Bitter as never before

David Blackbourn

  • Einstein's German World by Fritz Stern
    Princeton, 335 pp, £15.95, October 1999, ISBN 0 691 05939 X

On Einstein’s 50th birthday in 1929, the chemist Fritz Haber wrote to him: ‘In a few centuries the common man will know our time as the period of the World War, but the educated man will connect the first quarter of the century with your name.’ This salute from one German-Jewish Nobel laureate to another was written six months before the Wall Street Crash helped to make National Socialism a mass movement, and it introduces some of Fritz Stern’s central themes. They include the impact of the First World War, which we can now see as the foundational event in the history of the short 20th century, the nature of scientific achievement in an age when science lost its innocence (but not its association with ‘educated men’), and that hardy perennial, the German-Jewish symbiosis. The mood of this essay collection is elegiac. The German edition was called Verspielte Grösse, or ‘Lost Greatness’, with the implication of something that has been gambled away. That something was the prospect of a ‘German century’, ended by what Stern calls a ‘stoppable self-destruction’.

The ambiguous promise of Einstein’s German world is evoked in a series of biographical studies, supplemented by several more general essays. The most substantial piece, taking up a third of the book, describes the relationship of Haber and Einstein. Their lives first intersected on the eve of the First World War. After making his name in Karlsruhe by discovering how to fix nitrogen from the air, Haber moved to Berlin in 1911 to head the new Kaiser Wilhelm Institute for Physical Chemistry and Electrochemistry. There he became a leading figure in the campaign to attract Einstein to Berlin with the offer of a university professorship without teaching duties, membership of the Prussian Academy of Sciences, and the directorship of the new Kaiser Wilhelm Institute for Physics. Despite misgivings about the ‘Berlin adventure’, Einstein joined Haber in 1914.

Born into non-religious, assimilated middle-class families and educated in the classical Gymnasium, the pair had much in common. Both felt a strong calling to science that would eventually prove hard to reconcile with domestic responsibilities. (Stern is good on both sides of this equation, although perhaps too indulgent to Haber and Einstein, given the high price that others would pay for their creativity.) Both, too, suffered early professional reverses that owed something to prejudice against ‘Israelites’. Haber cast around for years before turning to the new field of physical chemistry, quarrelled with leading figures and advanced slowly. His close friend, the chemist Richard Willstätter, said that Haber’s ‘early failure was complete and of long duration’. Einstein had his doctoral thesis rejected, was turned down as a teaching assistant, and complained in 1901 that he had offered himself unsuccessfully to every physicist ‘from the North Sea to the southern tip of Italy’. It was from a clerk’s post in the Bern patent office that the 26-year-old, still without a doctorate, wrote the four papers that transformed our understanding of the physical universe.

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