21 November 2023

Albert Einstein on the road (1917-55): Germany, Switzerland, Belgium, UK, USA

Albert and his first wife Mileva

German-born Albert Einstein (1879-1955) became the world’s most fam­ous physicist. I briefly examined his early life and first wife Mil­eva Marić (1875–1948) whom he married in Zurich in 1903. In 1905 he published his vital scientific papers that made him famous. By 1908, he was rec­ognised as a lead­ing scientist at Bern Uni, completing his work on the general theory of relativity.

In 1917, as director of the new Kaiser Wilhelm Institute for Ph­ysics in Berlin, Einstein re-took German citizenship. Meanwhile the publication of experimental evid­ence supporting his general relat­iv­ity theory made huge impacts in acad­eme. After their 1919 divorce, Mileva took their two sons to Zurich, so Albert could immediately marry his wife-cousin Elsa and adopt her children.

Einstein first visited New York in 1921 where he was offic­ially welcomed by organiser Chaim Weizmann, President of the World Zionist Organisation. This was followed by weeks of lectures and re­c­eptions at Columbia and Princeton Un­i­v­ers­ities, and at the Nat­ional Academy of Scien­ce.

How did Einstein earn the title of one of the greatest ever gen­ius­es? With his arrival in New York; American journalists quickly picked up on the broad­er appreciation for the foreign sc­ien­tist. Apprec­iat­ion wasn’t univ­ersal because the US then was quite xenophobic, suspicious of sc­ience and fearful of dom­in­at­ion. But the nation was also greatly con­cerned with advance­ment. By the time he left the U.S in mid 1921, Einstein was indeed a genius.

He won the Physics Nobel Prize in 1922! But as a Jew, he’d closely observed the rise of Nazism in Berlin in the 1920s.

Einstein admired Toni Meyer Mendel; they first met ear­ly in Weimar Republic (1919-33), Germ­any’s noble years of demo­cracy; both the Ein­st­ein and Mendel fam­il­ies belonged to the same pacif­ist ass­oc­­iat­ion Bund Neues Vater­land. In pre-Hitler Ber­l­in, they’d all liv­ed tog­ether in Tony’s grand villa on the Wannsee, the inter­ior desig­ned by Walter Gropius. Bruno Mendel was a med­ical researcher who built a pri­vate laborat­ory in his villa!

Einstein loved playing music himself
and loved listening to concerts
Toni became a wealthy, emanc­ipated widow who loved travel. She was a regular compan­ion of Ein­stein, and their close friend­ship was grimly tolerated by wife Elsa. Einstein and Toni sailed together, discussed Freud, and shared concerts. Toni’s Weimar-culture intrig­ued Einstein, whose interests rang­ed­ far beyond phys­ics. He was devoted to music, playing chamber mus­ic him­self. And he was closely engaged in the excited sch­olarship of the Weimar era! When Hitler came to power, Toni quickly emigrated to Toronto.

In Mar 1933, Albert ex­iled himself in Belgium with Elsa. In late Jul 1933, after the Nazi regime forced famous German Jews to flee, Ein­stein visited the UK on a pol­it­ical mis­s­ion: to help Germ­any’s Jews. He first had a meet­ing with Winston Church­ill at Ch­art­well House to discuss Nazism.

From the Distinguished Visitors’ Gal­lery of Parliament, Einstein lis­ten­ed to a speech in the House of Com­mons. The speaker was an upper-class, right-wing Con­servative M.P, Commander Oliver Locker-Lampson who want­ed Britain to extend citizenship to desperate ref­ug­ees from outside the British Em­pire. And the House voted to sup­p­ort the MP’s bill on its first read­ing! The Nazi newsp­ap­er Völkischer Beo­bacht­er imm­ediately attacked, saying Locker-Lampson staged the event sole­ly for self-publicity.

Albert and his second wife, Elsa
always travelling

Chaim Weizmann welcomed Albert to New York, 1921
Later the president of Israel (1949–52)

Thousands cheered hia motorcade driving to City Hall 
for a welcome by New York City's mayor, April 1921.

Einstein returned to Belgium, where the Nazi leadership savaged him. Firstly they attacked Albert’s “pacifism” when he called for Europ­ean rearmament against the Ger­man th­reat. Secondly Einstein had pub­licly end­orsed a left-wing book The Brown Book of the Hitler Ter­r­or i.e an eye­witness report from Germ­any with horrify­ing photos of Nazi pogroms, burn­ings and tort­ur­es. Fortunately the Belgian king had the police constantly protect Einstein. Still, a secret Nazi terror org­anis­ation Fehme had targeted the scientist

Einstein packed some vital books and papers, and trav­elled from Bel­g­ium to the UK. He went to a hut on a Norfolk heath, to focus on theor­etical physics in peace. During his UK visit in Sep-Oct 1933, organised by Locker-Lampson, Britain’s national news­papers photog­raphed Einstein in hiding! Locker-Lampson org­an­ised a public meeting at the Royal Albert Hall; the German phys­icist and British speakers raised funds for academic Jewish Germ­an ref­ug­ees. Einstein spoke on Science and Civil­is­ation in his cautious Eng­lish, to huge applause from the huge audience. Note there were also British Union of Fascists Blackshirts att­end­ing. Einstein told newspapers the kindness of the British people had touched his heart deeply. Then left for USA.

