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Einstein in Berlin [Paperback]

Thomas Levenson
4.5 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (2 customer reviews)

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Book Description

29 Feb 2004
In a book that is both biography and the most exciting form of history, here are eighteen years in the life of a man, Albert Einstein, and a city, Berlin, that were in many ways the defining years of the twentieth century.

Einstein in Berlin

In the spring of 1913 two of the giants of modern science traveled to Zurich. Their mission: to offer the most prestigious position in the very center of European scientific life to a man who had just six years before been a mere patent clerk. Albert Einstein accepted, arriving in Berlin in March 1914 to take up his new post. In December 1932 he left Berlin forever. “Take a good look,” he said to his wife as they walked away from their house. “You will never see it again.”

In between, Einstein’s Berlin years capture in microcosm the odyssey of the twentieth century. It is a century that opens with extravagant hopes--and climaxes in unparalleled calamity. These are tumultuous times, seen through the life of one man who is at once witness to and architect of his day--and ours. He is present at the events that will shape the journey from the commencement of the Great War to the rumblings of the next one.

We begin with the eminent scientist, already widely recognized for his special theory of relativity. His personal life is in turmoil, with his marriage collapsing, an affair under way. Within two years of his arrival in Berlin he makes one of the landmark discoveries of all time: a new theory of gravity--and before long is transformed into the first international pop star of science. He flourishes during a war he hates, and serves as an instrument of reconciliation in the early months of the peace; he becomes first a symbol of the hope of reason, then a focus for the rage and madness of the right.

And throughout these years Berlin is an equal character, with its astonishing eruption of revolutionary pathways in art and architecture, in music, theater, and literature. Its wild street life and sexual excesses are notorious. But with the debacle of the depression and Hitler’s growing power, Berlin will be transformed, until by the end of 1932 it is no longer a safe home for Einstein. Once a hero, now vilified not only as the perpetrator of “Jewish physics” but as the preeminent symbol of all that the Nazis loathe, he knows it is time to leave.

From the Hardcover edition.

