Einstein, the Nazis and the German Academies

Adolf Hitler became Chancellor of the German Reich on 30 January 1930. At this time Albert Einstein was in the United States visiting the California Institute of Technology. Max Planck was Secretary of the Mathematics and Natural Science Section of the Prussian Academy of Sciences and president of the Kaiser Wilhelm Gesellschaft, the main German research organisation. On 23 February 1933, the Reichstag Fire gave Hitler the excuse to suspend all civil liberties in Germany. On 10 March 1933 Einstein reacted to the situation in Germany declaring that he could not live in a country where such liberties were not upheld:
As long as I have any choice, I will only stay in a country where political liberty, toleration, and equality of all citizens before the law are the rule. Political liberty implies liberty to express one's political views orally and in writing, toleration, respect for any and every individual opinion.

These conditions do not obtain in Germany at the present time. Those who have done most for the cause of international understanding, among them some of the leading artists, are being persecuted there.

Any social organism can become psychically distempered just as any individual can, especially in times of difficulty. Nations usually survive these distempers. I hope that healthy conditions will soon supervene in Germany, and that in future her great men like Kant and Goethe will not merely be commemorated from time to time, but that the principles which they inculcated will also prevail in public life and in the general consciousness.
Einstein and the Prussian Academy

The Prussian Academy of Sciences asked Max Plank, as secretary, to write to Einstein condemning Einstein's statement. He did so, choosing to emphasise that Einstein's statement would make life harder for Jews in Germany:
By your efforts, your racial and religious brethren will not get relief from their situation, which is already difficult enough, but rather they will be pressed the more.
Planck urged Einstein to resign from the Prussian Academy of Sciences but Einstein had got in first and had sent a letter of resignation to the Prussian Academy of Sciences on 28 March before Planck's letter had reached him. On 1 April 1933 there was the so-called "boycott day" when Jewish shops were boycotted and Jewish lecturers were not allowed to enter the university. On the same day (almost certainly deliberate), since Planck was by this time on holiday in Sicily, another of the Academy's secretaries, Professor Dr Ernst Heymann, wrote to Einstein:
The Prussian Academy of Sciences heard with indignation from the newspapers of Albert Einstein's participation in atrocity-mongering in France and America. It immediately demanded an explanation. In the meantime Einstein has announced his withdrawal from the Academy, giving as his reason that he cannot continue to serve the Prussian State under its present Government. Being a Swiss citizen, he also, it seems, intends to resign the Prussian nationality which he acquired in 1913 simply by becoming a full member of the Academy.

The Prussian Academy of Sciences is particularly distressed by Einstein's activities as an agitator in foreign countries, as it and its members have always felt themselves bound by the closest ties to the Prussian State and, while abstaining strictly from all political partisanship, have always stressed and remained faithful to the national idea. It has, therefore, no reason to regret Einstein's withdrawal.
Einstein replied to the Prussian Academy of Sciences' accusations, writing from Le Coq, near Ostende, on 5 April 1933:
I have received information from a thoroughly reliable source that the Academy of Sciences has spoken in an official statement of "Einstein's participation in atrocity-mongering in America and France."

I hereby declare that I have never taken any part in atrocity-mongering, and I must add that I have seen nothing of any such mongering anywhere. In general people have contented themselves with reproducing and commenting on the official statements and orders of responsible members of the German Government, together with the programme for the annihilation of the German Jews by economic methods.

The statements I have issued to the Press were concerned with my intention to resign my position in the Academy and renounce my Prussian citizenship; I gave as my reason for these steps that I did not wish to live in a country where the individual does not enjoy equality before the law and freedom to say and teach what he likes.

Further, I described the present state of affairs in Germany as a state of psychic distemper in the masses and also made some remarks about its causes.

In a written document which I allowed the International League for combating Anti-Semitism to make use of for the purpose of enlisting support, and which was not intended for the Press at all, I also called upon all sensible people, who are still faithful to the ideals of a civilization in peril, to do their utmost to prevent this mass-psychosis, which is exhibiting itself in such terrible symptoms in Germany to-day, from spreading further.

It would have been an easy matter for the Academy to get hold of a correct version of my words before issuing the sort of statement about me that it has. The German Press has reproduced a deliberately distorted version of my words, as indeed was only to be expected with the Press muzzled as it is to-day.

I am ready to stand by every word I have published. In return, I expect the Academy to communicate this statement of mine to its members and also to the German public before which I have been slandered, especially as it has itself had a hand in slandering me before that public.
On 6 April, the day after he had written to the Academy, Einstein wrote a private letter to Planck:
... I have never taken part in any "atrocity-mongering." I will give the Academy the benefit of assuming it made these slanderous statements only under outside pressure. But even if that should be so, its conduct will hardly be to its credit; some of its more decent members will certainly feel a sense of shame even today.

