Einstein's Emigration to America (1932)
In May of 1932, a viciously anti-Semetic illustrated brochure entitled Juden Sehen Dich An (“Jews are Watching You”) featured Einstein in its prologue alongside some sixty other prominant (alleged and actual) Jewish intellectuals (Robinson, 2019a p. 225). Written by a close collaborator of Josef Goebbels, the author of the brochure included a photograph of Einstein featuring the caption:
“Discovered a much-contested theory of relativity. Was greatly honoured by the Jewish press and the unsuspecting German people. Showed his gratitude by lying atrocity propaganda against Adolf Hitler. Not yet hanged.”
Following the publication of the brochure a German magazine printed a list of co-called “enemies of the German regime” with an accompanying picture of Albert Einstein marked “not yet hanged” with a $5,000 bounty (Jerome & Taylor, 2006).
Already in 1930, Einstein had begun feeling the pressure to leave his native Germany. His open opposition to the Nazi regime had attracted the attention of Hitler’s sympathisers. Despite holding a chair as Professor of Physics at the esteemed University of Berlin, by 1932 Einstein feared for the safety of both himself and his family. He had spent a large part of the 20s travelling throughout the world on a lecture tour, including to most of Europe, Japan, South America and Palestine. A year before, he had became a fellow at the University of Oxford. In addition, he had visited America on four seperate occasions (1921, ‘30, ‘31 and ‘32), the latter three for extended stays at the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena, California as a visiting professor. This is where he was when Hitler seized power in Germany.
He would never again return to his home country, eventually settling in Princeton, New Jersey as one of the first six founding professors at the Institute for Advanced Study.
This week’s newsletter is about Albert Einstein’s emigration to America.
Einstein’s First Visit to America (1921)
Einstein first visited America in 1921. Together with his wife Elsa he travelled to New York City for a lecture tour which included visits at Columbia, Princeton and the White House. Following the stay, which lasted for three weeks, he published a gloating essay entitled My First Impression of the U.S.A, in which he wrote:
“What strikes a visitor is the joyous, positive attitude to life […] The American is friendly, self-confident, optimistic, and without envy.”
From this firsthand account, it appears Einstein was in love with America. Around the same time however, in Europe, he was also quoted in the Dutch newspaper Nieuwe Rotterdamsche Courant on the 4th of July 1921 with a statement about Americans outside of cities such as New York, Boston and Chicago largely seeming to be “bored”, stating
“So folks are happy when they are given something to play with and which they can revere, and that they then do it with exceptional intensity. […] They will do anything that is in vogue and in fashion, and, as it happens, have thrown themselves among the throngs of the ‘Einstein craze’.”
“Does it make an outlandish impression upon me, the crowd’s excitement here and there about my beliefs and theories, about which it doesn’t understand anything? I find it amusing and also interesting to watch the game. I certainly believe that it is the magic of non-comprehension that attracts them […] one tells them about something tremendous that will influence all future life, and of a theory [...] of which the crowd couldn’t understand a thing. It overly impresses them, it assumes the colors and the charm of mystery […] and people begin to get enthusiastic and excited.”
Einstein retracted parts of the latter statement about Americans a week later, stating “I was very enraged by the statement attributed to me regarding the American public […] The words I am supposed to have uttered cannot correspond exactly to what I actually said”, noting that his statements to the Dutch journalist were said in a humorous tone and clarifying that indeed:
“That which satisfies me most when I think back on America is the feeling of gratitude for the warm and heartfelt reception given by all of the colleagues, public authorities, and private individuals.” I delievered lectures at the universities in Princeton and Chicago, and at two New York universities, Columbia and the City College of New York, and everywhere found great interest and deep knowledge among the colleagues there.”
Overall, Einstein indeed appears to have been overwhelmed by the reception he received in the United States in 1921 (Rowe & Schulman, 2007), and left with a positive, albeit ambiguous impression of America.
