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.

Yet they were also very different men. Haber’s pragmatic conversion to Protestantism may have been unusual, but in other respects he was the model of an assimilated middle-class Jew. Like the subjects of two shorter essays here – the immunologist Paul Ehrlich (inventor of chemotherapy) and the physicist Max Planck – Haber embraced German culture. He was worldly, cutting himself a favourable deal with the chemical company BASF, and an academic committee man who became a successful impresario of science. Einstein was always more childlike, the gypsy scholar suspicious of worldly corruption. Haber accepted scholarly advancement as a badge of respect; Einstein reacted to his first proper academic appointment by observing that he was now ‘an official member of the guild of whores’. Haber performed his year’s service in the Army, Einstein went to Switzerland at the age of 16 to avoid doing so. (Stern might have noted the parallels with another famous Swabian anti-militarist who sought refuge in Switzerland during these years, Hermann Hesse.) In the disciplined, ordered, socially militarised society of Wilhelmine Germany, Einstein’s contempt for ‘the foolish faith in authority’ stood out.

The contrast became sharper in 1914. Haber, like Ehrlich, Planck and Willstätter, signed the notorious Manifesto of the 93 addressed by German intellectuals ‘to the cultural world’, proclaiming Germany’s innocence in the outbreak of war and denying atrocities in Belgium. He placed his institute on a war footing and was responsible for developing poison gas as a weapon. Until late in the war Haber continued to believe in total German victory. Einstein, meanwhile, raged against the ‘madness’, feeling ‘pity and disgust’. To a Swiss friend, he wrote: ‘Our entire, much-praised technological progress, and civilisation generally, could be compared to an axe in the hand of a pathological criminal.’

Through all this the ties of personal friendship and collegiality held, as they did in the Weimar Republic that followed German defeat and revolution. But they remained a study in contrasts. Einstein, an international celebrity who brought unwitting prestige to Germany, was attacked at home by the anti-semitic nationalist Right and by fellow scientists such as Philipp Lenard, who called relativity a ‘Jewish fraud’. Haber urged his friend to disregard these ‘stupid fellows’ and helped to dissuade him from emigrating. He also worked on as an establishment scientist, in the Prussian Academy and Kaiser Wilhelm Society, in the Emergency Committee for German Science that raised funds for basic research, and in trying to end the ostracism of German scientists in the 1920s.

In the political crisis of the early 1930s the two men reacted in character, Haber urging an authoritarian solution, Einstein a popular front against National Socialism. After Hitler came to power, Einstein was a predictable target: his books were burned, his property confiscated, his citizenship revoked. Haber, who resigned his institute directorship rather than fire Jewish colleagues and died a year later in English exile, had more illusions to swallow. As he wrote to Willstätter, ‘I am bitter as never before ... I was German to an extent that I feel fully only now.’ Einstein’s sympathy for Haber was not without a note of malice: ‘I can conceive of your inner conflicts. It is somewhat like having to give up a theory on which one has worked one’s whole life. It is not the same for me because I never believed in it in the least.’

The 1920s and 1930s made victims of Stern’s cast of characters in different ways. Abused and exiled, Einstein survived the death threats of the bigots. Not so Walther Rathenau, a man whose life – in Einstein’s words – enacted ‘the drama of the German-Jewish upper stratum’. Capitalist and romantic utopian, man of action and wouldbe philosopher-king, bon viveur and advocate of austerity, Rathenau is perhaps the most contradictory figure in this book. A key organiser of German raw materials in the First World War, and attacked by the Allies as the despoiler of Belgium, Rathenau became a postwar symbol of Jewish ‘treachery’ for the domestic Right. After serving just five months as foreign minister, he was assassinated in 1922.

Max Planck saw the connections between the ‘dastardly thugs’ who threatened Einstein and the ‘gang of murderers’ who killed Rathenau. But after the Nazi seizure of power he decided, unlike Haber, not to resign leading positions in the Academy and Kaiser Wilhelm Society, prompted partly by apolitical patriotism and dislike of the Weimar regime, partly by a sense of duty and the hope that he could shield colleagues more successfully from within the system. John Heilbron called his biography of Planck The Dilemmas of an Upright Man. Stern takes the same line, gloomily but fairly recording Planck’s small victories and large surrenders. To conflicts of conscience was added personal tragedy. One son had been killed in the First World War; the other was executed after the failed July plot of 1944. As Planck bleakly observed in 1943 to a former assistant, ‘terrible things will befall us; we have done terrible things.’

This is a book pervaded by a genuine sense of pity. Fritz Stern is alive to moral and historical ambiguity, arguing that there is no simple judgment on the compromises of a Max Planck, any more than there is a simple way to characterise German-Jewish relations or the circumstances that made the Holocaust possible. One of his chapters takes Daniel Goldhagen’s Hitler’s Willing Executioners to pieces, pointing to its monocausal distortions, self-serving use of sources, and problematic generalisations – in short, its radically unhistorical character. It is an argument that would be echoed by most professional historians of whatever nationality or methodology. Most would also second Stern’s criticism of the nationalistic history written in the interwar years, especially in Germany.

