It’s August 1922, and Albert Einstein is writing a letter to his younger sister, Maja. With anti-semitism on the rise in Germany, the scientist has fled his home in Berlin. And, spelling out his fears for the future of his nation, he comes up with a grim prediction that will play out with startling accuracy over the following years.
The future genius scientist was born on March 14, 1879, in Ulm – a city in what was then known as the German Empire. When he was still a baby, his parents, Hermann and Pauline, moved 100 miles east to Munich. And there, Hermann and his brother founded a company specializing in electrical engineering.
In terms of their beliefs, although Hermann and Pauline were both Ashkenazi Jews, they did not practice their religion. And so at the age of five, Einstein began attending a Catholic school. Three years later, he then moved to Munich’s Luitpold Gymnasium, where it became clear that he had a talent for physics and math.
At just 12 years old, Einstein was teaching himself advanced mathematics, swiftly getting to grips with systems such as Euclidean geometry. Soon, in fact, his mathematical intellect had surpassed that of his tutor. And yet, unfazed, he continued to learn calculus by himself, claiming to have become an expert in it at the age of 14.
At 13, meanwhile, Einstein had discovered the German philosopher Immanuel Kant. By this time, he believed that mathematics could be used as a tool for understanding the world, and he devoured the notoriously complex Critique of Pure Reason with enthusiasm. Then, after disavowing his German citizenship to escape serving in the military, at 17 he enrolled at Zurich Polytechnic in Switzerland.
In Zurich, Einstein spent four years studying physics and mathematics before graduating in 1900. Unable to secure a teaching job, however, he then took a position at the patent office in Bern, Switzerland. And that same year, his first paper was published in the prestigious scientific journal Annalen der Physik.
From then on, Einstein’s career as a scientist went from strength to strength. In 1905 alone he earned his Ph.D. from Zurich University and published four separate papers that changed our understanding of physics for good. And among them were his first published thoughts on special relativity – the theory that would become his most famous work.
In 1908 Einstein was then offered a lecturing job at the University of Bern. And after three years there, he took a position at the Charles-Ferdinand University in Prague, which was then part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. At the university, he continued to produce work prolifically, too, eventually returning to Zurich to work as a professor of theoretical physics.
In 1914 Einstein then accepted a position, back in the German Empire, as a professor at Berlin’s Prussian Academy of Sciences. By that time, he was, it should be noted, embroiled in an affair with his first cousin Elsa. Hence, the temptation to live close to her likely affected his decision to move to Berlin – even though he had already been married to Mileva Marić, a mathematician from Serbia, for ten years.
Einstein was also actually tipped to become director at the new Kaiser Wilhelm Institute for Physics. However, the outbreak of World War I saw these plans put on hold. It wasn’t, in fact, until October 1917 that the physicist was able to step up to the role. And by that time the German Empire was entering its final days.
Prior to World War I, the German Empire had been prosperous and influential. Indeed, since forming in 1871 it had become one of the world’s greatest powers, with a burgeoning economy and unrivaled army. And its allegiances with both the Austro-Hungarian and Ottoman Empires painted it as a formidable force in the eyes of its foes.
But despite the advantages at its disposal, the German Empire soon began to suffer as the war took hold. And as hostilities dragged out on the Western Front, many normal citizens found themselves without access to food. Then, in 1917, the empire made a fatal mistake.
The Germans announced that they would not be restricting submarine warfare – and this prompted the United States to enter the fray. Then in the spring of 1918, the empire’s last-ditch attempt to conquer the Western Front ended in failure. And subsequently, on November 11, 1918, the war was declared over, and a new chapter in Western Europe began.
With the collapse of the Austro-Hungarian and Ottoman Empires, it became clear that European borders would need to be redefined. Meanwhile, in the same month in which the war ended, the German Revolution had begun. And by the time it was over, Emperor Wilhelm II had long since abdicated, paving the way for a democratic system to be put in place.
At this time, much of Europe was in a state of disarray. You see, while borders were hastily redrawn in the aftermath of the war, problems began to emerge with them. In places such as Poland and Czechoslovakia, for example, ethnic groups found that they had been cut off from their own kin.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, then, these new boundaries caused great unrest. And as new states strove to solidify their identities, many minorities found that their cultures had become problematic. This was the case even within areas where they had lived their entire lives.
According to historians, these prejudices particularly affected the Jewish people. Before this point, the Jews had enjoyed some societal advances under the reign of Franz Joseph I. As emperor of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, Franz Joseph I had declared that a person’s religion should not affect their rights.
However, after the collapse of the Empire, the situation grew bleak once again for many of Europe’s Jews. With their unique culture and religious beliefs, they found themselves the target of much discrimination. And although the full horror of Hitler’s regime had yet to take hold, anti-semitic attitudes nonetheless flourished across Germany.
It is impossible today for us to gain a true impression of this tumultuous period of history. However, a recently uncovered letter does offer some insight. The missive was written by Albert Einstein in August 1922. And it reveals what one of the world’s smartest men thought of the chaos that had come to surround him.
Two months before the letter was written, German Foreign Minister Walther Rathenau had been assassinated. Having recently championed a treaty to open up opportunities for trade with the Soviet Union, Rathenau was seen by some right-wing groups as a dangerous revolutionary. On June 24, then, he was shot and killed by members of the nationalist Organisation Consul – a terrorist body.
Apparently, many believed that Rathenau’s Jewish background had also been part of the motivation behind his assassination. And Einstein, who had been a friend of the minister, was told by authorities that he too could be at risk. The physicist therefore fled his home in Berlin, taking refuge in the north of Germany.
