperate rescue. He parked his bags at the Harnack House in Dahlem and sat down with Lise Meitner to talk about doing nuclear physics at the Kaiser Wilhelm Institute. She had Hahn, and Hahn was superb, but he was a chemist. She could use a jack-of-all-trades like Szilard. But the collaboration was not to be. Events moved too quickly. Szilard took his train from Berlin, the train that proved him, if not more clever than most people, at least a day earlier. That was “close to the first of April, 1933.”686
If Pauli, safe behind the lines in Zurich, had misread events before, he was clear enough once the new law was announced. Walter Elsasser, among the first to leave, chose neutral Switzerland, entrained for Zurich and homed on the physics building at the Polytechnic. “On entering the main door of this building one faces a broad and straight staircase leading directly to the second floor. Before I could take my first step on it, there appeared at the top of the stairs the moon-face of Wolfgang Pauli, who shouted down: ‘Elsasser,’ he said, ‘you are the first to come up these stairs; I can see how in the months to come there will be many, many more to climb up here.’ ”687 The idea of a German dictatorship was no longer Quatsch.
Longstanding anti-Semitic discrimination in academic appointments weighted the civil service law dismissals in favor of the natural sciences, fields of study that had evolved more recently than the older disciplines of the liberal arts, that German scholarship had looked down upon as “materialistic” and that had therefore proved less impenetrable to Jews.688 Medicine incurred 423 dismissals, physics 106, mathematics 60—in the physical and biological sciences other than medicine, an immediate total of 406 scientists. The University of Berlin and the University of Frankfurt each lost a third of its faculty.
The promising young theoretical physicist Hans Bethe, then at Tübingen, first heard of his dismissal from one of his students, who wrote him to say he read of it in the papers and wondered what he should do. Bethe thought the question impertinent—it was he who had been dismissed, not the student—and asked for a copy of the news story. Hans Geiger was professor of experimental physics at Tübingen at the time, having moved there from Berlin. When Bethe joined the faculty as a theoretician in November 1932, “Geiger explained his experiments to me, and in other ways made a lot of me, so all seemed to be well on the personal level.” Sensibly, then, Bethe wrote the vacationing Geiger for advice.689, 690 “He wrote back a completely cold letter saying that with the changed situation it would be necessary to dispense with my further services—period. There was no kind word, no regret—nothing.”691 A few days later the official notice arrived.
Bethe at twenty-seven was sturdy, indefatigable, a skier and mountain climber, exceptionally self-confident in physics if still socially diffident.692 His eyes were blue, his features Germanic; his thick, dark-brown hair, cut short, stood up on his head like a brush. His custom of plowing through difficulties eventually won Bethe comparison with a battleship, except that this particularly equable vessel usually boomed with laughter. He had already published important work.
Born in Strasbourg on July 2, 1906, Bethe moved during childhood to Kiel and then to Frankfurt as his father, a university physiologist, achieved increasing academic success. He did not think of himself as a Jew: “I was not Jewish.693 My mother was Jewish, and until Hitler came that made no difference whatever.” His father’s background was Protestant and Prussian; his mother was the daughter of a Strasbourg professor of medicine. He counted two Jewish grandparents, more than enough to trigger the Tübingen dismissal.
Bethe began university studies at Frankfurt in 1924. Two years later, recognizing his gift for theoretical work, his adviser sent him to Arnold Sommerfeld in Munich. Sommerfeld had trained nearly a third of the full professors of theoretical physics in the German-speaking world; his protégés included Max von Laue, Wolfgang Pauli and Werner Heisenberg. The American chemist Linus Pauling came to work with Sommerfeld while Bethe was there, as did the German Rudolf Peierls and Americans Edward U. Condon and I. I. Rabi. Edward Teller arrived from Karlsruhe in 1928, but before the relationship between the two young men could develop into friendship Teller was incapacitated in a streetcar accident, his right foot severed just above the ankle. By the time the amputation healed, Sommerfeld had gone off on a sixtieth-birthday trip around the world, leaving Bethe, who had just passed his doctoral examinations, to look for a job on his own; missing Sommerfeld, Teller chose to move on to Leipzig to study with Heisenberg. Bethe went to the Cavendish on a Rockefeller Fellowship, then to Rome, before accepting appointment at Tübingen.
