When Einstein met Churchill (1933)
“He is an eminently wise man”
When Albert Einstein and his wife Elsa left Germany in December of 1932, Einstein for a period believed that he might be able to return one day, but he wasn’t certain. As late as December he wrote his friend Maurice Solovine (1875-1958) to “send copies” of his newly republished works “to me next April at my Caputh address”. Einstein and Elsa owned a weekend retreat in the town of Caputh outside of Potsdam. However, when they shortly thereafter closed their house up, Einstein is to have turned to his wife and said “Dreh dich um. Du siehst’s nie wieder”, which translates to “Turn around. You will never see it again” (Pais, 1982). Indeed, Einstein had in 1932 already been hired by Abraham Flexner (1866-1959) to take up one of the first six professorships at the newly founded Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton, New Jersey—alongside, among others, John von Neumann (1903-57).
On his voyage to America in 1933, Einstein spent a period of time in the United Kingdom as a guest of, among others, British politician Oliver Locker-Lampson (1880-1954). Visiting London in July, Einstein appears to have been travelling for affairs related to the increasingly dire situation of Jewish academics in Mainland Europe. On the 20th of July, Locker-Lampson (who was hosting Einstein’s on his trip) wrote to Frederick Lindemann (1886-1957) that
“Someone has seen Einstein and is bringing him to England and has asked me to put him up at my cottage this weekend. I have, therefore, arranged to do this and am taking him to Winston’s on Saturday.”
The ‘Winston’ Lindemann was referrring to, was Sir Winston Churchill (1874-1965). The future Prime Minister and eventual war hero was in 1933 in the midst of what is often referred to as his “Wilderness Years”. Out of his office as Chancellor of the Exchequer since 1929 following the Conservatives’ defeat in the general election, Churchill was by 1933 mostly spending his time writing. Prone to depression (what he called his “black dog”), historians have conjectured that Churchill in this period “sensed his political talents were being wasted and time passing him by — in such time writing provided the antidote” (Jenkins, 2001).
Herr Einstein, Locker-Lampson and Lindemann duly arrived for lunch at Churchill’s estate Chartwell on Saturday the 22nd of July. Although he had accepted a professorship in the United States, Einstein’s english was still fairly limited, especially in conversation. As he once confided in his diary (in German) “I am learning English, but it doesn’t want to stay in my old brain” (Isaacson, 2007).
During their visit, Einstein is to have asked Churchill for help in providing sanctuary for Jewish German scientists at British universities. As Churchill had been out of office since 1929, he was “only” a Member of Parliament with limited influence over universities and immigration authorization. Still, as Brian (1996) writes, Churchill suggested to Lindemann (then at Oxford) that he contact other British universitites about offering positions to German scientists. Lindemann had indeed already done so, and more, travelling around Germany in the spring to recruit scientists such as Max Born (1882-1970) to come to England. Born had been suspended from his position as Professor of Physics at the University of Göttingen following the enactment of the Berufsbeamtengesetz, the “Law for the Restoration of the Professional Civil Service”, put into place by the Nazi regime on April 7th. Born was Jewish.
“One day (at the end of April 1933) I found my name in the paper amongst a list of those who were considered unsuitable to be civil servants, according to the new "laws". After I had been given 'leave of absence', we decided to leave Germany at once. We had rented an apartment for the summer vacation in Wolkenstein in the Grödner valley, from a farmer by the name of Peratoner. He was willing to take us in immediately. Thus, we left for the South Tyrol at the beginning of May (1993); we took our twelve-year old son, Gustav, with us, but left our adolescent daughters behind at their German schools."
- Excerpt, The Born-Einstein Letters* by Max Born (1971)
On his way to Tyrol, on May 10th Born witnessed the Bücherverbrennung (book-burnings) first-hand and despite his typical quiet and calm demeanor reacted so furiously that his wife Heidi had to restrain him from intervening (Medawar & Pyke, 2000). Shortly after arriving at their destination, Lindemann visited, attempting to entice Born to accept a position at his alma matter Oxford. However, having spent time in Cambridge in the 20s, Born instead opted to accept a position as a “research student” at St. John’s College. Born was by that point perhaps the world’s leading authority on the new quantum theory.
