“Einstein in Bohemia” – Part II: how alienation in ‘half-barbaric’ Prague led him to a new theory of gravity, eventual love of a free Czechoslovakia

Albert Einstein (1921), photo: Ferdinand Schmutzer, Public Domain

When Albert Einstein moved from Zurich to Prague in early April 1911 to take up his first full professorship teaching theoretical physics, he was not yet world-famous, though heralded in scientific circles as likely “the next Copernicus”. The position at the German University in Prague was a significant step up for Einstein, then 32, in terms of status and salary. Yet he found life in Bohemia more alienating than enchanting: German-speakers like himself were an entrenched minority in the Hapsburg Slav capital, and Einstein’s young family had no established ties in Prague. This relative isolation, however, proved enormously fruitful, as we learn in this second part our discussion with Princeton University history professor Michael Gordin, author of the newly published book Einstein in Bohemia.

Albert Einstein (1921), photo: Ferdinand Schmutzer, Public Domain
Prague was broadly perceived by the German professoriate as, if not a hardship post, certainly less a plum position than a posting in Berlin, Munich, or Vienna. What is today Charles University, founded in 1348, had in 1882 split into a Czech and German university, and the latter was having difficulty attracting professors and students.

At the same time, Einstein had yet to be offered such a prestigious, well-paid academic post, despite having published landmark papers in his “miracle year” of 1905 – on the photoelectric effect, among the most important early papers in quantum theory, discovered by German physicist Max Planck in 1900; on Brownian motion, the movement of molecules, helped calculate the size of atoms; and on relativity theory, which centres on electricity and magnetism, but involves notions that when travelling near the speed of light, time slows down.

Prague seemed a golden opportunity for Einstein, who had famously struggled to get to an academic job despite having made these landmark discoveries, says Prof. Gordin:

“He got a position at the University of Bern, teaching a little bit, and then eventually an assistant professor position in Zurich. And then Prague comes to him in 1910 wanting to hire him as a full professor – what was then called an ‘ordinary professor’ – and he eventually comes in 1911.

“He was very young to get that position, and part of the reason he gets it is that Max Planck, the discoverer of quantum theory, strongly recommends Einstein as likely to be the next Copernicus – as someone who will have an enormous impact on the shape of physical science in the future.

“And the people in Prague, for a variety of local reasons, are attracted by the philosophical implications of Einstein’s work, so they hire him. So, he gets there because of this strange pathway he had in his career before then, but also because of the strong philosophical flavour of his physics, which was very appealing to the faculty of the German University in Prague.”

Plank and others viewed Albert Einstein as precisely the kind of young, visionary who could help boost the visibility of the German University in Prague, not least vis-à-vis its ascendant Czech counterpart.

Einstein arrived in Bohemia on 3 April 1911, the day before his appointment began, and soon settled into his apartment in the rapidly expanding Smíchov neighbourhood, in a new art deco building on what is today Lesnická Street. Most every day, he would take a brisk walk to his office on the other side of the Vltava River, and ensconce himself in his office or the institution’s library – both of which he was quite pleased with.

A lonely physicist in search of a quartet

Photo: Princeton University Press
“Einstein’s social life was very typical of a professor at the German University at the time – often very confined to other faculty members, and most of them lived in Prague’s New Town.

“Much of his life was him walking across Palacký Bridge, from where he lived in Smíchov to the Physics Faculty on Viničná Street, which was then called Weinbergstraße, or at least that’s what he always called it. And there’s a plaque inside the building there, right behind the botanical garden.

“In terms of social life, he got outside of that professorial sphere through his passion for playing violin. In this age before widespread recorded music, the way to hear music was to play it yourself, so he would find a group of people that he could play violin concerti or string quartets music with.

“In Prague, he did that through a student who was auditing his class called Hugo Bergmann – who later on became Shmuel Bergmann, a very important philosopher in Israel – and him to his mother-in-law’s house.

“Her name was Berta Fanta, and she lived on Old Town Square, then called Altestatering, above the pharmacy of her husband, Max Fanta, which was called the White Unicorn. And Einstein spent a great deal of time there playing music, occasionally having discussions with them about various literary or philosophical topics.”

“Generally, people say he played [the violin] well, but what they mean is he played better than they expected him to play. He seems to have been very technically competent. He enjoyed playing Mozart in particular, and Bach.

“There’s a famous incident when he went back to Prague in 1921 he gave a lecture at the German-affiliated astronomy planetarium. He gave a talk, and then this philosopher from the German University, Oskar Kraus, one of the leading attackers of Relativity in this period, gives this very angry speech about why relativity is false and wrong.