You have probably learned that these false accusations were used as an excuse for the confiscation of my property in Germany. My Dutch colleagues joined in an effort to help me over the initial financial difficulties. It was fortunately not necessary for me to accept their help since I have been careful to prepare for such an emergency. It will certainly be easy for you to imagine how the public outside Germany feels about the tactics employed against me. Surely there will come a time when decent Germans will be ashamed of the ignominious way in which I have been treated.

I cannot help but remind you that, in all these years, I have only enhanced Germany's prestige and have never allowed myself to be alienated by the systematic attacks on me in the rightist press, especially those of recent years when no one took the trouble to stand up for me. Now, however, the war of annihilation against my defenseless fellow Jews compels me to employ, on their behalf. whatever influence I may possess in the eyes of the world.

That you may better appreciate my feeling, I ask you to imagine yourself for the moment in this situation: assume that you were a university professor in Prague and that a government came into power which would deprive the Czechs of German origin of their livelihood and at the same time employ crude methods to prevent them from leaving the country. Assume further that guards were posted at the frontiers to shoot all those who, without permission, attempted to leave the country that waged a bloodless war of annihilation against them. Would you then deem it decent to remain a silent witness to such developments without raising your voice in support of those who are being persecuted? And is not the destruction of the German Jews by starvation the official programme of the present German government?

If you were to read what I actually said (not distorted accounts), you would doubtless realise that I expressed myself in a thoughtful and moderate way. I say this not to apologise but to demonstrate vividly the ignoble and ignominious manner in which the German authorities have behaved towards me.

I am happy that you have nevertheless approached me as an old friend and that, in spite of severe pressures from without, the relationship between us has not been affected. It remains as fine and as genuine as ever, regardless of what has taken place. "on a lower level," so to speak. The same holds for Laue, for whom I have the very highest respect ...
On 7 April 1933, Heinrich von Ficker, on behalf of the Prussian Academy of Sciences, wrote to Einstein c/o Professor Ehrenfest at Leyden. This letter was the reply to Einstein's resignation letter sent on 28 March 1933:
As the present Principal Secretary of the Prussian Academy I beg to acknowledge the receipt of your communication dated 28 March announcing your resignation of your membership of the Academy. The Academy took cognizance of your resignation in its plenary session of 30 March 1933.

While the Academy profoundly regrets the turn events have taken, this regret is inspired by the thought that a man of the highest scientific authority, whom many years of work among Germans and many years of membership of our society must have made familiar with the German character and German habits of thought, should have chosen this moment to associate himself with a body of people abroad who - partly no doubt through ignorance of actual conditions and events - have done much damage to our German people by disseminating erroneous views and unfounded rumours. We had confidently expected that one who had belonged to our Academy for so long would have ranged himself, irrespective of his own political sympathies, on the side of the defenders of our nation against the flood of lies which has been let loose upon it. In these days of mud- slinging, some of it vile, some of it ridiculous, a good word for the German people from you in particular might have produced a great effect, especially abroad. Instead of which your testimony has served as a handle to the enemies not merely of the present Government but of the German people. This has come as a bitter and grievous disappointment to us, which would no doubt have led inevitably to a parting of the ways even if we had not received your resignation.
On 11 April 1933, Heinrich von Ficker and Ernst Heymann, replied on behalf of the Academy to Einstein's letter of 6 April 1933:
The Academy would like to point out that its statement of 1 April 1933 was based not merely on German but principally on foreign, particularly French and Belgian, newspaper reports which Herr Einstein has not contradicted; in addition, it had before it his much-canvassed statement to the League for combating anti-Semitism, in which he deplores Germany's relapse into the barbarism of long-passed ages. Moreover, the Academy has reason to know that Herr Einstein, who according to his own statement has taken no part in atrocity mongering, has at least done nothing to counteract unjust suspicions and slanders, which, in the opinion of the Academy, it was his duty as one of its senior members to do. Instead of that Herr Einstein has made statements, and in foreign countries at that, such as coming from a man of world-wide reputation, were bound to be exploited and abused by the enemies not merely of the present German Government but of the whole German people.
On 12 April 1933, writing from Le Coq-sur-Mer, Belgium, Einstein replied to the Academy's letter of 7 April written by Heinrich von Ficker:
To the Prussian Academy of Sciences, Berlin.

I have received your communication of the seventh instant and deeply deplore the mental attitude displayed in it.

As regards the fact, I can only reply as follows: What you say about my behaviour is, at bottom, merely another form of the statement you have already published, in which you accuse me of having taken part in atrocity-mongering against the German nation. I have already, in my last letter, characterized this accusation as slanderous.