World Travel (1920s)
Following Sir Arthur Eddington (1882-1944)’s confirmation of Einstein’s deflection prediction during the solar eclipse of 1919, Einstein instantaneously became world famous. On November 7th, the Times of London reported in bold letters: “Revolution in Science, New Theory of the Universe. Newtonian Ideas Overthrown”. His fame was further compounded two years later when he was awarded the Nobel Prize in Physics. Never before (or perhaps since) was there greater interest, among both academics and the general public, to hear a physicist speak.
Thus, Einstein—who up until then had been a working physicist, less so a communicator of science—was invited by institutitions around the world to speak about his ideas. He visited Norway in 1920 on invitation from the students’ union in Oslo, and Gothenburg, Sweden in 1923 to deliver a delayed Nobel lecture for the king. He also visited Denmark in both 1920 and ‘23 to speak at the Danish Astronomical Society. He learned of his winning of the Nobel on his way to Japan in the fall of 1922, and so failed to be in attendence during the ceremony. He was travelling to Japan alongside his second wife Elsa, visiting Singapore, Hong Kong and Shanghai on the way, travelling via boat for close to six months to and from. On the travel back he also visited Palestine in 1923, becoming the first honorary citizen of Tel Aviv. He also visited Spain where he was inducted as a corresponding member of the Royal Academy of Madrid. In the spring of 1925, he travelled to South America, spending a month in Argentina, a week in Uruguay and a week in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil.
Extended Stays Abroad (1931-33)
More or less exiled from Berlin, by the early 1930s Einstein was spending much of his time abroad, including stays in England and the United States.
Einstein at Oxford University (1931-33)
Einstein’s first of three stays at Oxford University’s Christ Church occurred in May of 1931. Frederic Lindemann (1886-1957)’s car picked Einstein up at the docks of Southampton where his passenger liner arrived from Hamburg on May 1st (Robinson, 2019a). His purpose in Oxford was to give three public lectures on his theory of relativity, cosmology and his incomplete unified field theory—the so-called Rhodes Memorial Lectures.
Having spent a large part of the 1920s on various lecture tours, Einstein was by 1931 less-so a working researcher than an active popularizer and communicator of scientific ideas. In famous public disagreement with his friend and peer Niels Bohr (1885-1962) about the nature and relevance of quantum phenomena (read: The Bohr-Einstein Debate), Einstein was at the time in a sense struggling to assert his position in the scientific community. In popular science, however, Einstein in 1931 had no peers. Werner Heisenberg (1901-76)’s quantum mechanics had yet to find its way into the popular conscience. Einstein had challenged Heisenberg’s claims both in public and private, starting in 1926 (read: When Heisenberg met Einstein). Yet still, by the time of the Fifth Solvey International Conference on Electrons and Photons in 1927, Max Born (1882-1970) and Heisenberg were so confident in their findings that they in the in the proceedings to the conference asserted that their quantum mechanics was “complete and irrevocable” (read: The Golden Age of Quantum Mechanics). The public was however largely unaware of the disagreement, which was both highly technical and, in a sense, esoteric in its details.
Einstein’s host at Oxford, Lindemann, was a wealthy professor of physics most notable as Lord Charwell, the primary scientific advisor to later Prime Minister Winston Churchill (read: When Einstein met Churchill). Lindemann had begun courting Einstein to come to Oxford to give Rhodes Memorial Lectures as early as in 1927. His first lecture, simply entitled ‘The Theory of Relativity’ was given on Saturday the 9th of May at Rhodes House in Oxford.
