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Einstein, Anglophilia, and America

Andrew Robinson—

“Einstein was an Anglophile,” declared three leading US scholars of Albert Einstein—Alice Calaprice, Daniel Kennefick and Robert Schulmann—without hesitation or qualification in their study, An Einstein Encyclopedia, published by Princeton University Press in 2015, the centenary of the publication of Einstein’s general theory of relativity. Yet Einstein chose to settle, after he was forced to leave Germany by the rise of Nazism in 1933, in the United States (in Princeton), not in Britain—despite his undoubted affection and gratitude towards Britain for inspiring his youthful passion for physics in the 1890s; for making him world famous in 1919 by confirming relativity through astronomical observations of a solar eclipse; and for personally honoring and welcoming him throughout the 1920s and early 1930s, notably as a visiting scholar and lecturer at the University of Oxford in 1931, 1932 and 1933. Even today, Einstein’s reasons for his move to America appear intriguingly complex.

In early September 1933, after exiling himself from Germany to Belgium, Einstein had abandoned his home in Belgium and fled to Britain, seeking refuge from Nazi death threats. Instead of going to Oxford again, he stayed secretly in an isolated holiday hut near the North Sea coast in rural Norfolk, under armed guard by local people. From there he declared to a British journalist: “I shall become a naturalized Englishman as soon as it is possible for my papers to go through.” However, “I cannot tell you yet whether I shall make England my home.” Then in early October, he emerged from hiding and gave the keynote speech at a mass meeting at the Royal Albert Hall in London to raise funds for desperate academic refugees from Nazi Germany. After the meeting he told another British journalist: “I could not believe that it was possible that such spontaneous affection could be extended to one who is a wanderer on the face of the earth. The kindness of your people has touched my heart so deeply that I cannot find words to express in English what I feel. I shall leave England for America at the end of the week, but no matter how long I live I shall never forget the kindness which I have received from the people of England.” 

In 1937, he wrote from Princeton to his old German physicist friend Max Born, now a refugee from Nazi Germany settled as a professor in Britain at the University of Edinburgh: “I am extremely delighted that you have found such an excellent sphere of activity, and what’s more in the most civilized country of the day. And more than just a refuge. It seems to me that you, with your well-adjusted personality and good family background, will feel quite happy there.”

Yet Einstein not once returned to Europe after 1933 before his death in 1955—even as a visiting lecturer. His aversion for post-war Germany is easy to understand, but why his distant attitude towards Britain and Europe as a whole? Especially as he was far from being in tune with American culture and Cold War politics. J. Edgar Hoover’s FBI top-secretly investigated Einstein from 1950 until his death as a potential Communist agent, with the aim of revoking his US citizenship and having him deported from the country back to Europe. In 1950, he wrote from Princeton to an old friend from student days in Switzerland: “One has to guard against becoming superficial in thought and feeling; it lies in the air here.” And in 1954, he told a visiting British writer and literary critic, V. S. Pritchett: “It is nice to talk to Europeans. In Europe, the French, the Germans, and the English think they are so different, but when they meet here, they see they are the same. They laugh at themselves, but the Americans don’t. They take themselves au grand sérieux, like adolescents.” 

Why did Einstein leave Europe forever? His reservations about British formality—symbolized by the dreaded dinner-jacket—openly expressed in his private Oxford diary in 1931, in an interview with the scientist/novelist C. P. Snow in 1937 and also to others, played some part. So did his insoluble family entanglements with his ex-wife and schizophrenic younger son in Zurich; unlike his friend Born, Einstein was never a “family man.” So, too, did his fear of further entrapment by the anti-Nazi cause, following his celebrated appearance at the Royal Albert Hall, and his expectation of a brutal war with Germany, which Einstein foresaw as early as mid-1933. Most of all, though, he wanted to be in a place where he was absolutely free to think about theoretical physics, either on his own or in conjunction with other leading experts from all over the world, exactly as he chose. The new Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton offered him this prospect, without any lecturing, committee or social obligations and with a sufficient salary—unlike established universities such as Oxford and Cambridge. Thus Einstein was “on the run” not just from the Nazis but ultimately from unwanted human contact: the Zwang (German for “coercion,” a word often used by Einstein) imposed on him, as he felt, by political meetings, by mass media demands, by conventional academic expectations and by painful family commitments—none of which helped his science. 

For Einstein, science always took precedence over nation—unlike his almost equally distinguished physicist friends Max Planck and Niels Bohr. “To Bohr one and only one place was home: Denmark. Einstein never fully identified himself with one country or nation,” wrote Bohr and Einstein biographer Abraham Pais, who knew both physicists well in Europe and America. “If I had to characterise Einstein by one single word I would choose apartness.” In America, Einstein, for all his genuine Anglophilia, apparently felt that he could remain apart from society whenever he liked—not so in Europe.

Andrew Robinson has written more than twenty-five books, including Einstein: A Hundred Years of RelativityThe Last Man Who Knew Everything, and Genius: A Very Short Introduction. He also contributes regularly to newspapers and magazines.

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