Since Geiger refused to help challenge his Tübingen dismissal, Bethe appealed to Munich. “Sommerfeld immediately replied, ‘You are most welcome here. I will have your fellowship again for you. Just come back.’ ”694 After a time in Munich Bethe was invited to Manchester, then to Copenhagen to work with Bohr. In the summer of 1934 Cornell University offered him an assistant professorship. One of his former students, now on the Ithaca physics faculty, had recommended him for the post. He accepted and shipped for America, arriving in early February 1935.
Teller took his Ph.D. under Heisenberg at Leipzig in 1930, stayed on there for another year as a research associate, then shifted to Göttingen to work in its Institute for Physical Chemistry. “His early papers,” Eugene Wigner writes, “were entirely in the spirit of the times: the expanding world of the applications of quantum mechanics.”695 Teller probed the more developed part of physics—chemical and molecular physics—with vigorous originality, producing some thirty papers between 1930 and 1936, most of them written with collaborators because he was sloppy at calculation and impatient with the detailed effort of following through.
“It was a foregone conclusion that I had to leave,” Teller remembers. “After all, not only was I a Jew, I was not even a German citizen. I wanted to be a scientist. The possibility to remain a scientist in Germany and to have any chance of continuing to work had vanished with the coming of Hitler.696 I had to leave, as many others did, as soon as I could.” The director of his institute, Arnold Eucken, “an old German nationalist,” confirmed Teller’s conclusion as they left on the same southbound train for spring vacation in March 1933.697 “I really want you here,” Teller remembers Eucken equivocating, “but with this new situation, there is no point in your staying. I would like to help you, but you have no future in Germany.”698 The problem then was where to go. Back in Göttingen after a tense confrontation with his parents in Budapest—they wanted him to stay in Hungary—Teller sat down to apply for a Rockefeller Fellowship to Copenhagen to work with Bohr.
In Hamburg Otto Frisch decided he would have to take Hitler seriously after all. Frisch, a personable young experimentalist with a gift for ingenious invention, worked for Otto Stern, the tubby Galician who apprenticed under Einstein and who had barked at Ernest Lawrence four years previously to get busy on his notion of a cyclotron. Stern was “quite shocked,” Frisch writes, “to find that I was of Jewish origin, just as was he himself and another two of his four collaborators.699 He would have to leave and the three of us as well,” although “the University of Hamburg—with the traditions of a Free Hansa city—was very reluctant to put the racial laws into effect, and I wasn’t sacked until several months after the other universities had toed the line.”
Before the Nazis promulgated the civil service law Frisch had applied for, and won, a Rockefeller Fellowship to work with Enrico Fermi in Rome. The program was designed to free promising young scientists from their immediate duties for a year of research abroad, after which they were expected to return to duty again. At a time of crisis the foundation unfortunately chose to enforce its rules narrowly. Frisch was soon “very disappointed and at first rather disgusted when [the foundation] told me that, the situation having changed because of the Hitler laws, they had to withdraw [their] offer of a grant because I no longer had a job to come back to.”700
In the meantime Bohr turned up in Hamburg. He was traveling throughout Germany to determine who needed help. “To me it was a great experience,” Frisch writes, “to be suddenly confronted with Niels Bohr—an almost legendary name for me—and to see him smile at me like a kindly father; he took me by my waistcoat button and said: ‘I hope you will come and work with us sometime; we like people who can carry out “thought experiments”!’ ” (Frisch had recently verified the prediction of quantum theory that an atom recoils when it emits a photon, a movement previously considered too slight to measure.) “That night I wrote home to my mother . . . and told her not to worry: the Good Lord himself had taken me by my waistcoat button and smiled at me. That was exactly how I felt.”701
Stern, secure personally in independent wealth and international reputation, set out to find places for his people. “Stern said he would go traveling,” continues Frisch, “and see if he could sell his Jewish collaborators—I mean find places for them. And he said he would try to sell me to Madame Curie. So I said, ‘Well, do what you can. I’ll be very grateful for anything you can do. Just sell me to whoever wants to have me.’ And when he came back [from visiting laboratories abroad] he said that Madame Curie had not bought me, but Blackett had.”702 Patrick Maynard Stuart Blackett, London-born, tall, a Navy man, with a lean, vigorous face, was one of Rutherford’s protégés and a future laureate. He had just departed the Cavendish for a workingmen’s college in London, Birkbeck, after a furious argument over the extent of the Cavendish teaching load. “If physics laboratories have to be run dictatorially,” Blackett had sworn, emerging white-faced from Rutherford’s office, “I would rather be my own dictator.”703 Birkbeck was a night school; experimenters could work at peace all day, except when Blackett’s automatic cloud chamber, triggered by a passing cosmic ray, went off like a cannon in their midst. It was temporary duty. Frisch took it. When the appointment ran out the following year he crossed the North Sea to Copenhagen to work with the Good Lord.