Present in the lecture hall was over five hundred faculty and students ranging from a wide range of disciplines. A week later on May 16th, Einstein gave his second lecture on the expanding universe, and a week after that, on May 23rd, his third and final lecture on unified field theory—Einstein’s attempted unification of general relativity with electromagnitism (Robinson, 2019b). All three of Einstein’s lectures were given in German, and no interpreter or notes were provided for either lecture, prompting one Oxford Times reporter to wonder “how many of those who were present thoroghly understood German, or if they could understand the language in which Prof. Einstein spoke, how many of them could follow the complexities of relativity?”. Einstein himself appears to have taken this criticism to heart, as he later remarked that the next time he was to lecture in Oxford, “the discourse should be in English delivered” (Robinson, 2019b). An entry from Einstein’s travel diary however make light of his view of the Oxford audience:
“Doctoral ceremony in large hall. Serious, but not wholly accurate speech in Latin. Then my last lecture at Rhodes House on the mathematical methods of field theory. The dean slept wonderfully in the first row. Frightfully well-behaved and friendly audience. […] Meal in college and finally pacifist students in cute old private house. Great political maturity among the Englishmen. How pitiful are our students by comparison!”
— Einstein’s travel diary (May, 1931)
The dean in question, Henry Julian White (1859-1934) was a biblical scholar which by 1931 was in his seventies and, despite his seeming indifference, had indeed supported Einstein’s promotion to become a fellow at Christ Church—which he was.
The blackboards Einstein used for the second of his lectures were preserved by Robert Gunther (1869-1940), founder of the History of Science Museum in Oxford. Although one of the two blackboards preserved was accidentally wiped in the museum’s storeroom, the other survives and today remains the most popular item in the museum. Einstein wrote of the preservation of the blackboards in his diary, noting:
“The lecture was indeed well-attended and nice. [But] the blackboards were picked up. (Personality cult, with adverse effect on others. One could easily see the jealousy of distinguished English scholars. So I protested, but this was perceived as false modesty.”
Prior to the third lecture, Einstein was awarded an honorary doctorate presented by Arthur B. Poynton (1867-1944), whose speech somehow managed to forgo any mentions of relativity, gravity, electromagnetism and Newton.
Despite “Christ Church’s relationship with Einstein [proving to have been] amiable but eccentric from beginning to end”, even before Einstein left Oxford in 1931, Lindemann appears to have begun campaigning to lure him back (Robinson, 2019a p. 183). About a month after Einstein’s departure, the college informed Lindemann that it was indeed willing to offer an annual fellowship of £400 (about $39,000 in 2021), a dining allowence and accommodation to Einstein for five years, during which it was expected that he would stay of around a month of each year. Einstein eventually accepted, however having to negotiate the terms slightly as he was also at the time invited to the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena, California. He went back to Oxford for the agreed-upon month in April-May of 1932 and in June of 1933.
Einstein at Caltech (1931-33)
“He came her for rest and seclusion. He ate with everybody, talked with everybody, posed for everybody that had any film left, attended every luncheon, every dinner, every movie opening, every marriage and two-thirds of the divorces. In fact, he made himself such a good fellow that nobody had the nerve to ask him what his theory was.”
— Will Rodgers’ comments about Einstein’s stay in Pasadena, 1931
Einstein stayed in Pasadena as a visiting professor at Caltech for three winter terms, in 1931, ‘32 and ‘33. According to the Caltech Archive, he lived in a bungalow at 707 South Oakland Avenue in 1931 and in the “Einstein suite” of Caltech’s faculty club The Athenaeum during the winters of 1932 and ‘33. His first two visits were sponsered by Caltech, and the third by the Oberlaender Trust of Philadelphia (Goldstein, 1979).
Einstein first arrived in California via boat on New Years Eve, 1930. There to greet him (in San Diego) was an audience of Californians ‘one part show business, one part hero worship and one part geniuine affection’ (Goldstein, 1979). A theatrical group called ‘The Yale Puppeteers’ performed a play they entitled Mr. Noah which featured Einstein in a prominent role, enacted with puppets. After the performance Einstein examined the puppet portraying him, remarking that it was “good, but not fat enough” and stuffing a crumpled-up piece of paper under the puppet’s sweater.
