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[History has gone Einstein’s way. As a result there is absolutely no doubt in our minds that with his independence of mind, his hatred of nationalism, his contempt for militarism, his grasp of the madness and folly of war, his immunity from propaganda and his understanding of the need for an international outlook, Einstein was far more enlightened than the cream of Germany’s intellectual class. And yet we know that when it came to the responsibilities of husband and father, Einstein was shockingly delinquent. Moreover, he always pleased himself first, and tended to scorn those who were caught up in emotions to which he was not susceptible. Enlightenment doesn’t necessarily translate into virtue. For among the famous German artists, writers, scholars and scientists who signed the Manifesto of Ninety-three, a document which attempted to defend the indefensible, there must have been a few who possessed finer characters than Einstein. The following excerpt from Thomas Levenson’s fascinating 2003 book, Einstein in Berlin, not only paints a vivid portrait of a time gripped by extreme passions, but helps us see that being wise and far-sighted is, at least partly, circumstantial. Without wishing to detract from Einstein’s admirable qualities, one could reasonably argue that his temperament and past experience gave him every advantage over his friends and colleagues. According to Virginia Woolf, ‘Great bodies of people are never responsible for what they do. They are driven by instincts which are not within their control.’ If that is true, there is no reason to suppose that it does not equally apply to a nation’s cultural elite. Perhaps, then, we should not judge the German artists and intellectuals too harshly for being blinded by their national loyalties and their cultural assumptions.]

Einstein never reconciled himself to the shock of 1914—not merely the fact of battle but the naked joy that everyone, it seemed, took in the good fight. “That a man can take pleasure in marching in fours to the strains of a band is enough to make me despise him,” he wrote years later, looking back on the war. Such a man “has only been given his big brain by mistake; unprotected spinal marrow was all he needed.” Much more quickly than most, he focused on the war’s disastrous impact, not simply the devastation and loss of life it threatened but the loss of sensibility, of a way of thinking. In August he wrote to his friend Ehrenfest that Europe was gripped by madness, and that humankind was “a sorry species” to rejoice at the outbreak of such collective insanity. These feelings never abated. In war he saw the destruction of what he most prized: the collapse of reason, the loss of the ability to think as individuals. “Heroism on command, senseless violence and all the loathsome nonsense that goes by the name of patriotism—how passionately I hate them.” In the end, as at the beginning, there was only revulsion. “How vile and despicable seems war to me?”

This state of mind was thoroughly at odds with that of those closest to him, the men who had brought him to Berlin in the first place. Walther Nernst provided a kind of deadly comic relief. With the outbreak of hostilities Nernst, bespectacled, plump, fifty years old, and a professional chemist of the first rank, took it on himself to leave his laboratory and volunteer for active duty. He drove well and owned his own car, so he set himself up as a military courier. His wife drilled him in the proper military bearing and then he launched himself toward the German Second Army on the march through northern France.

Haber responded more soberly but with greater effect. As early as 1909 he had begun weighing the importance of chemistry to war, and in 1912 he approached the Prussian War Ministry with an offer to coordinate the work of his physical chemistry institute with the needs of the military. At the time, the General Staff ignored him, but in 1914 Haber tried again. His staff at the Kaiser Wilhelm Institutes dwindled to five as call-ups took their toll, but he reorganized the remaining few on military lines and sought official rank for himself. He hoped for an officer’s commission, but that was too ambitious for a mere scientist and a converted Jew, so he had to settle for a sergeant’s slot. Nonetheless, though he continued to hunger for the seal of Germanness that a commission in the kaiser’s army would bring, he began to turn his group into probably the most bellicose of all the German research establishments.

