Princeton University Press, 2020, 360 pp., $29.95
Even after his 1905 annus mirrabilis, when he published articles that laid the foundations for a new physics of special relativity, Albert Einstein could not secure an academic position for four years. In 1909, still working at the Swiss Patent Office in Bern, he applied for a position of “extraordinary” (non-tenured) professor at the University of Zurich. The search committee placed Einstein second to his classmate, Friedrich Adler, the son of Victor Adler, a native of Prague who led the Austrian Social Democratic Party. The younger Adler recognized Einstein’s greatness. Upon learning that Einstein was placed behind him, he withdrew to dedicate himself to politics and journalism and allow Einstein to get the job. The next year, Einstein was invited to apply for a full, tenured professorship at the German University of Prague.
In his new book Einstein in Bohemia, Michael D. Gordin relays the story. The search committee placed Einstein first, and Gustav Jaumann, a local graduate who was teaching in Brno, second. The committee sent its recommendation to the Education Ministry in Vienna where the Minister, Karl von Stürgkh, reversed the order to appoint Jaumann. Von Stürgkh explained to the Emperor: When Jaumann leaves Brno for Prague, a young Viennese physicist will no doubt take his place in the Technical School in Brno; two German Austrians for the price of one Swiss. Einstein believed the ministerial reversal resulted from anti-Semitism. The issue, though, was not who Einstein was, but who he was not: an Austrian. Jaumann rejected the offer, in any case; apparently it was insufficiently generous. Von Stürgkh had to write to Einstein offering him the job, but requiring that he relinquish his Swiss citizenship to become a Habsburg subject. Einstein ignored the requirement, but had to swear allegiance to the Emperor as a civil servant by a confessional oath. On August 23, 1911, Einstein donned a civil servant’s uniform and swore allegiance as a member of the Mosaic religion.
An historian of science, Gordin challenges the prevailing view of Einstein’s sojourn in Prague (April 1911-July 1912) as a minor intermezzo, between the 1905 Bern Special Theory of Relativity and the 1916 Berlin General Theory. Though largely in an intellectual cul-de-sac, Einstein had some good ideas in Prague. He came to doubt that light speed is constant. He conjectured that if gravity curves light around massive bodies, it may be demonstrated during solar eclipses. Confirmation of his theory had to wait for Eddington’s mission in 1919, which made Einstein an international celebrity and a household name, but Gordin suggests that Einstein’s isolation in Prague gave him the freedom to study gravity, then still a marginal topic in mainstream physics.
Gordin’s book also provides a fascinating depiction of Central Europe’s cast of characters in the early 20th century, proving how the goddess of history kept using them in different roles, as narrative threads intertwine. Einstein’s classmate Friedrich Adler, for instance, went on in 1916 to assassinate von Stürgkh, who had since become Minister-President of Cisleithania, for suppressing parliamentary democracy. Einstein, among others, successfully appealed for Adler to be spared the death penalty. This is but one example of how the intellectual milieu of Einstein’s Prague—populated by philosophers, politicians, scientists, and writers of all stripes—would influence Central Europe for decades to come.
For Einstein himself—a pacifist, non-religious, anti-nationalist Swiss of Jewish descent—living in Prague presented a quandary of identity. He certainly was not Czech. By the prevailing bivalent logic, he must have been German, except that he was not. Einstein lived in a German-speaking bubble of about 7 percent of the population of Prague at the time. He demonstrated little understanding and even less interest in the Czech-German-Jewish nationality issues that consumed pre-war Prague.
The Einsteins—Albert, his wife Mileva, and their two sons—were lukewarm about Prague. In his letters, Einstein complained about the class distinctions. People were superficial, haughty, or obsequious. He disliked the poverty, pollution, and dirt, the priests, and the bureaucracy. But unlike in Switzerland, the Einsteins had electricity and a maid. The conditions could not have been that bad, because Einstein rejected a job offer from Utrecht.
