A troubled relationship

18 Jul, 2010

A troubled relationship
Reviewed By Shahid Kamal

Albert Einstein's relationship with his native Germany is usually dispensed with briefly by his biographers. The world-renowned physicist was born in Germany, spent almost 36 years of his life there, gave up his German nationality twice, and in his mature years said 'Politically, I hated Germany from my youth.'

Mujahid Kamran, a winner of the Abdus Salam Prize and the International Einstein Award for Scientific Achievement, has published what is perhaps the first book-length study of the 'fascinating and painful subject' of Einstein's relationship with his fatherland.

Kamran is himself a physicist by training but he is also a great storyteller, and what a timely story he has to tell in Einstein and Germany. He has articulated well the dangers of totalitarianism and extremism.

In the first chapter the author captures the essentials of Einstein's life and science. The reader learns about his formative years and scientific curiosity; his independent study, starting at the age of 12, of differential and integral calculus; hard times in Switzerland, including the rejection of his PhD thesis; his private life; and his rise to scientific eminence and scientific isolation.

He tells us of a 'soul-stirring and marvellous experience' in Einstein's early life that came from the reading of Euclidean plane geometry. Einstein was only 12 at the time.

In the words of the author 'The precious child saw in the certainty of Euclid's geometrical propositions an avenue that could give him refuge from the futile flux of personal wishes and freedom from the domination of whimsical fantasy.'

In the second chapter, he identifies three periods of Einstein's complex relationship with Germany. The first period starts with Einstein's birth in 1879 and ends in 1896, when he first officially renounced his German nationality.

Kamran calls this a 'period of mutual rejection' on the part of both Einstein and Germany. He points out that, 'it is generally thought that Einstein took this decision to evade compulsory military training.'

Einstein also found regimented, disciplinary German schools and authoritarian teachers repulsive. A teacher once told Einstein that he would be happier if Einstein were not in his class. When Einstein protested that he had not done anything wrong, the teacher said 'Yes that is true. But you sit there in the back row and smile, and that violates the feeling of respect that a teacher needs from his class.'

Before he had a chance to withdraw from school, Einstein was expelled. This act on the part of the school authorities must have outraged the teenager.

The second period of the troubled relationship starts in 1913 and ends in 1933. The author characterises this period as 'two decades of mutual but calculated acceptance,' on the part of both the scientist and his country.

The book identifies the personal and professional reasons that lured Einstein from Zurich to Berlin, which was, at that time, 'perhaps the most prestigious place in the world of physics.'

Among the professional reasons was 'a package consisting of a set of offers', made in 1913, which Einstein found very hard to resist. The package included directorship of the planned Kaiser Wilhelm Institute, a professorship at the 'great' Berlin University with no teaching duties, and membership of the prestigious Prussian Academy of Sciences to which only German citizens were elected.

At the time, he was 'grappling ceaselessly with the problem of gravitation and relativity'. He knew, if successful, he would supplant Newton and needed to be free of cumbersome teaching duties.

The private reason which lured Einstein to Berlin was a woman. In 1912, Einstein, already married and the father of two children, declared that he had fallen in love with his cousin Elsa.

While romancing Elsa, he also 'harboured amorous sentiments' towards her daughter, Ilse. Ilse gave him the brush-off.

On March 15, 1921, a day after his 42nd birthday, Einstein took the oath to become a German citizen for the second time. He, however, kept his Swiss citizenship which he had acquired in 1901.

Einstein became a German citizen at a time when Germany was in the stranglehold of devastating inflation (in August 1923, one US dollar was equal to 4.6 million German marks), nationalist demagogues were poisoning the minds of Germans, and anti-Semitism was on the rise.

Thus 'every step of the ladder of fame engendered fresh opposition to Einstein.' Twice in two years, once before and once after taking the citizenship oath in 1921, Einstein decided to quit Germany. But he was persuaded otherwise, 'even though he was lying with vipers hissing around in the dark.'

The third period in the relationship is from 1933, when Hitler came to power, to 1955, when Einstein died in the US.

According to the book 'a mutual, and on Einstein's part irrevocable, rejection took place' during this period. For the second time in his life, a few days after his 54th birthday in 1933, Einstein gave up his German citizenship.

In October 1939 and March 1940, Einstein wrote two letters to US president Franklin Roosevelt, informing him about the feasibility of the atomic bomb and warning him that the Germans may be making it.

As we now know, the United States did not drop the bomb on Germany but on Japan, whose hospitality Einstein had 'enjoyed' in 1922. But Einstein, it appears, 'never forgave Germany' which had become, in his words, 'the land of mass murderers of our kinsmen.'The discussion of Einstein's fascinatingly complex relationship with Germany is insightful, instructive and timely. Written with subtlety, precision and captivating prose, it is a book of enduring worth.

Kamran says that Einstein and Germany grew out of an Einstein biography he had been working on. He decided to publish it because 'of the urgent relevance of the theme of intolerance and extremism to today's world and its devastating impact on human societies.'

He quotes French philosopher Raymond Aron, who once said that the 20th century 'could have been Germany's century.' But, Kamran argues, the 'rise of totalitarianism destroyed Germany's opportunity.'

Will the United States take advantage of the opportunity that has come its way and make the 21st century America's century? As the author writes in the preface to his book 'The maintenance of US prominence in the 21st century will depend very much on its ability to be truly tolerant, democratic and humane, and to deal with mankind as a single fraternity regardless of race, colour, creed, or nationality.'

 Einstein and Germany
By Syed Mujahid Kamran
Sang-e-Meel Publications, Lahore
ISBN 969-35-2234-6
219pp. Rs400


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