In 1933, what many felt were Hitler’s mischievous intentions were in fact still a matter of debate. Einstein had made up his mind for himself that the Führer was indeed bent on war, indeed already secretly preparing for it. He had already told Lindemann that “I think the Nazis have got the whip hand in Berlin. I am reliably informed that they are collecting war material and in particular, aeroplanes in a great hurry. If they are given another year or two the world will have another fine experience at the hands of the Germans” (Brian, 1996). Mind you, Einstein was himself a German and at least in title, still a Professor at the University of Berlin. As he told one interviewer in late July,
“I cannot understand the passive response of the whole civilized world to this modern barbarism. […] Does the world not see that Hitler is aiming at war?”
Although he was at heart a staunch pacifist, Einstein had by the time he went to see Churchill concluded that the “Nazi threat cannot successfully be combated by moral means; it can be met only by organized might. To prevent the greater evil, it is necessary that the lesser evil—the hated military—be accepted for the time being” (Nathan & Norden, 1960).
“Should German armed might prevail, life will not be worth living anywhere in Europe”
Churchill—not exactly known for his adversion to armed conflicts—certainly found plenty to agree with. He ensured Einstein that Britain and America would be able to hold Germany at bay, despite their rearmament. As Einstein came away from the meeting he reported back to Elsa that he was relieved “that these people have taken precautions and will act resolutely and soon” (Farmelo, 2013). Famously, Einstein also wrote of Churchill:
“He is an eminently wise man”
The couple travelled to America on October 17th, 1933. Einstein never again sat foot in Europe.
Although the details of their meeting are limited, the photograph of Einstein and Churchill is quite famous (see above), pehaps for obvious reasons. Two icons of the 20th century each in their own very unique way—together. As Farmelo (2013) wrote:
“Churchill wore no tie and sported a Stetson-like hat, while Einstein was draped in a suit of white linen that looked as if he had slept in it”.
Known for their wit, love of smoking and eccentric personalities the two were indeed quite a match in terms of their personalities. Churchill loved to paint and Einstein loved playing his violin. As one Einstein-biographer, Ronald Clark, once wrote
“The comparison is not surprising once the picture-book image of both scientist and stateman is scraped awawy to reveal the machinery beneath. […] Of Churchill is has been written that almost obsessional concentration ‘was one of the keys to his character. It was not always obvious, but he never really thought of anything but the job in hand. He was not a fast worker, especially when dealing with papers, but he was essentially a non-stop worker’. Einstein was much the same”.
The Einstein-Szilárd Letter, June 7th 2021
The Golden Age of Quantum Physics, September 3rd 2021
When Heisenberg met Einstein, June 11th 2021
When Wiener met Einstein, April 20th 2021
The Mathematical Center of the Universe, August 8th 2021
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Brian, D. 1996. Einstein: A Life*. John Wiley & Sons. New York, NY
Farmelo, G. 2013. Churchill’s Bomb: How the United States Overtook Britain in the First Nuclear Arms Race*. Basic Books.
Isaacson, W. 2007. Einstein: His Life and Universe*. Simon & Schuster. New York, NY.
Larres, K. 2016. Churchill and Einstein: Overlapping Mindsets. The Churchill Project. Available at: <https://winstonchurchill.hillsdale.edu/churchill-einstein/>
Medawar, D. & Pyke, J. 2000. Hitler’s Gift. Scientists Who Fled Nazi Germany*. Richard Cohen Books.
Nathan, O. & Norden, H. 1960. Einstein on Peace*. Simon & Schuster. New York, NY.
Wilson, T. 1995. Churchill and the Prof*. Cassell. London, UK.
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