Their apartment was in a new building close to the Vltava River. Today, this is a mostly gentrified residential neighborhood, with a large business and shopping center in the place of a former enormous factory for trams. At the time, their neighborhood was a semi-industrial suburb on the left bank that would be incorporated into Prague in 1922. “Prague” at that era consisted of its medieval core. It grew quickly by incorporating industrial suburbs into which Czechs moved from the countryside during the late 19th century. In the pre-war years, the German-speaking population lived mostly in the Old Town. Franz Kafka, the son of a well-to-do-merchant, is the best-known Prague native of the Old Town. To some contemporary critics such as the translator Paul Eisner and later memoirists, Kafka and other German Jewish writers inhabited a “triple ghetto” within the majority Czech population: social, linguistic, and religious. They were wealthy, wrote in German, and were spatially removed from the majority German population.
Arguably, all contemporary philosophy originated with two contemporary philosophers, Ernest Mach (1838-1916) and Franz Brentano (1838-1917), who worked in Prague and Vienna. Mach was a physicist who worked mostly at Prague’s Charles University. Bilingual in Czech and German, he participated in the division of the university into Czech-speaking and German-speaking universities in 1882, following the rise of nationalism. He became the first rector of the German University, before moving to the University of Vienna. Mach (after whom the speed of sound is named) developed an extreme empiricist philosophy, believing that all knowledge is reducible to empirical observations. Therefore, all the sciences have the same empirical basis and the same united method; everything else was superfluous “metaphysics.” Brentano, by contrast, investigated the phenomena as they appear in consciousness and relate to intentions. Brentano created an intellectual space for philosophy of mind, distinct from empirical science.
Following the separation of the Czech and German Prague universities, the faculties of philosophy and natural sciences split as well. The faculty of philosophy at the German University was dominated by students of Brentano, most notably Anton Marty. The faculty of natural sciences was led by students of Mach. They selected Einstein. Before his death, Mach wrote a criticism of relativity as excessively metaphysical. Over the years, Einstein grew disillusioned with Mach’s reduction of knowledge to sense perceptions, preferring a “realist” interpretation of scientific theories as describing hidden reality. Nevertheless, Gordin shows how the social, political, and ideological association of Einstein with Mach’s students, as they evolved into the Vienna Circle of empirical and later logical positivists, had a decisive influence on the academic survival of positivism.
Einstein served on the committee that selected his Prague successor, Philipp Frank, who published on relativity but was more interested in epistemology and the philosophy of science following his participation in the Vienna Circle. Frank came to fill administrative positions at the German University, including its rector. Gordin shows how he used his authorities to promote logical positivism in the faculty of natural sciences. Most notably, with Czechoslovak President Masaryk’s help, he hired the future head of the school, Rudolf Carnap, in 1932. The Vienna Circle manifesto was founded in the epistemology section of the German physics congress convened by Frank in Prague in 1929. Frank convened conferences for the unity of science in Prague in 1934 and 1937, the first of which Karl Popper attended. After 1933, Frank gave temporary refuge in Prague to logical positivists on their way to exile. After the Munich accords, Frank immigrated to the United States and settled in Cambridge, Massachusetts, until his death in 1966. He had a loose association with Harvard, but founded an Institution for the Unity of Science, described as the “Vienna Circle in Exile.” Einstein helped him financially by agreeing to cooperate on his authorized biography, published in 1947 to great success.
The next philosophical generation in the United States that undermined the logical-positivist project also emerged from Frank’s Prague milieu. W. V. Quine, who demonstrated the impossibility of pure “observation sentences” in his 1951 “Two Dogmas of Empiricism,” visited Carnap in Prague. The 1962 interviews with Frank that Gordin used as sources were conducted by Thomas Kuhn in the same year he published The Structure of Scientific Revolutions as a volume in the International Encyclopedia of Unified Science. Kuhn’s book ended any illusion about the unity of science.