He had the comfort of knowing that for the immediate future his aunt was safe. Lise Meitner was forbidden as of the following September to lecture at the University of Berlin, but because her citizenship was Austrian rather than German she was allowed to continue her work at the KWI. She had a subterfuge to confess, however. When Hahn, who had been lecturing on radiochemistry that spring at Cornell, returned hurriedly to salvage what he could from the wreckage of the Institutes’ staff, Meitner sought him out. Her nephew explains:
Lise Meitner had always kept quiet about her Jewish connection. She had never felt that she was in any way related to Jewish tradition. Although she was, racially speaking, a complete Jew, she had been baptized in her infancy and had never considered herself as anything but a Protestant who happened to have Jewish ancestors. And when all this [anti-Semitic] trouble began she felt, perhaps partly to let sleeping dogs lie and partly not to embarrass her friends, that she would keep quiet about it. It was rather an embarrassment when Hitler forced it all out into the open, so to say, and she had to go and tell Hahn, “You know, I am really Jewish and I am apt to be an embarrassment to you.”704
At Göttingen the Nobel laureate James Franck, a physical chemist, had a talk with Niels Bohr. Though Franck was Jewish, he was exempt from the civil service law because he had fought at the front in the Great War. He was no less outraged. The problem was deciding what to do. He listened to many people, but he told a friend long afterward that it was Bohr who persuaded him: Bohr insisted that individuals really were responsible for the political actions of their societies.705 Franck was director of Göttingen’s Second Physical Institute. He resigned in protest on April 17 and made sure the newspapers knew.
Max Born shared Franck’s convictions and admired his courage but disliked public confrontation.706 Placed on indefinite “leave of absence” as of April 25, but hearing from the university curator that arrangements might eventually be made to reinstate him, Born responded brusquely that he wanted no special treatment. “We decided to leave Germany at once,” he writes. The Borns had already rented an apartment in an Alpine valley town for the summer; they slipped the possession date forward and went early. “Thus we left for the South Tyrol at the beginning of May.”707 He passed the news to Einstein via Leiden. “Ehrenfest sent me your letter,” Einstein responded on May 30 from Oxford, which was courting him. “I am glad that you have resigned your positions (you and Franck). Thank God there is no risk involved for either of you. But my heart aches at the thought of the young ones.”708
The young ones—the scientists and scholars just beginning to establish themselves, as yet unpublished, without international reputation—needed more than informal arrangements. They needed organized support.
* * *
Leo Szilard’s early train delivered him to Vienna, where he put up at the Regina Hotel. The news of the Law for the Restoration of the Professional Civil Service reached him there, probably in the lobby, and he read the first list of dismissals. That outrage sent him into the street to walk. He encountered an old friend from Berlin, Jacob Marshack, an econometrician. Szilard insisted they had to do something to help. Together they went to see Gottfried Kuhnwald—“the old, hunchbacked Jewish adviser of the Christian Social party,” a Szilard admirer explains. “Kuhnwald was a mysterious and shrewd man, very Austrian, with sideburns like Franz Josef. He agreed at once that there would be a great expulsion. He said that when it happened, the French would pray for the victims, the British would organize their rescue, and the Americans would pay for it.”709
Kuhnwald sent the conspirators to a German economist then visiting Vienna. He advised them in turn that Sir William Beveridge, the director of the London School of Economics, was also visiting Vienna at that time, working on the history of prices, and was registered at the Regina. Szilard bearded the Englishman in his room and found he had not yet thought further than the modest charity of appointing one dismissed economist to the school. That response was at least three orders of magnitude too timid for Szilard’s taste and he prepared to assault Sir William with the truth.
Kuhnwald, Beveridge and Szilard met for tea and Szilard read out the list of academic dismissals. Beveridge then agreed, Szilard’s admirer writes, “that as soon as he got back to England and got through the most important things on his agenda, he would try to form a committee to find places for the academic victims of Nazism; and he suggested that Szilard should come to London and occasionally prod him. If he prodded him long enough and frequently enough, he would probably be able to do something.”710
The busy economist required very little prodding. Szilard followed him to London and on a weekend at Cambridge in May Beveridge convinced Ernest Rutherford to head an Academic Assistance Council. The council announced itself on May 22, proposing “to provide a clearing house and centre of information” and to “seek to raise a fund.” Among the distinguished academics who signed the announcement besides Beveridge and Rutherford were J. S. Haldane, Gilbert Murray, A. E. Housman, J. J. Thomson, G. M. Trevelyan and John Maynard Keynes.
