[The following is from Thomas Levenson’s Einstein in Berlin, 2003. I can’t recommend this book too highly. In addition to his main subject, Levenson provides very interesting background information on the First World War, the revenge of the right wing after the defeat, the hyperinflation during the Weimar Republic, and the decadence of Berlin in the twenties.]
Within the week [of being granted dictatorial power by the Reichstag], Hitler’s government ordered the Prussian Academy to begin the process of expelling Einstein from its midst. His resignation caught the government by surprise. Enraged that he had quit before he could be fired, the minister in charge demanded a proclamation from the Academy condemning its erstwhile hero... the press release declared that “we have no reason to regret Einstein’s resignation. The Academy is aghast at his foreign agitation.” Einstein’s old friend Max von Laue was horrified at the idea that the Academy might issue such a document, and he spoke against it at an extraordinary meeting on April 6. None of the fourteen members present supported him. Even Haber, the converted Jew and Einstein’s close friend, voted with the majority.
Haber’s action was bad, but he would perform better soon. Max Planck disgraced himself. Einstein had written to Planck to refute privately the charge that he had spread rumours against Germany, telling him that he spoke now only to combat what was clearly a Nazi “war of extermination against my Jewish brethren.” Planck answered Einstein in a letter that identified Jewishness and National Socialism as “ideologies that cannot co-exist.” He deplored both and emphasized his loyalty to Germany, no matter who was in charge. Each man assured the other of his lasting regard and friendship, and Einstein always felt something akin to love for the older man. But Planck’s public statement on Einstein’s resignation from the Academy illustrated the mental gymnastics he had mastered so quickly in Hitler’s new Germany. He praised Einstein as a physicist without equal since the days of Kepler and Newton, but, he concluded, his exile was his own fault: “It is. . . greatly to be regretted,” he said at the Academy meeting that day, “that Mr. Einstein through his political behaviour himself rendered his continued membership in the Academy impossible.” Einstein’s politics were to blame, not those of a German government that had chosen to destroy him.
Planck’s declaration was as clear a signal as Einstein needed of the state of affairs in Berlin. Planck had always ranked with the best of Germany’s intellectuals, an honest, generous friend and an uncompromising scientist. But just as he had thrilled to the call of war in 1914, in 1933 he could not resist the siren lure of loyalty to the state, even one run by Hitler. Apart from his condemnation of Einstein, a measure of his blind devotion to the idea of the German state came with his willingness to acquiesce in statements he knew to be false. As was to be expected, Einstein’s old nemesis Philipp Lenard resurfaced with the Nazi seizure of power. As the head of a new, properly National Socialist physics institute, Lenard announced that “it is unworthy of a German to be an intellectual follower of a Jew. Natural science, properly so called, is of completely Aryan origin, and Germans must today also find their own way into the unknown. Heil Hitler.” Planck passed over such travesties in silence, apparently unwilling or unable to oppose what National Socialist Germany demanded of its citizens. His devotion to authority—to the idea of Germany, no matter what was done in the name of Germany—rendered him impotent in the face of power. He became a kind of moral imbecile: not evil in himself, not at all, but still incapable of acknowledging evil’s presence at the heart of his beloved state.
Einstein never condemned his old friend and mentor. Ultimately he seems to have concluded that Planck was more tragic than bad, just a man who could not find a way to oppose the unacceptable. Planck suffered for his sins. He lost both of his sons to the demands of two successive German empires. One had died in combat during the First World War. Hitler cost him his other boy, strangled in 1945 on suspicion of involvement in the bungled assassination attempt on the Führer the previous year. In the end, Einstein forgave him all his political failings, choosing to focus instead on the hero of his youth. “The standard of our ideal search for truth,” Einstein wrote in his obituary notice, “a bond forever uniting scientists in all times and all places, was embodied with rare completeness in Max Planck.” It wasn’t true, but Planck had befriended Einstein very early. He had nothing as charitable to say for almost every other German who stayed behind.
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