“Rather than answering him, Einstein took out his violin and played a little bit. Everybody thought that was charming. His violin brought a lot of affection to him in many contexts, and he was very attached to playing. I have no idea what he played at that particular moment. It would be lovely if we knew.”

Berta Fanta’s Old Town Square salon

Berta Fanta, photo: Public Domain
Berta Fanta’s home served as a meeting place for German-speaking intellectuals, most of them Jewish. She had previously held a salon in Prague’s famous Café Louvre to discuss the philosophy of Franz Brentano (whose work strongly influenced his students at the University of Vienna, including radical psychiatrist Sigmund Freud and Tomáš Garrigue Masaryk, the future president of Czechoslovakia.)

Einstein no doubt spent some time in the Café Louvre, says Prof. Gordin, but that particular circle had fallen apart by the time he arrived. It was Fanta’s salon that provided Einstein’s introduction to Zionism, and where he may have been first exposed to the ideas of Freud.

“We know that Einstein spent a significant amount of time there – that’s where he met and became acquainted with Max Brod, where his friendship with [the philosopher and Zionist] Hugo Bergmann deepened. And the one time that we believe he and Kafka were in the same room, was at that salon, in the spring of 1911. So that was a large part of his social life.

“He also liked spending a lot of time with the family of Moritz Winternitz, a Sanskritologist who taught at the German University. He would go visit their house and go on long walks in the hills behind the Lesser Town, in Petřín Hill – and in the forests outside of Prague.

“His social life was very limited because he spent so much time on his work, and those were the main parts of the city he was engaged with. He was not very engaged with the Jewish quarter of the town [Josefov], and also had extremely limited contacts with the Czech-speaking intelligentsia of that time.”

According to Kafka’s friend and posthumous publisher Max Brod, Einstein gave a talk about relativity theory at Fanta’s group on 24 May 1911, at which Kafka was present. Contrary to what a plaque erected outside Fanta’s home on Old Town Square says, there is no historical evidence that Einstein developed a friendship with Kafka, says Prof. Gordin – who has meticulously researched and cross-referenced the archives and unpublished letters of Einstein’s acquaintances.

“In many of the texts about Einstein, there are casual references to Prague – or casual references to people that the author of the book didn’t know was a Prague German; they just assumed that they were German. If you know enough of the context, you can see those networks.

Max Brod, photo: Public Domain
“I also went through Einstein’s archival collections, which are mostly in Jerusalem, but a large set of them are also located at Princeton University, where I teach. There are other materials that you can find in the archival, unpublished correspondence of many of his people.

“So, once I learned who his interlocutors were, through following these traces in the other literature, I was able to find where the repository of their documents were, and go through those. In the case of people like Max Brod, almost everything that he wrote has been published in some form – because there’s been so much scholarship around him because of Franz Kafka. So, you can sometimes find published, original letters.

“But putting together most of the book required reading through unpublished materials or published letters to try and establish the networks of people that he knew – and where he knew them from.”

So, it’s not so much that Einstein himself left a record [about his time in Prague] that hasn’t been tapped into before, it’s about making these connections, as you say.

“To some extent, yes. But it’s also the case that he has left a record that hasn’t been tapped into before in that his correspondence is being published right now, but they’ve only gotten as far as 1929. It’s very easy to get access to – it’s all available online, actually; these wonderfully transcribed letters to and from Einstein, up until 1929.

“But he remained interested in Prague up until his death. So, you have to go through his old mail, which is preserved in these archival depositories – and that’s especially true for the other characters, whose material is sometimes not published at all.

“One example of this is Einstein’s first physics assistant when he arrives in Prague, a Jewish mathematician named Emil Nohel originally from a Czech-speaking village [Mcely, in northern Bohemia] who ended up at the German University.

“Emil Nohel died in the Holocaust. He was deported to Terezín and then to Auschwitz. But before he died he sent letters to his son in Palestine that contain a lot of information. They haven’t been published and are in the Yad Vashem archival repository in Jerusalem. They give some explanation of his past and connections to others in Prague and Vienna, where he moved after working with Einstein.”

Moving to Prague was something of a caesura in Einstein’s personal life, but it was also importantly an intellectual rupture, in this case with quantum theory.

During his tenure in Prague, which lasted three semesters, Einstein published almost a dozen papers, nearly all of which centred on how to expand his special theory of relativity to encompass accelerated frames of reference, something he knew would necessitate a new theory of gravity, say Prof. Gordin.

Isolation in Prague as an incubator

Albert Einstein, photo: Oren Jack Turner, Library of Congress, Free Domain
“Einstein became extremely famous as a scientist really in 1919, so just over a hundred years ago, with the eclipse expedition that tested his theory of gravity, known as general relativity – that’s when he becomes this world celebrity, and general relativity has its birthplace largely in Prague. When he arrived, that’s what he devoted his time to working on.