Some of Stern’s other arguments in his chapter on ‘Historians and the Great War’ are more debatable. ‘Curiously, even disturbingly,’ he says, ‘the thematic broadening toward social history in Germany came first under National Socialists.’ Not quite. The methodological originality coupled with blood-and-soil ideas to be found in German Landesgeschichte and Volksgeschichte was already well established in the 1920s, as Willi Oberkrome and others have shown. Stern might regard this as a tiresome detail, given his scorn for historians who ‘retreated to monographic work, finger exercises of the historical spirit’. This is characteristic – and a bit too easy. Are all finger exercises barren? Is The Well-Tempered Klavier? Surely the monograph, in Germany and elsewhere, was – and is – a vehicle for works of historical originality as well as pedantry; a good deal depended – and depends – on the fingers playing the keyboard. If Stern has little sympathy for the dull dogs, he brushes aside modern historians whose work is ‘weighted down with discourse about the text’, just as his praise for Marc Bloch and Lucien Febvre (no argument there) is followed by a peevish complaint about contemporary Annalistes who seem ‘more interested in deconstructing method than in reconstructing the past’. This is an oddly myopic response to the famous ‘fourth generation’ of a school which, after passing through its love affair with quantification and serial history, has been busily rediscovering cultural history, narrative and (yes!) biography.

Stern believes that biography is going through tough times: ‘These days my discipline and our culture like to deny the historic importance of individuals.’ This, he says, is ‘an odd conclusion to reach at the end of a century that has had some terrifying and a few benign examples of people who by themselves shaped world history’. It would indeed be an odd conclusion to reach – if it were true. The major problem is that when Stern writes about the historic importance of individuals he means several quite different things at once. The least convincing claim concerns those individuals who ‘by themselves’ shaped world history. I doubt whether Stern really believes that the personal will of tyrants adequately explains the barbarities of our century. But one thing at least is clear: he is using a historical, not a moral, yardstick, one that applies to a Hitler (‘terrifying’) as well as an Einstein (‘benign’). It is all the more disconcerting, therefore, when the very next sentence complains mat ‘ours is an age of denigration.’ This is obviously not a complaint about people denigrating Hider. Rather, the ground has shifted and we are now being invited to recognise ‘great individuals’ in a different sense – namely, as heroes. That note sounds repeatedly through these essays. It opens the chapter on Planck (‘Max Planck embodied greatness’) and concludes the chapter on Chaim Weizmann (‘His life is proof again that individuals do matter, that greatness does exist, and that the denial of greatness traduces experience and diminishes our collective lives’). The caveat attached to the Weizmann example (‘of course there is an interplay, a deep ineffable connection between a great person and the surrounding culture’) tends, if anything, to thicken rather than dispel the mythicising clouds.

When Stern takes a crack at the effable he is more convincing. Valuable passages in the book argue that Planck, Einstein and Haber can be seen as ‘representative’ or exemplary individuals whose friendships, social values and political dilemmas were emblematic of something larger. ‘Perhaps,’ he writes, ‘historians of science are beginning to clarify the non-scientific dimensions of scientific work.’ As it happens, they’ve been doing that for quite some time, along the way outgrowing both the heroic, great-man version of scientific progress, and an old-fashioned science-and-society model that has science in chapters 2, 4, 6, society in chapters 1, 3, 5. Thanks not least to the stimulus of those intellectual tendencies Stern so deplores, including the influence of Foucault, close attention to the particulars of laboratory or workplace, patronage systems, scientific networks and – not least – personal belief has recast our view of leading scientists, from Boyle and Newton to Pasteur and Heisenberg. I wish that more of this disciplinary shift had been acknowledged and worked into Stern’s account of Germany’s ‘Second Age of Genius’.

The very personal nature of this book may well be one reason Stern insists so on the greatness of his subjects. These people belonged to his own family history. Stern’s mother was related to Paul Ehrlich’s son-in-law: he himself spoke at the funeral of Ehrlich’s daughter Stephanie. Fritz Haber was his godfather; his parents visited Haber’s country home in company with Einstein and Willstätter. Stern met Weizmann when he chauffeured his father, a doctor, to attend Weizmann’s wife in the Catskills in 1942. On the same occasion he encountered ‘this absolutely astounding Englishman from the British Embassy, with a mind so dazzling and deep that I was quite overwhelmed’. No prizes for identifying this as Isaiah Berlin. The autobiographical element informs the tone of these character sketches; it also adds moral weight to the final essay, ‘Lost Homelands’, a moving appeal for reconciliation delivered at a German-Polish gathering in 1995, shortly before the author set off to visit his (and Haber’s) birthplace of Wroclaw/Breslau.

Fritz Stern quotes Carlyle as well as Isaiah Berlin on great men. The heroes in his own pantheon have distinctive qualities: a sense of duty and calling, tolerance, decency. He is an old-school liberal humanist, and the name of the school is Columbia. When Stern salutes the ‘tiny band of reasonable men’ in Weimar or invokes the ‘moral responsibility of history’, we see the shades of Columbia giants like Lionel Trilling and Richard Hofstadter. There are blind spots in this patrician view of the world; there is also an admirable moral energy directed against bigotry and meretriciousness.

Fritz Stern has been successful beyond the historical profession as a voice of liberal tolerance. A familiar of the great and good on both sides of the Atlantic, he was one of the scholars convened at Chequers in March 1990 to instruct Margaret Thatcher on the German question. Perhaps prolonged exposure to important men of affairs, living and dead, explains why Stern sometimes sounds more like C.P Snow than Lionel Trilling. This is a book in which issues are burning, strides are huge, deaths are agonising, disputes are bitter, dreams are long cherished, feats of statesmanship are rare, commitment is unswerving, and the esteem in which people are held is high. Fritz Stern has earned his reputation as a non-historian’s historian. I hope that some of his historical wisdom and moral sensibility has rubbed off on the politicians and foundation heads, but I fear that some of their way with words has rubbed off on him.