Albert Einstein’s Berlin Years

Ian Farrell on the Swabian physicist’s years in Berlin…

Photograph of Albert Einstein in his office at the University of Berlin. Public domain image, photographer unknown.

Swabian physicist Albert Einstein (14 March 1879 – 18 April 1955) was a true celebrity, renowned for his intellect to the point that his name is now synonymous with the very concept of genius. Yet most of his work was so advanced that, even today, many of us would have trouble explaining exactly what he is famous for.

The secret to Einstein’s universal appeal, however, is not his work, but his maverick personality: the crazy hair, the flaunting of conventions, the answering the door in bare feet when receiving dignified guests. He was the original mad professor.

Beneath the exterior of the ramshackle genius was of course a highly astute political mind. When he came to Berlin in 1914 after accepting an invitation from Max Planck to join the Prussian Academy of Sciences, Einstein insisted on retaining the Swiss citizenship he had acquired during his studies in Zürich.

A staunch pacifist, he wanted to avoid conscription in the likely event of war breaking out, as it did just three months later. Einstein continued to campaign for a peaceful resolution throughout the conflict, and was even a founding member of the left-wing German Democratic Party (DDP) after the November Revolution.

Berlin group including Max Planck, Ramsay MacDonald Albert Einstein, July 1931. Photo: public domain, photographer unknown.

In those early years especially, Einstein’s relationship with Berlin was purely professional. Prussian militarism rankled with him but, fast approaching 40, he was acutely aware that his career had not really taken off since the Special Theory of Relativity was published in 1905.

The position at the Academy offered him the perfect conditions for his work and, despite later appointments as a professor at the university and director of the Kaiser Wilhelm Institute for Physics (now the Max-Planck Institute), he was largely free of teaching commitments. This afforded him time to complete his General Theory of Relativity, which was published in 1916 and proven during the solar eclipse of 1919, catapulting him to global fame. The Nobel Prize for Physics followed in 1921

Einstein was now a celebrity and loved by all, yet for someone so popular and intelligent, he displayed a remarkable lack of understanding and sympathy for those closest to him. His first wife, Mileva, left him shortly after the move to Berlin, taking their two sons with her (the pair also had a daughter, who either died or was given up for adoption).

Rumours that Einstein was having an affair with his cousin, Elsa Löwenstahl, were confirmed when they married him and he moved in with her to her parents’ Schöneberg flat in 1919. Einstein’s second spouse stuck with him, but she too endured years of his womanising and periods of complete isolation while he locked himself in his attic study – nicknamed ‘the tower’ – to concentrate on his work.

In his later years in the city, Einstein tired of the cult of personality surrounding him and accepted the mayor’s offer of a house in the country, a gift from the city in honour of his fiftieth birthday. He spent as much of the year as the weather would allow at this summer home in Caputh by the Templiner See, sailing, working, playing the violin and entertaining guests as diverse as Käthe Kollwitz, Charlie Chaplin and a number of prominent political figures.

Image: WikiCommons

As the political climate changed, he became more aware that his Jewish background meant that even a man of his stature was at risk of anti-Semitic attacks. He spent more and more time in America and, when word reached him during a business trip there in 1933 that Hitler had finally taken over, he decided never to return. He accepted a position at the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton, New Jersey, where he lived with his family until his death in 1955.

Einstein’s time in Berlin is commemorated in several modest ways, from the small memorial in front of his former building on Haberlandstraße to a small, quiet park in Prenzlauer Berg. A more notable tribute lies further south in Potsdam, in the shape of the Albert Einstein Science Park; inside sits the uniquely expressionist Einstein Tower astrophysical observatory, one of the first major projects of prominent architect Erich Mendelsohn and a structure Einstein himself judged, with shrewd diplomacy, as “organic”.

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