At about the same time a similar response was building in the United States. John Dewey helped assemble a Faculty Fellowship Fund at Columbia University. There were other immediate private initiatives such as the hiring of Hans Bethe at Cornell. The major U.S. effort, the Emergency Committee in Aid of Displaced German Scholars, was organized under the auspices of the Institute for International Education.711
Szilard beat the bushes that summer. He did not feel he could properly represent the Academic Assistance Council (though he ran its office for the month of August as an upaid volunteer), so he traveled and worked to coordinate existing groups and start new ones. A “long and satisfactory interview” early in May with Chaim Weizmann elicited support from English Jewry.712 Einstein had thought of creating a “university for exiles”; Szilard, working through Léon Rosenfeld, convinced him to devote his prestige to the common effort instead.713 In Switzerland he nudged the International Students’ Service and the Intellectual Cooperation Section of the League of Nations; in Holland he nudged a nervous and disorganized Ehrenfest, who had a small fund available to support visiting theoretical physicists.714 The university rectors in Belgium were “sympathetic,” Szilard reported back to Beveridge, but “war reminiscences make it difficult to establish in Belgium any organization for the helping of German scientists.”715
The Bohrs coordinated their own exhausting efforts with Szilard’s. Bohr convened his usual summer conference in Copenhagen, but this time, writes Otto Frisch, “he proposed to use [it] as a sort of labour exchange.” Frisch found it “a confusing affair, with so many people and so little time to sort them out.”716
It was Bohr with whom Edward Teller had hoped to work when he applied in Göttingen for a Rockefeller Fellowship. The foundation denied him an award on the same grounds it had removed Otto Frisch’s: because he had no place of employment to return to. James Franck and Max Born interceded on Teller’s behalf with the English, and shortly there arrived not one but two offers of temporary appointments. Teller accepted an assistantship in physics at University College, London. From there, at the beginning of 1934, with the Rockefeller to secure him, he shifted to Copenhagen.
Szilard had help from an American, a Columbia University man, a physicist named Benjamin Liebowitz who had invented a new kind of shirt collar and established himself in the business of shirt manufacturing.717 At forty-two, Liebowitz was seven years older than Szilard. The two men had met when Szilard had visited the United States briefly in early 1932 and had renewed their acquaintance afterward in Berlin. Like Szilard, Liebowitz had taken up unpaid relief work. The two threw in together, the New Yorker supplying Szilard with a useful American connection. Liebowitz characterized the German situation vividly in a letter back to New York in early May:
It is impossible to describe the utter despair of all classes of Jews in Germany.718 The thoroughness with which they are being hounded out and stopped short in their careers is appalling. Unless help comes from the outside, there is no outlook for thousands, perhaps hundreds of thousands, except starvation or [suicide]. It is a gigantic “cold pogrom” and it is not only against Jews; Communists of course are included, but are not singled out racially; Social Democrats and Liberals generally are now or are coming under the ban, especially if they protest in the least against the Nazi movement. . . .
Dr. Leo Szilard . . . proved to be the best prognosticator—he was able to foresee events better than anybody else I know. Weeks before the storm broke he began to formulate plans to provide some means of helping the scientists and scholars of Germany.
Szilard was becoming nervous about his own lack of anchorage. He had not, he wrote another friend in August, “dismissed the idea of going to India, neither has this idea grown stronger.”719 He was not opposed to America, but he would very much prefer to live in England. Although he was “rather tired,” he felt “very happy in England.” His happiness darkened to gloom as soon as he looked ahead: “It is quite probable that Germany will rearm and I do not believe that this will be stopped by intervention of other powers within the next years. Therefore it is likely to have in a few years two heavily armed antagonistic groups in Europe, and the consequence will be that we shall get war automatically, probably against the wish of either of the parties.”720
That prepared him for that cool, humid, dull day in September when he would step off the Southampton Row curb and begin to shape the things to come.
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Einstein crossed the Channel to England for the last time on September 9 and came under the flamboyant protection of a Naval Air Service commander, barrister and M.P. named Oliver Stillingfleet Locker-Lampson, who had the peculiar distinction of having been invited, while serving under the Grand Duke Nicholas of Russia, to murder Rasputin, an invitation which uncharacteristic discretion led him to decline.721 Locker-Lampson sent the distinguished physicist off the next morning to a vacation house isolated on moorlands on the east coast of England. Einstein had left Belgium at his wife’s insistence: she feared for his life. While she organized their emigration he settled in at Roughton Heath, walking the moors “talking to the goats,” he said.722 There he learned of the suicide of Paul Ehrenfest, one of his oldest and closest friends, on September 25; Ehrenfest had tried to kill his youngest son and blinded him and then killed himself.
