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Berlin Days

Daniel Kennefick

Einstein in Berlin. Thomas Levenson. x + 486 pp. Bantam Books, 2003 $25.95.

Thomas Levenson has written an enjoyable and highly readable account of Einstein's life in the capital of Germany from 1914 to 1932. Those years were the most eventful in modern German history and witnessed the completion of what was, arguably, Einstein's greatest contribution to science, the general theory of relativity. Considering his other achievements and how exciting German history generally has had the misfortune to be, this is saying much. There is a great deal in the book, and the pace is brisk, but throughout Levenson maintains an engaging style and does an impressive job of presenting an unusually broad range of material in an accessible way.

I should mention that I read two sections of the manuscript (constituting perhaps 10 percent of the whole) before publication and made minor suggestions for improvement, having been asked to do so because of my work as an editor on the most recent volume of the collected papers of Albert Einstein. I was impressed with the lucidity of Levenson's discussion of general relativity, the great accomplishment of Einstein's later career, which came to fruition in his first years in Berlin. Those who wish to understand a little of the extraordinary science that lay behind the sudden rise to fame Einstein endured while in Berlin could do a lot worse than to read this book. The technical parts are well written and reliable. But I must confess that in reading the finished book, I enjoyed its other aspects even more.

When Albert EinsteinClick to Enlarge Image

Einstein arrived in Berlin just before the outbreak of World War I. He was on a trip to the United States when the Nazis came to power in 1933, and he vowed never to return. Born a German, he resigned his citizenship as a teenager, partly as a protest against Prussian militarism. He left Germany in 1894 to join his family, who had recently moved to northern Italy. He soon went from there to Switzerland to attend secondary school, and in 1901 he became a Swiss citizen. In 1914, already a very distinguished physicist, he moved to the capital of Prussia and Germany because it was the science capital of the world. Over the next 17 years, Berlin, Prussia and Germany outdid every nightmare of militarism, anti-Semitism, intolerance and brutality that his teenage self could possibly have imagined. That there was also much that was exciting, worthwhile and wonderfully unique in Berlin is of course the reason he stayed so long. Levenson does a superb job of conveying the unusual relationship Einstein had with Berlin, neither ever fully at ease with the other.

We don't have much day-to-day knowledge of Einstein's activities in Berlin; he did not keep a diary (except when he was traveling, which he had increasing opportunity and motivation to do toward the end of this period). But his time there was eventful, and Levenson has chosen to write a book that is half a history of Einstein in Berlin, and half a history of Berlin during the Einstein years. The result is quite effective, capturing his love-hate relationship with the city and setting his experience there in context. The non-Einstein material is interesting in itself: Levenson devotes considerable space to Germany's experience of the First World War, the cultural milieu of the 1920s and the rise of Nazism (Joseph Goebbels plays a prominent role in this part of the book).

In one sense the book is like a photographic negative: It offers a compelling narrative of the war and the rise and fall of Berlin as the capital of the Weimar Republic, occasionally interrupted by exposition of Einstein's scientific work. Yet, as Levenson tells us, Einstein's experience was the reverse—concentrated scientific work, which was occasionally interrupted by the sordid affairs of the world outside. Einstein had a great ability to compartmentalize and to shut out unpleasant realities, sometimes at great cost to those nearest to him. Levenson gives us a sympathetic and unsparing account of Einstein's difficult and even shocking relations with the family he left behind in Switzerland and with the second family he acquired in Berlin.

It was, of course, during his Berlin period that Einstein achieved a worldwide fame whose intensity astonished him. The English eclipse expedition of 1919, which confirmed the light-bending prediction of general relativity, was the transforming moment in his life. Levenson gives a fine account of Einstein's uneasy relationship with fame. Einstein distrusted the press almost from the beginning, and perhaps because of this proved adept at riding the untamed horse of publicity.

Becoming a world figure deepened and sharpened the ambivalences in Einstein's relationship with Berlin. As the world's most famous Jew and an outspoken supporter of Zionism, he was hated by German anti-Semites, whose rise Levenson ably tracks. As a leading proponent of liberal and pacifist causes, Einstein earned the wrath of the unrepentantly militarist wing of German nationalism. As the acme of "modernism" in the eyes of the world (though he himself had no time for modern art, music or literature), he was distrusted by conservatives everywhere. It is hardly surprising that he was one of the first to be targeted by the Nazis on their rise to power, although he managed to infuriate them by resigning his state positions and his German citizenship (for the second time!) before they could strip them from him. Perhaps he stayed in Berlin because to have fled in the face of the right-wing hate campaigns would have been to hand a defeat to his liberal German friends. Ultimately this may have made Germany's behavior under the Nazis even harder for him to take. It was a betrayal he did not forgive.

Einstein in Berlin is a fine book on a subject that has simply cried out for a readable narrative account. I highly recommend it.—Daniel Kennefick, Einstein Papers Project, California Institute of Technology

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