The first appearance of Einstein at an official Caltech event was a dinner on the 15th of January 1931. In attendence were over 200 members of the California Institute Associates, including cosmologist Richard Tolman (1881-1948), physicist Paul Epstein (1883-1966), “Martian” Theodore von Kármán (1881-1963) (read: The Martians of Budapest) and Nobel Laureate Albert A. Michelson (1852-1931), who would pass away only a few months later. Indeed, over the course of his first stay at Caltech Einstein would mingle with both astronomers Edwin P. Hubble (1889-1953) and Charles E. St. John (1857-1935), as well as colleagues from UC Berkeley Gilbert N. Lewis (1875-1946) and a young J. Robert Oppenheimer (1904-1967). As the story goes, Lewis wrote to Einstein’s friend Tolman before travelling to Caltech:
“I have just accepted an invitation from Oppenheimer to drive me down. Do you think I should take out accident insurance?”
Einstein’s visits in 1932 and ‘33 attracted less public attention, allowing Einstein to focus on his work and Hubble’s recent findings concerning redshifts in distant nebulas which indicate that the universe was expanding, not static, as Einstein had proposed. He also participated in a disarmament conference at the Pasadena Civic Auditorium and a nationwide radio presentation on German-American relations.
Hitler’s Ascent to Power (1933)
Einstein had in 1929 commissioned the building of a summer house in Caputh near Potsdam for him and Elsa to stay in during the warm Berlin summers. They did so, in 1930 and 31, however having to abandon the house in 1932 when they left for their third visit to Pasadena. Ominously, when driving away from the house Einstein is to have turned to Elsa and said “Dreh dich um. Du siehst’s nie wieder” (Pais, 1982).
“Turn around. You will never see it again”
As the story goes, Elsa protested, stating that they had made plans to return to Berlin in March. They however never did.
On January 30th 1933, while Einstein was still in Pasadena, the President of Germany Paul von Hindenburg reluctantly appointed Nazi leader Adolf Hitler to the position of Chancellor of Germany. After only two months in office, following the burning of the Reichstag building, the German parliament next passed the “Enabling Act” giving the chancellor full legislative power for a period of four years.
On April 1st 1933, the first day of Germany’s ‘national day of boycotting the Jews’, an anti-Semitic cartoon of Einstein was published in Deutsche Tageszeitung showing a “sharp-nosed Einstein on his hands and knees being kicked out of a German consulate by a large boot” (Robinson, 2019a) with the satirical caption ‘The consierge of the German embassy in Brussels is authorised to cure an Asiatic [i.e. an Eastern-European Jew] of the delusion that he is a Prussian’. On April 3rd 1933, John von Neumann (1903–1957), then in Budapest, wrote the following about the situation in a letter to Oswald Veblen (1880–1960) in Princeton:
Excerpt, letter from von Neumann to Veblen (April 3rd 1933)
It seems, that this Summer will be a endless series of sensations - and not always of the agreeable kind. [...] Please excuse in me that I am asking such a lot of questions. But you know, how these things interest me, and how little newspapers a[re] worth, if you want to find out anything [...] The news from Germany are bad: heaven knows what the summer term 1933 will look like. The next programm-number of Hitler will probably be annihilation of the conservative-monarchistic-party [...] I did not hear anything about changes or expulsions in Berlin, but it seems that the "purification" of universities has only reached till now Frankfurt, Göttingen, Marburg, Jena, Halle, Kiel, Köningsberg- and the other 20 will certainly follow. [...] It is really a shame, that something like that could happen in the 20th century.
Einstein formally applied for the release from his German citizenship on April 4th. It took the Nazi regime almost a year to enact Einstein’s expatriation (Robinson, 2019a). They however began officially seizing his assets in Germany already in May. His bank deposits were seized first “in order to maintain public security and order and also to prevent future anticipated subversive Communist activities”, per the official ruling communicated to Einstein via letter from the Office of the Secret State Police. By the middle of April, the Main Office for Press and Propaganda of the German Student Union proclaimed a nationwide “action against the un-German spirit”. Not long after, public Nazi marches on and around University campuses was becoming commonplace. Bücherverbrennung, book-burning ceremonies were held in protest of literature found to be sympathetic with socio-democratic, left-leaning and/or “Jewish values”.