Such behaviour by men he considered friends did not surprise Einstein or greatly put him off his stride. Fairly quickly he recovered much of his equilibrium, explaining to Zangger that he had found out how to get by. “I am now beginning to feel well amidst the current mad turmoil,” he claimed, by the simple expedient of isolating himself “from all things with which the crazy public busies itself.” But even Einstein’s walls could be breached if the shock was great enough. What finally struck home was the way Planck greeted the war—Planck of all people, the man whom Einstein would eventually eulogize in a letter to his widow, saying, “How different and how much better it would be for mankind if there were more like him.” Yet even Planck eagerly sent his students into the army. Germany was the victim, Germany was a peace-loving nation, but Germany could not show patience forever, Planck told the young men before him, so now, “Germany has drawn its sword against the breeding ground of perfidy.”

That is to say, against neutral Belgium. The Germans had hoped that the Belgian army would stand aside, allowing their army to proceed to France without interruption. That hope was quickly dashed; on the first night of the war German soldiers came under fire from franc-tireurs, snipers, who struck at the invading forces from what cover they could find. The sniping evoked the response that became a centrepiece in the argument over right and wrong in the war. In the first of a series of reprisals for continued Belgian resistance, German soldiers leveled the small town of Hervé, holding its inhabitants collectively responsible for what they regarded as cowardly civilian attacks on military targets.

But affairs like this seemed mere distractions. The first major obstacle was the city of Liége, surrounded by a network of elaborate fortresses. The initial attack failed, and the Germans even showed some signs of panic, but General Erich von Ludendorff rallied his forces and led them into the city, where all resistance ceased by August 15. The German advance continued, little affected either by the ongoing efforts of the snipers or by encounters with the regular forces of France and Belgium. (A top German diplomat in Brussels complained of Belgium’s continued intransigence with a mixture of sympathy and disdain: “Oh, We don’t want to hurt them, but if they stand in our way they will be ground into the dirt.”)

Continuing Belgian resistance led to an ongoing and escalating series of reprisals, with German soldiers obeying orders to murder over a thousand civilians. The punishment culminated in the destruction of about a fifth of the town of Louvain. A German officer told a visiting American diplomat that when the work there was done “not one stone will stand upon another!” Actions like these and the very public announcements that confirmed that the German command knew of and approved reprisal killings combined to fix in Allied opinion an image that would remain in place until the time came to assign blame for the war: the essential German was a barbarian who bathed in the blood of innocents.

That was an image that deeply offended German men of culture, and in the early autumn, Germany’s intellectuals had enough of what they took as almost personal slanders. Their response demonstrated how wide a gap separated the cultural elites of the warring nations, and defined the chasm that had opened between Einstein and men he counted among his closest friends. On October 4, the major newspapers published an “Appeal to the Cultured World,” a manifesto defending Germany against charges of aggression and brutality. It stated that Germany bore no responsibility for the war; Germany had not violated the neutrality of Belgium; no atrocities had been committed there—in fact, it was the western powers, Britain and France, who were at fault, for “having allied with Russians and Serbs” to produce “the shameful sight of Mongols and Negroes driven against the white race.” Germany was a land of impeccably civilized sensibilities, whose actions through the war would be conducted as befits “a cultured nation to whom the legacy of Goethe, Beethoven and Kant is fully as sacred as its hearths and plots of land.” The manifesto was presented as a message from Germany’s intellectual leaders and was signed by ninety-three of the most famous German artists, writers, scholars and scientists. Among them were Philipp Lenard, the conservative but not yet rabid Nobel laureate in physics; Emil Fischer, founder of the Kaiser Wilhelm Institutes; Nernst, safely back from his French adventure; Haber; and, worst of all, Max Planck. Einstein had passed over the enthusiasms of his colleagues in midsummer with only private disdain. This appeal, though, was too much to bear in silence.

The Manifesto of Ninety-three had shocked at least one other person besides Einstein, a physician named Georg Friedrich Nicolai, an adjunct professor at Berlin University and a close friend of Elsa Einstein. He drafted a countermanifesto titled “An Appeal to Europeans” and brought it to Einstein for editing and signature. It asserted that there could be no victors in the war, and called on the educated men from each nation to work together after its end to ensure that the terms of any peace agreement did not set the stage for future conflict. It urged the best from both sides to reestablish international connections, and to avoid the impulse to blame one side or another for the conflict. Above all, it rejected the naked, ugly nationalism of the manifesto: that document was “unworthy of what until now the whole world has understood by the term culture, and it would be a disaster if it were to become the common property of educated people.”