You have also remarked that a "good word" on my part for "the German people" would have produced a great effect abroad. To this I must reply that such a testimony as you suggest would have been equivalent to a repudiation of all those notions of justice and liberty for which I have all my life stood. Such a testimony would not be, as you put it, a good word for the German nation; on the contrary, it would only have helped the cause of those who are seeking to undermine the ideas and principles which have won for the German nation a place of honour in the civilized world. By giving such a testimony in the present circumstances I should have been contributing, even if only indirectly, to the barbarization of manners and the destruction of all existing cultural values.

It was for this reason that I felt compelled to resign from the Academy, and your letter only shows me how right I was to do so.
Einstein and the Bavarian Academy

Einstein's resignation from the Prussian Academy on 28 March 1933 prompted the Bavarian Academy of Sciences, based in Munich, of which Einstein was also a member, to write to him on 8 April 1933:
In your letter to the Prussian Academy of Sciences you have given the present state of affairs in Germany as the reason for your resignation. The Bavarian Academy of Sciences, which some years ago elected you a corresponding member, is also a German Academy, closely allied to the Prussian and other German Academies; hence your withdrawal from the Prussian Academy of Sciences is bound to affect your relations with our Academy.

We must therefore ask you how you envisage your relations with our Academy after what has passed between yourself and the Prussian Academy.
Einstein replied to the Bavarian Academy of Sciences, Munich, on 21 April 1933, writing from Le Coq-sur-Mer:
I have given it as the reason for my resignation from the Prussian Academy that in the present circumstances I have no wish either to be a German citizen or to remain in a position of quasi-dependence on the Prussian Ministry of Education.

These reasons would not, in themselves, involve the severing of my relations with the Bavarian Academy. If I nevertheless desire my name to be removed from the list of members, it is for a different reason.

The primary duty of an Academy is to encourage and protect the scientific life of a country. The learned societies of Germany have, however - to the best of knowledge - stood by and said nothing while a not inconsiderable proportion of German savants and students, and also of professional men of university education, have been deprived of all chance of getting employment or earning their livings in Germany. I would rather not belong to any society which behaves in such a manner, even if it does so under external pressure.
Einstein and the German Physical Society

In June 1933, having resigned from the Prussian Academy of Sciences and the Bavarian Academy of Sciences, Einstein wrote to Max von Laue:
I have learned that my unclear relationship to those German organisations which still include my name in their list of members could cause problems for my friends in Germany. For this reason, I would like to ask you to make sure that my name is removed from the membership lists of these organisations. These include, for example, the German Physical Society. ... I am explicitly empowering you to do this for me.
Max von Laue replied:
Although I am very thankful that you are trying to make things as easy as possible for us, I nevertheless could not do these ... things without the deepest sadness.
Einstein received no reply from the German Physical Society who removed his name from their list of members without comment.

French manifesto against Anti-Semitism in Germany

Einstein was invited to add his name to a French manifesto against Anti-Semitism in Germany. He declined, giving his reasons in the following reply:
I have considered this most important proposal, which has a bearing on several things that I have nearly at heart, carefully from every angle. As a result I have come to the conclusion that I cannot take a personal part in this extremely important affair, for two reasons:

In the first place I am, after all, still a German citizen, and in the second I am a Jew. As regards the first point I must add that I have worked in German institutions and have always been treated with full confidence in Germany. However deeply I may regret the things that are being done there, however strongly I am bound to condemn the terrible mistakes that are being made with the approval of the Government; it is impossible for me to take part personally in an enterprise set on foot by responsible members of a foreign Government. In order that you may appreciate this fully, suppose that a French citizen in a more or less analogous situation had got up a protest against the French Government's action in conjunction with prominent German statesmen. Even if you fully admitted that the protest was amply warranted by the facts, you would still, I expect, regard the behaviour of your fellow-citizen as an act of treachery. If Zola had felt it necessary to leave France at the time of the Dreyfus case, he would still certainly not have associated himself with a protest by German official personages, however much he might have approved of their action. He would have confined himself to blushing for his countrymen. In the second place, a protest against injustice and violence is incomparably more valuable if it comes entirely from people who have been prompted to it purely by sentiments of humanity and a love of justice. This cannot be said of a man like me, a Jew who regards other Jews as his brothers. For him, an injustice done to the Jews is the same as an injustice done to himself. He must not be the judge in his own case, but wait for the judgment of impartial outsiders.

These are my reasons. But I should like to add that I have always honoured and admired that highly developed sense of justice which is one of the noblest features of the French tradition.

Last Updated July 2015