The exclusion of "left", democratic, and Jewish literature took precedence over everything else. The black-lists [...] ranged from Bebel, Bernstein, Preuss, and Rathenau through Einstein, Freud, Brecht, Brod, Döblin, Kaiser, the Mann brothers, Zweig, Plievier, Ossietzky, Remarque, Schnitzler, and Tucholsky, to Barlach, Bergengruen, Broch, Hoffmannsthal, Kästner, Kasack, Kesten, Kraus, Lasker-Schüler, Unruh, Werfel, Zuckmayer, and Hesse. The catalogue went back far enough to include literature from Heine and Marx to Kafka.
- Excerpt, The German Dictatorship* (1970) by Karl Dietrich Bracher
Still in Pasadena at the time of Hitler’s ascension in January, Einstein decided that it would be impossible for him to return to Berlin. Instead, he travelled to Antwerp in Belgium where family and friends had helped him, Elsa, her daughters Ilse and Margot, Einstein’s secretary Helen Dukas and his assistant Walter Mayer (1887-1948) find living quarters in a villa called Savoyard on the Belgian coast. Out of fear for Einstein’ safety, the villa was equipped with two armed police guards paid for by the Belgian royal family.
By April, Einstein had received offers of professorships from the Collège de France in Paris, the University of Madrid, the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, from institutions in the Netherlands and Turkey and from the newly established Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton, New Jersey. The breadth of offers prompted Einstein to remark:
“I now have more professorial chairs than reasonable ideas in my head”
Einstein agreed to the French and Spanish appointments on condition that they be part-time (Robinson, 2019a p. 227). However, in both cases his Jewish anchestry proved to be an issue. In Paris, it was protested in an influential Royalist journal that there was no need for the Collège de France “to provoke a casus belli with the Germany of Hitler out of love for Israel”. In Spain, the Catholic press’ attacks lead Einstein to withdraw from the position.
Then there was the issue of the newly founded Institute for Advanced Study, whose origin, main affiliation (and indeed housing until 1938) was with Princeton University—which still practiced a numerus clausus in the admission of Jewish students. Einstein noted this fact to the IAS’ first director in a letter, concerned that his name would be associated with PU’s admission quota for Jews. Indeed, Einstein’s adverse instincts towards Princeton attitudes in the 1930s appear well-founded even in hindsight. As late as in 1939, Princeton University’s freshmen voted Hitler, for the second year running, as the ‘greatest living person’ in the annual poll conducted by the Daily Princetonian. Einstein, who by then had been living in Princeton since 1933 received 27, versus Hitler’s 93 votes (Robinson 2019a).
Einstein’s decision to accept the offer from the IAS was the result of three meetings with Abraham Flexner (1866-1959) in 1932 (Pais, 1982 p. 450). Flexner was an American educator best known for his role in the reform of higher education in the US and Canada when he in June 1930 persuaded two wealthy siblings—Louis and Caroline Bamberger—to fund a new research institution in Princeton, New Jersey unlike any before or since:
“A first-rate research institution with no teachers, no students, no classes, but only researchers protected from the vicissitudes and pressures of the outside world.” — Sylvia Nasar
In 1932, Flexner visited Caltech to discuss his project with the faculty there, where Einstein happened to be visiting and so the two were introduced. When they met again later in Oxford, Flexner asked Einstein outright if he might be interested in joining the Institute. During their third meeting at Einstein’s summer house in Caputh in June, Einstein responded that he would be delighted to come, on two conditions:
He could be his assistant Walther Mayer; and
He would receive an annual salary of $3,000 (“unless I can live on less?”)
His appointment was approved in October and his salary set at $15,000 (approx $300,000 in 2021). In parallel, Flexner and the IAS’ first professor Veblen were also courting mathematician Hermann Weyl (1885-1955) whom insisted on them also offering a permanent position to the thirty-year-old visiting professor von Neumann whom Weyl had supervised at ETH and whom had been staying at the IAS since 1930. The Institute’s other two early appointees were topologist James W. Alexander (1888-1971) and Marston Morse (1892-1977) who left a professorship at Harvard. The institute was first housed in Princeton University’s mathematics department in Fine Hall, before moving to its own campus and common room Fuld Hall in 1939.