The largest public event of the rescue was a mass meeting in Royal Albert Hall, the great circular auditorium in London below Kensington Gardens. Einstein was the featured speaker and therefore all the hall’s ten thousand seats were filled and the aisles crowded. Ernest Rutherford came down from Cambridge to chair the event. Afterward Einstein packed his bags and left for America, joining his wife on the Westernland when it stopped at Southampton on its way from Antwerp to New York, on October 7.
The mass meeting had been meant to raise money. It raised very little. Cambridge physicist P. B. Moon remembers Rutherford’s frustration:
He did a very great deal for the refugees from Hitler’s Germany, finding places for some of them in his laboratory and scraping together what money he could to keep them and their families going until they could find established posts. He told me that one of them had come to him and said he had discovered something or other. “I stopped him short and said ‘plenty of people know that,’ but you know, Moon, these chaps are living on the smell of an oil rag. They’ve got to push themselves forward.”723
With the possible exception of French prayer, in fact, Gottfried Kuhnwald’s shrewd prediction held true for the first two years of the rescue effort: the British alone nearly equaled the rest of the world in temporary appointments, and American contributions, largely from foundations like the Rockefeller, matched the rest dollar for dollar.724, 725 Then, as the Depression began to ease and the English academic system pinched, emigration increased to the United States. Under official Emergency Committee auspices thirty scientists and scholars arrived in 1933, thirty-two in 1934, only fifteen in 1935; but forty-three came in 1938, ninety-seven in 1939, fiftynine in 1940, fifty in 1941.726 Nor were many of these physicists: with their international network of friendships and acquaintances the physicists were better able than most to provide for each other. About one hundred refugee physicists emigrated to the United States between 1933 and 1941.727
* * *
Princeton, Einstein reported to his friend Elizabeth, the Queen of Belgium, “is a wonderful little spot, a quaint and ceremonious village of puny demigods on stilts. Yet, by ignoring certain social conventions, I have been able to create for myself an atmosphere conducive to study and free from distraction.”728 Wigner noticed that von Neumann “fell in love with America on the first day. He thought: these are sane people who don’t talk in these traditional terms which are meaningless. To a certain extent the materialism of the United States, which was greater than that of Europe, appealed to him.”729 When Stanislaw Ulam arrived in Princeton in 1935 he found von Neumann comfortably ensconced in a “large and impressive house. A black servant let me in.” The von Neumanns gave two or three parties a week. “These were not completely carefree,” Ulam notes; “the shadow of coming world events pervaded the social atmosphere.”730 Ulam’s own enthusiasm for America, formulated a few years later when he was a Junior Fellow at Harvard, was tempered with a criticism of the extreme weather: “I used to tell my friends that the United States was like the little child in a fairy tale, at whose birth all the good fairies came bearing gifts, and only one failed to come. It was the one bringing the climate.”731
Leopold Infeld, riding the train through New Jersey from New York to Princeton, “was astonished at so many wooden houses; in Europe they are looked down upon as cheap substitutes which do not, like brick, resist the attack of passing time.” Inevitably on that passage he noticed “old junked cars, piles of scrap iron.” At Princeton the campus was deserted. He found a hotel and asked where all the students had gone. Perhaps to see Notre Dame, the clerk said. “Was I crazy?” Infeld asked himself. “Notre Dame is in Paris. Here is Princeton with empty streets. What does it all mean?” He soon found out. “Suddenly the whole atmosphere changed. It happened in a discontinuous way, in a split second. Cars began to run, crowds of people streamed through the streets, noisy students shouted and sang.”732 Infeld arrived on a Saturday; in those days Princeton played Notre Dame at football.
His first night in the New World, Hans Bethe walked all over New York.733
A chemist, Kurt Mendelssohn, vividly recalled the morning after his escape: “When I woke up the sun was shining in my face. I had slept deeply, soundly and long—for the first time in many weeks. [The previous night] I had arrived in London and gone to bed without fear that at 3 a.m. a car with a couple of S.A. men would draw up and take me away.”734
Before it is science and career, before it is livelihood, before even it is family or love, freedom is sound sleep and safety to notice the play of morning sun.