Einstein lived the rest of his life in America, at the In­stitute for Advanced Study in Princeton. He was so involved with both physics and Cold War politics that he never returned to Eur­ope. Elsa was diag­­­­­nosed with organ failure in 1935 and died in 1936. He continued his work and his active social life, with a Russian sculptor’s wife, secretary Betty Neumann, and Toni Mendel again.

In 1953 with the USA gripped by the televised McCarthy hear­ings, Einstein took a well reported public stand against the loathed House Un-American Activities Committee.

In July 1955 after Einstein’s death, British academic Bertrand Rus­sell announced the Russell-Einstein Man­ifesto in London. Warn­ing the world of the dangers of a nuc­l­ear war, the signature had been Eins­tein’s last public act.

Find Einstein on the Road, to read his travelling diaries.


Deb said...

I read Geniuses for a different reason, but was most blown over by his relationships with his beloved girlfriends. The daughter of his Prof Winteler, his first wife Mileva Maric, his second wife Elsa, Betty Neumann, Margaret Lebach, Estella Katzenellenbogen, Toni Mendel, Ethel Michanovski plus Margarita Russian spy etc etc. Good looking and very clever, but how many passions can one man live with?

roentare said...

He has a colourful life with many ups and downs.

jabblog said...

Much energy in all aspects of his life.

DUTA said...

Einstein was probably at his best in science, music, women.
He appears to be less successful in politics, Nazi events, jews refugees.

Jo-Anne's Ramblings said...

Of course Albert Einstein is a man most people have heard of but I expect few really know anything about his life including me.

I do no think he was a nice looking man but he did have a way with women, his life was more colourful then say mine, and of course he was a hell of a lot smarter then me.

mem said...

Did you know that he and Mileva had another child early in their marriage and that he demanded that the baby be sent to her parents to live because it interrupted his work . That child died very young . I suspect that their marriage was deeply affected by this . he also didn't have a good relationship with his sons from his marriage with Mileva . I guess he was quite a complex character .

Andrew said...

"Apprec­iat­ion wasn’t univ­ersal because the US then was quite xenophobic, suspicious of sc­ience and fearful of dom­in­at­ion."

Trump supporters of the time. Some things just don't change.

hels said...

Even though I deplore Einstein's behaviour re his first wife and children, I understand that he needed to follow his passion for the later women he adored. In other words, he didn't believe in quick flings with unknown women.

In any case, their company freed up his mind to his most important task.

hels said...

He had a difficult, unsettled childhood and his career blossomed in a continent that was falling apart. I am not sure how he could have made his life much more stable.

hels said...

So true, especially regarding music into which he showed so much energy.

Hels said...

Einstein was a total genius in maths and physics, and very talented in music. I wish my family could have produced someone who was just moderately talented in just ONE area.

diane b said...

An amazing comlex man. I bet he was hard to live with, just saying. I often walked past a house where he lived in Thun, Switzerland, my husband's hometown.

Hels said...

Einstein was very fortunate that all his original research was completed, published and successfully given at international conferences before 1933. If he had disappeared without a trace _after_ the Nazis took over, his papers would have been burned and his game would have been blotted out of history.

Hels said...

There have been reports about a first daughter that have not yet been confirmed through birth and death documents, just in letters.

Hans and Eduardo, on the other hand, were well documented throughout university and after. The first son apparently thrived; the second son eventually lost contact with his father, had mental conditions and died early and sadly.

Being a maths genius does not give a man any insight into caring for his family, clearly :(

Hels said...

When Einstein arrived in the US in 1933, the FBI would have already been following him closely because of the German's apparent pacifism, communism and Zionism. But Joseph McCarthy and his House Committee were worse than the FBI.

Trump could only dream about McCarthy being his role model.

Hels said...

The Thun connection makes you an in-law, almost :)

He was complex but silly too. Mileva was an ideal spouse since her scientific knowledge was wonderful for his own career. He made a big mistake leaving home and family.

My name is Erika. said...

I don't want to downplay Einstein because he did do some great things, but ever since I read about his first wife and how she might have done a lot to contribute to his theory, without credit, I don't quite feel the same wow about him. But then he was a man down deep, not just a pacifist and scientific leader.

hels said...

I agree there are many talented people who are brilliant in their acting, politics, royal family, sports skills etc whose careers are blighted by their sex lives.

Joe said...

The FBI conducted repeated investigations into Charlie Chaplin's pacifism, anti-fascism, foreign nationality (British) and possible Judaism. Despite Chaplin's huge success in the US, he was expelled from the US and lived the rest of his life in Switzerland.
Sound familiar?

hels said...

Although Chaplin and Einstein didn't meet each other in person until 1931, they already admired each other greatly. So yes, the way the US treated Chaplin sounds sadly familiar :(