Upon his arrival in New York, him and Elsa were met at quarentine by Edgar Bamberger and Herbert Maass (trustees of the IAS) who handed Einstein a letter from Flexner which read, in part:
“There is no doubt whatsoever that there are organized bands of irresponsible Nazis in this country. I have conferred with the local authorities […] and the national government in Washington, and they have all given me the advice […] that your safety in America depends upon silence and refraining from attendance at public functions […] You and your wife will be thoroughly welcome at Princeton, but in the long run your safety will depend on your discretion”
Einstein gave up his five-year fellowship at Christ College in 1934, writing to dean in May that he hope the remainder of his stipend be used in whole or in part to pay one or more distinguished foreign scientists to give brief lecture courses during the term. Albeit from afar, Einstein would indeed play an instrumental role in the rescue operations that would take place from 1933 up until to the beginning of the war.
Writing to Born at Göttingen at the end of May, Einstein’s mixed emotions of enthusiasm and desperation for the mission afoot are apparent:
Dear Born. Ehrenfest sent me your letter. I am glad that you have resigned your positions (you and Franck). Thank God there is no risk involved for either of you. But my heart aches at the thought of the young ones. Lindemann has gone to Göttingen and Berlin (for one week). Maybe you could write to him here about Teller. I heard that the establishment of a good Institute of Physics in Palestine (Jerusalem) is at present being considered.
Two years ago I tried to appeal to Rockefeller's conscience about the absurd method of allocating grants, unfortunately without success. Bohr has now gone to see him, in an attempt to persuade him to take some action on behalf of the exiled German scientists. It is to be hoped that he'll achieve something. Lindemann has considered London and Heitler for Oxford. He has set up an organization of his own for this purpose, taking in all the English universities. I am firmly convinced that all those who have made a name already will be taken care of. But the others, the young ones, will not have the chance to develop.
Einstein’s last trip outside of America was in May 1935 when him and his wife Elsa sailed for Bermuda in order to obtain immigrant visas on their return (Pais, 1982). Elsa unfortunately died the following year, on December 20th 1936 of heart disease.
Einstein’s future close friend Kurt Gödel (1906-1978) began visiting the IAS in 1933, eventually emigrating in 1939. His emigration story is available in the previous newsletter Kurt Gödel’s Brilliant Madness:
Those interested in reading more about Einstein’s emigration to America are encouraged to check out the book:
Robinson, A. 2019. Einstein on the Run*. Yale University Press.
More reference material is available below.
Thank you for reading this week’s newsletter.
Happy new year!
Jørgen (on paternity leave)
Related Privatdozent Essays
When Einstein met Churchill (1933), November 5th 2021
The Einstein-Szilárd Letter (1939), June 7th 2021
When Heisenberg met Einstein, June 11th, 2021
Gödel’s Solutions to Einstein’s Field Equations, May 4th 2021
Gödel’s Constitutional Quarrel (1947), June 14th 2021
The Privatdozent newsletter currently goes out to 8,330 subscribers via Substack.
Goldstein, J.R. 1979. Albert Einstein in California. Engineering and Science 42(5), pp. 17-19.
Medawar & Pyke, 2000. Hitler’s Gift: The True Story of the Scientists Expelled by the Nazi Regime*. Arcade Publishing.
Pais, A. 1982. Subtle is the Lord*. Oxford University Press.
Rowe, D.E. & Schulman, R. 2007. Einstein on Politics: His Private Thoughts and Public Stands on Nationalism, Zionism, War, Peace and the Bomb*. Princeton University Press.
Robinson, A. 2019a. Einstein on the Run: How Britain Saved the World’s Greatest Scientist*. Yale University Press.
Robinson, A. 2019b. Einstein in Oxford. PhysicsWorld.
* These are Amazon Affiliate links