That August, Einstein then penned the letter to his sister Maria, whom he affectionately referred to as Maja. And though this next point is uncertain, it is believed that he wrote the message while living in Kiel – a city on Germany’s Baltic coast. In any case, shortly afterwards, he departed for Asia, where he would spend the next six months on a speaking tour.
In the letter, Einstein spoke of the rise in anti-semitism and nationalism that had taken hold in Germany and much of Europe. “Out here, nobody knows where I am, and I’m believed to be missing,” he wrote. “Here are brewing economically and politically dark times.”
Einstein then went on to explain through his writing that he was happy to have escaped the growing unrest. However, according to an expert on the subject, Ze’ev Rosenkrantz, the scientist did not see his exile as a permanent solution. “Einstein’s initial reaction was one of panic and a desire to leave Germany for good,” Rosenkrantz told the Associated Press in November 2018. “Within a week, he had changed his mind.”
“The letter reveals a mindset rather typical of Einstein, in which he claims to be impervious to external pressures,” Rosenkrantz continued. “One reason may [have been] to assuage his sister’s concerns. Another is that he didn’t like to admit that he was stressed about external factors.”
Einstein certainly seemed keen to assure Maja that he was safe. “I’m doing pretty well, despite all the anti-semites among the German colleagues,” he wrote. “I’m very reclusive here, without noise and without unpleasant feelings, and am earning my money mainly independent of the state, so that I’m really a free man.”
“You see, I am about to become some kind of itinerant preacher,” Einstein continued, referring to his forthcoming speaking tour. “That is, firstly, pleasant and, secondary, necessary.” Then later in the letter, he again played down the situation. “Don’t worry about me,” he wrote. “I myself don’t worry either; even if it’s not quite kosher, people are very upset.”
Despite his attempts at positivity, however, Einstein noted that the same problems were also appearing elsewhere. “In Italy, it seems to be at least as bad,” he noted. At the time, you see, the National Fascist Party was about to come into power. And the country’s soon-to-be leader, Benito Mussolini, was known for his anti-semitic comments.
As the assistant director of the California Institute of Technology’s Einstein Papers Project, Ze’ev Rosenkrantz obviously possesses significant insight into the mind of the great scientist. And according to Rosenkrantz, the letter was not Einstein’s first warning with regards to anti-semitism in Germany. The document does, however, represent his feelings during a crucial time in his life.
“This letter reveals to us the thoughts that were running through Einstein’s mind and heart at a very preliminary stage of Nazi terror,” explained Meron Eren, from Jerusalem’s Kedem Auction House, where the letter was eventually sold. However, it would be a full year before Hitler made his first grab for power. And it would be even longer before the full horror of the demagogue’s ideals were to become apparent.
On November 8, 1923, Adolf Hitler stormed a beer hall where state commissioner Gustav von Kahr was giving a speech. With the support of a posse of armed men, Hitler then announced there that he had deposed the country’s current leaders. He also proclaimed that a new government was about to be formed.
Ultimately, Hitler’s coup was a failure, and the future dictator spent eight months in jail. However, the incident had propelled him and his beliefs into the public eye. And in January 1933 he eventually took on the role of Chancellor. Then, just two months later, the Enabling Act gave him almost unlimited powers.
Einstein sensed at this time – just as he had in 1922 – that trouble was coming. In 1933, while returning from a trip to the United States, he learned that his summer home had been confiscated by Nazis. And so as soon as he subsequently arrived in Belgium, he surrendered his German citizenship.
At this point, Einstein then sought refuge in the United States – and he was far from the only one looking for safety abroad. In fact, it’s thought that in excess of 300,000 Jews fled Germany between 1933 and 1939.
And of course, for so many of those who remained, a fate far worse than displacement was in store. As Einstein had predicted, dark times – though likely darker than even he could have foreseen – descended on his homeland. After World War II broke out in September 1939, the Nazi regime enforced increasingly harsh restrictions on the Jewish community. Then in 1942 the deportations to concentration camps began.
The Nazis sent millions of Jews to the camps, forcing them into hard labor and, more often, simply gassing them to death. By the end of World War II, some six million had perished. The Jewish population of Europe was cut to just a third of what it had been before the war.
As well as slaughtering the Jewish people, the Nazis also worked to eradicate any influence that they might have had. Einstein’s work was itself dismissed under the regime, with his theory of relativity dubbed “Jewish Physics.” And even after the war had ended, the celebrated scientist did not return to his homeland, eventually dying in New Jersey in 1955.
More than 60 years later, Einstein’s darkly prophetic letter has excited the collecting world, with people also interested in the insight that it offers into the person he was. “The relationship between Albert and Maja was very special and close, which adds another dimension to Einstein the man and greater authenticity to his writings,” Meron Eren explained.
On November 12, 2018, the missive went to auction, eventually fetching almost $40,000. However, three weeks later, this record was smashed when another of Einstein’s writings sold for a staggering $2.9 million. Known as the “God Letter,” it deals with his views on religion – making it a fascinating read for those wanting to know more about the great man.
Though Einstein did not practice his religion, he was, you see, nonetheless a proud member of the Jewish community. Yet he was not so proud as to see a special difference about the Jewish people or anyone else. As he wrote, “The Jewish people to whom I gladly belong, and in whose mentality I feel profoundly anchored, still for me does not have any different kind of dignity from all other peoples.”