The opposing “Brentano School” dominated the philosophy faculty of the German University of Prague. The leading anti-relativist professor was Oskar Kraus, whose formal education was in law before he switched to philosophy. As a law professor he taught Kafka. After 1919, he made common cause with nationalist Germans who objected to Einstein’s physics for political reasons. In January 1921, Einstein was back in Prague from Berlin for the last time. He arrived at the newly named Woodrow Wilson Train Station to lecture at the German university and debate with Oskar Kraus at Frank’s invitation. The surviving German university in newly independent Czechoslovakia needed to legitimize its existence by emphasizing its association with Einstein’s international reputation. After Einstein’s lecture, Kraus wittily took down the idea of relative motion and “exposed” inner contradictions in relativity theory. Einstein “responded” by taking out his violin to play a Mozart sonata.
During Einstein’s stay in Prague in 1911-1912, another group of Brentano admirers met at the Salon of Berta Fanta, initially in the Café Louvre and then at her home above the Pharmacy of her husband in Prague’s Old Town Square. Einstein was probably introduced to this circle of mostly German-speaking Jews by Hugo Bergmann, Fanta’s son-in-law, a philosopher who worked as a librarian and earlier studied with Kafka in the German Old Town gymnasium. Bergmann expanded the intellectual scope of the circle to include philosophy, literature, music, Zionism, and Anthroposophy. Bergmann audited Einstein’s lectures. Later he would become a dean of the Hebrew University in Jerusalem. Americans may be familiar with his son and Fanta’s grandson, the New York psychoanalyst Martin Bergmann (1913-2014), who played Professor Louis Levy in Woody Allen’s Crimes and Misdemeanors.
On May 24, 1911, Einstein lectured in Fanta’s Salon about relativity theory. A note in the diary of Max Brod, the author and Kafka’s executor who famously published rather than burnt his novels, indicates that he and Kafka were present. This is the only evidence Gordin found for a meeting between Einstein and Kafka, who skipped Einstein’s second lecture (though he may have attended Einstein recitals in the salon). When Berta Fanta’s daughter-in-law, Hanna, arrived penniless in the United States, after her husband Otto Fanta died en route in England, Einstein assisted her to eventually become a librarian at Princeton University and a special friend of Einstein.
Einstein was skeptical of the Prague Zionism of Bergmann, Brod, and Kafka. His conversion to Zionism happened a decade later when being anti-nationalist and a pacifist seemed consistent with aspiring for a Jewish national home. Bergmann and Einstein reunited in Jerusalem in 1923 for the founding ceremony of the Hebrew University. Tomáš Masaryk, Czechoslovakia’s founding president, visited Bergman in Jerusalem in 1927. The new Czechoslovak constitution recognized a Jewish nation along with Czech, Slovak, and German nationalities. Einstein reciprocated by recommending Masaryk for the Nobel Peace Prize. Einstein supported Bergmann’s political group Brit Shalom (Peace Covenant), which sought to recreate Austro-Hungary’s multi-nationalism in Palestine. As Martin Buber put it, the modern state was not necessarily a nation-state—look at the Soviet Union, Yugoslavia, and Czechoslovakia. Einstein’s Zionism cooled following the suppression of the Arab revolt in 1929, as the tensions between Zionism and pacifism surfaced.
Einstein’s Czech Reception
In November 1939, following Czech student protests, the German occupiers closed the Czech universities and sent 1,200 students to labor camps (50 years later, the annual demonstration to commemorate that event turned into the Velvet Revolution). In 1945, the Czechs returned the favor and closed the German University. Without Germans or Jews, “Bohemia was gone,” summed up Gordin.
The last part of Gordin’s book explores the Czech reception of Einstein. Czechs initially considered Einstein and Kafka as great foreigners, like Newton or Goethe. The Communist reception and eventual rehabilitation of Einstein also resembles that of Kafka. In both cases, Communist ex-Zionists mediated. Gordin tells the story of Arnošt Kolman, a Prague Zionist in Bergmann and Brod’s Bar Kochva movement, who translated Buber to Czech. He ended the First World War a POW in the Eastern front. When the Bolsheviks liberated him, he joined them, similarly to the Czech writer Jaroslav Hašek, the author of Švejk. Kolman spent the next 30 years in the Soviet Union.