All in all, this countermanifesto was—or seems now—relatively benign, blaming no one, urging restraint, calling for a fair and permanent peace only after the war had run its course. The document was written to offend as little as possible. It was a complete failure. Einstein and Nicolai gained only two signatures besides their own. One was from the octogenarian astronomer Wilhelm Förster, a signatory to the first manifesto who presumably had come to his senses. The other was from a friend of Nicolai’s. Esteemed though he was, Einstein lacked the kind of all-eclipsing prestige he was to gain in the 1920s, which would have made his name alone enough to carry the document, so he and Nicolai abandoned the effort. Their “appeal” was eventually published in Switzerland as part of a book in which Nicolai argued more generally against war. But in Germany 1914, even a tepid expression of regret at the conflict was anathema. It was not treason; rather, and worse, it was irrelevant.

For Einstein, that was the real tragedy, the fact that the community of science and intellect that he believed he had joined in Berlin had collapsed so swiftly and so completely. What truly galled him was that the men he considered his peers were so eager to prostrate themselves in a paroxysm of nation worship, sacrificing their intellectual honesty to do so. At a minimum, they could have read the widely published reports in German newspapers on the assault on Antwerp, for example, with its inevitable destruction of civilian property, and long before October, the chancellor of Germany himself, Theobald von Bethmann-Hollweg, admitted in public that Germany’s invasion of Belgium was a clear breach of the rights of a neutral state. “The wrong that we are committing,” he said, praising himself for his honesty, “we will endeavour to make good as soon as our military goal is reached.”

In other words, the signers of the Manifesto of Ninety-three—Einstein’s friends—had no excuse. They knew or should have known that what they signed was false in at least some of its particulars, bombastic and defensive and ultimately absurd as a broader claim of moral stature. In Einstein’s view, lending support to such tripe was disgraceful. Indeed, it was itself a kind of treason, a betrayal of the polity of ideas that he believed superseded any mere national allegiance. The sense of hurt, the rage at such desertion, stayed with him. In 1918 he wrote, recalling the original insult, “Innumerably often, in these gloomy years of general nationalistic blindness, men of science and the arts have made public declarations which have already unmeasurably damaged feelings of solidarity among those who are devoting themselves to higher and freer goals. This solidarity,” he remembered, “had been well-developed before the war.” But that halcyon time, that community of the best and best-intentioned, had now been shattered, perhaps irreparably. “The clamour of narrow-minded priests and slaves of the leaden principle of power has become so noisy that the better-minded, feeling so completely isolated, dare not lift their voices.”

Language like this captures Einstein’s capacity for contempt, especially for what he saw as the essence of the German character. He pulled no punches. It took him less than a year of war to conclude that the Germans were a people motivated by fear and the love of force. He always understood that the Germans had no monopoly on folly, that others besides his nearest neighbours could thrill to the adventure of war. But soon after the war began, he diagnosed a special pathology in Germany, a disease of culture and society that propelled it into war. The masses were “immensely submissive, ‘domesticated’,” he told the French author and committed pacifist Romain Rolland in a conversation that took place in neutral Switzerland in 1915. The elites were worse. They were hungry, Einstein told Rolland, driven by their urge for power, their love of force, and the dream of conquest.

Einstein’s worst forebodings of the move to Germany had never stretched to this. The war was madness, he wrote to a friend, and as the battles pressed on into autumn he added, “In living through this ‘great epoch’ it is difficult to accept the fact that one belongs to that species that boasts of its freedom of will.” He dreamed of “an island for those who are wise and magnanimous,” where even he could be a patriot. There was no such place. Instead, he remained in his flat in Dahlem, alone but for the company of men who thrilled to the sound of guns.

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