Einstein in Berlin (Review)

The portrayal of Einstein here is of a great but flawed man,
not quite the usual hagiography, despite the overt comparison
to Christ at the start. Why did Einstein come to Berlin,
the heart of Prussia, after renouncing Germany for Switzerland
as a teenager? Why did Germany’s extreme climate of militarism not repel
him, at this time immediately before the great war? Levenson
details the scientific inducements: German physics at the time was
unparalleled, and Einstein in Berlin could enjoy the company
of the established Max Planck and younger colleagues
like Max Born and Lise Meitner, later Heisenberg and many
others. But the offer of money and prestige was perhaps as
important – Einstein would direct his own “Kaiser Wilhelm” institute
of physics. Official Germany wanted to claim Einstein as its own,
and Einstein, with just a touch of patriotism, accepted.

Levenson portrays those war years, and the Weimar Republic that
followed, with great poignancy. The German people were itching to
prove their greatness. Planck and other scientists declared their
strong support for the war, and even Einstein tried to help with
research on aircraft and more significantly on the gyrocompass. Einstein’s
close friend Fritz Haber was the Edward Teller of chemical weaponry,
developing lethal gases in the same building where Einstein worked
out general relativity. All of Europe suffered as the war was prolonged;
Einstein himself falling ill to poor nutrition in 1918.
Levenson shows how the replacement of the Kaiser by a new republic
led by “social democrats,” who acquiesced to the Versailles Treaty,
divided Germany and would soon threaten the world again. On one
side of the divide were those on the left, including Einstein:
pacifists, Jews, intellectuals, seemingly now in control. On the other
side, the right wing and the remnant of the armed forces;

those who still thought the war could have been won, who decried
Germany’s fall.

Levenson tracks the growth of Einstein’s celebrity status, starting
in 1919 with the confirmation of General Relativity. The worldwide press,
stimulated by the war years and the new movie industry, pounced on
the photogenic and genial scientist, and Einstein did not shy away.

Levenson discusses Einstein’s stunning contributions to physics in
reasonably brief, accurate, and generally accessible terms. Even though
his most important work predated 1914, Einstein still helped
discover Bose-Einstein condensation, raised awareness of quantum problems,
and founded general relativity theory and the theoretical basis
for cosmology during his stay in Berlin. Berlin also saw Einstein embark
on two quixotic quests that would occupy him to his deathbed:
fighting against random chance in the quantum mechanics he helped create,
and the search for a unified theory of everything, a pursuit that still
engages physicists today. Levenson gets very close to Einstein’s essence
in describing these ultimately futile efforts – the confidence
with which, every year or two, he proclaimed he had found a unified
theory, and the humility that inevitably came some months later.

But Levenson’s focus is not just Einstein, but the culture of
which he was part, and which he partly inspired. Relativity
fed into ongoing radical changes in the arts of the time: music,
architecture, movies, writing. Some of this was a reaction to the
war years and the release from authority the new republic brought.
The tragedy and poverty of the trillion-fold hyperinflation period
is here – Einstein suffered less than most through funds he had laid
aside abroad. Levenson’s collection of black and white photos of the period
illustrate the range of radical change and questioning: two photos
of nudists are featured opposite a seated Einstein. The
immorality of the age (Einstein’s womanizing was at least
Clintoneseque) may have been hyped by the new media – certainly
the stories of serial killers and slasher novels are disturbing to
us now.

The problems, from hyperinflation to “girl shows,” were natural
grist for the mill of right-wing outrage at “foreign influences,”
Jews, and left-wing intellectuals. Levenson details the background
of hatred that existed here well before Hitler came along, becoming
increasingly strident as the Nazis gained influence. Einstein’s
reaction to this was an increasing identification with his fellow Jews.
While never considering himself a Zionist, Levenson shows Einstein’s
selfless nature in working to raise money for people he
never personally knew; there is a sad contrast with Einstein’s
poor treatment of his own family.

As a historical work the writing is often somewhat dry; Levenson
spent nine years on the book, and has extensive end notes.
Starting the book at the end of a long day, I was fast asleep by
page 40. But the narrative is excellent, and at times thrilling –
we know the outcome, but what Levenson does is show the gradual
destructive changes within the German people of the time. The account
recalls a quote from Soviet gulag survivor Alexander Solzhenitsyn – “the
line separating good and evil passes not through states, nor between
classes, nor between political parties either, but right through
every human heart, and through all human hearts. This line shifts.
Inside us, it oscillates with the years.” Einstein was imperfect,
as we all are; Levenson shows Hitler’s self-justification striving
for a moral society – the shades of gray here abound. But
1914-1932 saw Solzhenitsyn’s oscillation magnify and become almost
coherent across the people of one nation, rejecting those like
Einstein who were out of phase. Secrecy, lack of respect for human
life, fostered hatred of “others” (communists, blacks, Jews), and
Hitler’s demagoguery were key ingredients. Levenson’s text in places
suggests dangers in our current world, where we see truth replaced
by ideology, that we would be well to watch out for.

If it is easy to see a bit of Einstein’s genius and geniality in ourselves,
it is also easy to see the shadow of Hitler in those we disagree with.
Internet discussions are notorious for descending into cries of Nazism.
This brief period of history in Germany is critical to understanding
both the best and worst parts of our own nature. There are other
books that will tell you more about Einstein’s life. There are certainly
more comprehensive books on Hitler and the roots of World War II. But
Levenson, combining the two iconic subjects, provides a valuable and
unique lens with profound implications for understanding ourselves.