Lenin attacked Mach’s philosophy directly, so Kolman attempted to separate Einstein’s science from his philosophy, walking a political and scientific tightrope. Gordin describes him as an apparatchik in Stalin’s dictatorship. After the Second World War, he was sent back to Prague for the Party, where he had a chance meeting with Bergmann, his old Zionist comrade. Kolman the Stalinist published a criticism of Slánský for being a Titoist nationalist revisionist, the kind of accusation that indeed brought Slánský down and led to his execution in 1952. But Kolman was ahead of his time. Slánský was still strong enough then to arrange for Moscow to recall Kolman and jail him for the next three years, until Slánský’s fall. Kolman then resumed his academic career. By 1956, he felt comfortable enough to send Bergmann his published biography of Bolzano with a dedication in Hebrew. In 1960 he was back in Prague as head of the Institute of Philosophy in the Czech Academy of Science and editor of the philosophy journal of the academy, Filosofický časopis. He was able again to promote his interpretation of relativity and admiration for Einstein. After two years, he was sent back to Moscow, again, for displaying political precociousness—this time for criticizing socialist bureaucratization in terms that seem to predate the Prague Spring.
In 1967, Kolman visited Bergmann and Brod in Israel. Kolman’s next incarnation was as a dissident in the 1970s, successfully campaigning to be united with his daughter and son-in-law (František Janouch, who founded the Charter 77 Foundation) in Sweden. He presented himself as a student of Einstein and a confidant of Lenin who, while still a Marxist, dissented from the Soviet system; that got him a New York Times op-ed. In his obviously at least partly fictitious memoir, he claimed to have attended Einstein’s lectures, though Gordin found no proof. Kolman also claimed that in reaction to anti-Semitism, (non-religious) Einstein took to the habit of playing his violin in Prague’s Orthodox synagogue—an obvious falsehood.
There is an interesting similarity between Kolman’s autobiography and Gustav Janouch, the author of the famous Conversations with Kafka. While Kolman lived in the same time and space as Einstein and may have glimpsed him, Gustav Janouch met Kafka in his youth through his father who worked in the same insurance company (Janouch was 20 when Kafka died). Nevertheless, after the Second World War, when Kafka’s international reputation was established but most of his generation was gone, Janouch published a whole book that purported to be based on his conversations with Kafka. When that book was commercially successful, Janouch “discovered” an old notebook that recorded still more conversations. Both Kolman and Janouch’s memoirs reflected a later generation’s desire to get personally close to the giants of the past, even by producing patently fictitious narratives.
In Prague, Einstein was officially rehabilitated on the occasion of his centenary in 1979. A bust and a plaque were unveiled outside his apartment building in the Smíchov district, and the Communists convened an international conference held at the Carolinum (the old university building where Einstein taught). This process of Prague-based rehabilitation on an anniversary, through a conference, had happened earlier in Kafka’s case. Eduard Goldstücker, a post-Zionist Communist who served as Czechoslovakia’s first ambassador to Israel, was coerced to incriminate himself and bear false witness against his party patron, Slansky, in 1953. Sentenced to life, but released after two years in 1955, he was appointed as a professor of German at Charles University. In 1963, Goldstücker convened a conference on Kafka in the Castle of Liblice, designed to politically rehabilitate him in the Communist world while reclaiming his Prague origin. In hindsight, many historians interpret the Liblice Conference as the beginning of the cultural liberalization that culminated in the Prague Spring.
While Gordin is right that Bohemia is gone, its death is mourned and tinged with nostalgia that even Czech nationalists and Communists eventually could not escape, along, decades later, with the millions of tourists and thousands of intellectuals and artists who in better days thronged to Prague in search of Bohemia.