“The version he developed in Prague ended up not working, so he developed a new version in Zurich and then in Berlin, publishing it in late 1915 – and that’s the theory that made him famous.”

The theory about the shape of space, energy and moment – that matter tells space how to curve, and then space tells matter how to move…

“That’s exactly right – it’s the fully advanced theory that has that quality. And the insight that brought him to that, he first had the idea in 1907 but works on it in Prague in 1911, is that in many conditions, there’s no way you can tell if you are in a gravitational field or whether you are accelerating.

“So, it seems like gravity is the same as accelerated motion, and that symmetry, that equivalence, that he saw, made him develop a theory around the idea that space-time is intrinsically curved, and mass just follows straight paths in the complex geometry of space-time, which is warped by mass and energy. So, mass curves space, space moves mass.

“That full theory is finished in Berlin in November 1915, but its origin points, the first full calculations he started to make, start in Prague really in the late summer and early fall of 1911 – that theory has problems, so he throws it away.”

‘The Czechs, by the way, are much more harmless than one thinks’

Otto Stern, Einstein’s research assistant during his third and final semester in Prague, said in an interview that the revolutionary physicist felt “completely isolated” in Prague, having found no-one he could talk to about matters that truly interested him – apart from a mathematician named Georg Pick, with whom he played in a quartet.

In his correspondence from the time, Einstein also said he found Prague to be “beautiful” but “half-barbaric”, with a population generally hostile to the German-speaking minority though he did write that the Czechs “are much more harmless than one thinks”. He also grew far fonder of Prague after he left it, and followed the fate of independent Czechoslovakia with great interest, says Prof. Gordin again.

“As for what he thought of Prague – here, as someone who enjoys being in Prague and likes the city – it’s kind of disappointing to read of Einstein’s views. He, in general, found his time in Prague complicated and difficult, at least that’s what he wrote to his friends back in Zurich.

“And he writes to them with the kind of usual statements that someone raised in Germany or Switzerland would make of a Slavic-dominated region. He complains about things like bedbugs and the water, though he praises the cooking. He uses the word ‘barbarian’ a lot, which is offensive to see. But it’s not atypical for how German professors in Prague hired from outside looked at the city.

Michael D. Gordin, photo: Erika Lorraine Milam
“It took Einstein about eight or nine months to notice how amazing the architecture is, and how historic the city is, and that was only through guests visiting him that he finally went and saw the Old Town Square as an architectural site, or visited the Prague Castle. That comes quite later. So, his experience in 1911 and 1912 is fairly mixed. He likes some parts of the city and not others.

“When he returns in 1921 – after Czechoslovakia is an independent country – he’s enormously happy with Prague. He admired Tomáš Masaryk enormously throughout Masaryk’s life, and he appreciated the enthusiasm and bubbling of activity one could see in Prague in the 1920s. And he followed the fate of Czechoslovakia very closely through the 1930s from abroad. So, his attitude towards the city was difficult when he was there, and as he moved farther away became much fonder.”

So that speaks to him having formed meaningful and lasting relationships with people in Prague during his brief stay.

“Yes, it does speak to that. And those relationships that he had to people in Prague tended to be Germans – people that would be called ‘Germans’. The closest one was with the person who took his job after he left, a very important philosopher and physicist of this period called Philipp Frank. He was in Prague from 1912 until 1938, and kept Einstein very informed about what was going on in Prague – about [Eduard] Beneš, about Masaryk – and their letters are quite interesting.

“And Einstein also encouraged many people to either go through Prague, or in the 1930s when they flee Germany, to go to Czechoslovakia as a place where they could escape the fascist regime and the increasingly dictatorial regime in Austria.”

“What I’d hoped would be the case when I started researching the book was that it would mostly be a chance to engage with Czech sources. … In the last chapter of the book I spend a great deal talking about the Czech-language reception of Einstein – so, how people in the 1920s and 1930s debated about Relativity, published textbooks about it.

“Relativity theory was accepted in Prague, in the Czech language, quite quickly, and quite rapidly compared to other places. And there was a lot of high-quality work being done there, and even into the communist period there is an extensive Czech-language philosophical engagement with Einstein’s theories.

“So, while much of what we’ve talked about, and much of the book is focused on a German-speaking and ethnic German milieu, as well as a Jewish-German milieu, there is a Czech component of the book which is quite important. And I was very eager to make sure that that part is also highlighted.”

Michael D. Gordin is Rosengarten Professor of Modern and Contemporary History and Director of the Society of Fellows in the Liberal Arts at Princeton University, where he specializes in the history of modern science. His latest book, ‘Einstein in Bohemia’, has just been published by Princeton University Press.