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Product details

  • Paperback: 496 pages
  • Publisher: Bantam USA; New title edition (29 Feb 2004)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0553378449
  • ISBN-13: 978-0553378443
  • Product Dimensions: 2.9 x 15.9 x 23.5 cm
  • Average Customer Review: 4.5 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (2 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Bestsellers Rank: 599,989 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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7 of 8 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Person gone missing 18 Sep 2003
By z
I expected to see Berlin change as seen in the eyes of Einstein, in any event that is what the introduction promised.
The book starts with a charming discription of Einstein's early life in Switzerland.
At some point he steps on a train bound for Berlin and disppears.
There follows some really interesting information on German politics during the 1st world war, between the wars, on trench warfare and some understandable discriptions of Einstein's theories. But Einstein as a person doesn't really appear again.
But probably this is what happend in reality, he was busy with his theories more than anything else.
Interesting and informative, but don't be misled by the introduction.
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2 of 10 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Terrifying relevance for today 17 July 2004
By A Customer
The passages dealing with Kaiser Wilhelm and WW I chilled my blood. They apply 1000% to Bush, his puppet-masters, the destruction of our environment, our civil liberties, our educational system, our scientific integrity, and of course the ill-starred invasion of Iraq.
Here are several paragraphs. Just substitute Bush for Wilhelm, Iraq for Belgium; realize that this administration IS a "hereditary government", and that the Wolfowitz, Cheney, Rumsfeld, Perle, Feith cabal articulates the view that the U.S.
has "both the right and the need" to fight wars of aggression.
P. 53: Wilhelm remains a poster child for all that is wrong with hereditary government. Vainglorious, desperately insecure, hugely ambitious, quick to take offense, ill-educated, boorish, narrow in his interests, knowledge and associations, the young kaiser was both a patsy for those in his government and in his army who were gripped by the lust for power.
P. 60\9: (pre-WWI): One war "poet" sang of the official mood: "Powerful, with honor and solidarity/Germany protects what was given from God..When criminals unite/to burn down my peaceful house/ Out Sword! War and Blood!"
P. 65: 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. ....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.
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Most Helpful Customer Reviews on (beta) 4.4 out of 5 stars  16 reviews
26 of 30 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars GENIUS AT WORK 21 Jun 2003
By charles falk - Published on
I'm glad I read Thomas Levenson's EINSTEIN IN BERLIN in spite of its atrocious publisher's blurb: "In a book that is both biography and the most exciting form of history, here are eighteen years in the life of a man, Albert Einstein, and a city, Berlin, that were in many way the defining years of the twentieth century." What "the most exiting form of history" may be is never explained. Fortunately, the book is better written than its jacket. Levenson, a documentary filmmaker who produced a two-hour biography of Einstein for Nova, can paint memorable pictures with words too. In general, he does better by Einstein than he does by Berlin.
Levenson strikes a good balance between the details of Einstein's private life, his scientific work, and his political activities. The book's greatest strength is its rendering of Einstein's contributions to theoretical physics into a form digestible even by a scientific illiterate. Levenson shows the process as well as the final result; the failures as well as the triumphs. He explains the ongoing debate between Einstein and Niels Bohr over arcane aspects of quantum mechanics. I was intrigued by the "mind experiments" Einstein used to test his theories and those of other phyicists. The chapters summarizing Einstein's life before and after Berlin give the reader sufficient context for understanding his "defining" years. Some aspects of his personal life get short shrift: his activity as an amateur musician, for example. We learn that his friendship with Queen Elizabeth of Belgium began when they played chamber music together, but we never are given a glimpse of him playing, nor any sense of the time he devoted to this pastime.
Levenson is more impressionistic in his portrayal of Berlin. It is not so much Einstein's Berlin we are shown as that of his friend Count Harry Kessler, a liberal bon vivant whose Diary of a Cosmopolitan is quoted extensively. The reader learns almost nothing about the university that employed Einstein for eighteen years beyond the small circle of scientists with whom he associated. Levenson describes the nightlife and popular culture of Berlin at length, but shows little of its high culture. Much space is devoted to Josephine Baker and Fritz Lang, but Schonberg, Schnabel, Kadinsky and Lotte Leyna are mentioned only when they became refugees. Levenson is thorough in detailing political and economic events in Berlin and elsewhere in Germany, but provides little insight into the daily life of ordinary Berliners.
Levenson gives the reader more of WWI and Adolf Hitler's part in it than seems necessary for this book. Details of the major battles and of Corporal Hitler's medals are unnecessary to an understanding of Einstein's opposition to the war or of Berlin's experience during the war. It was Hitler the politician, not Hitler the soldier, who impacted Berlin and Einstein so profoundly in later years.
13 of 14 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Einstein's genius and personal flaws 9 Sep 2004
By Charles Ashbacher - Published on
There is a view of human history that believes that the trends are so strong, that no one person can significantly alter what is destined to occur. An opposing view is that there are so many potential paths that the differences that drive movement from one path to another are very small. Not only can one person provide the impetus from one path to another, but also the differences between the paths can be enormous. This book is primarily about Albert Einstein, one who had a dramatic effect on history. His development of new physics in the first decade of the twentieth century completely altered our view of the universe and was revolutionary.

The best measure of how revolutionary is the oft-repeated statement of astronomer Arthur Eddington. When told that he was one of only three people in the world who understood relativity, Eddington seemed puzzled. He was asked if he disagreed with the statement and he responded, "No, I was just trying to think of who the third person would be." Such revolutionary ideas that describe nature will eventually be discovered, but it is clear that Einstein was decades ahead of everyone else in his understanding of the universe.

Another one of the unforgettable people who changed the course of history is a secondary topic of the book. That person is of course Adolph Hitler, whose pathological Nazi movement eventually forced the Jewish Einstein from Germany. In 1913, as a consequence of Einstein's incredible work while a patent clerk in Switzerland, Walther Nernst and Max Planck went to visit Einstein. Their purpose was to offer him the best scientific job in the world, a professorship with no teaching responsibilities at the Kaiser Wilhelm Institute in Berlin. The offer was an incredible one, but it was fitting, given Einstein's stature. He accepted and arrived in Berlin shortly before the outbreak of World War I. Outside of his traveling, he stayed there until forced out when Hitler rose to power.

This is a chronicle of Einstein, but it is also a history of Germany in the years from 1914 until 1932. While the events in Europe as a consequence of the rise of Hitler are well known, the situation in Germany during those years is not well known. Few people are aware of the social tension due to deprivation that took place in Germany from 1914 until the rise of Hitler. Near-starvation was universal in the last two years of the First World War, and there was chaos immediately after. The hyperinflation of the early twenties was incredible, it is hard to believe that things were so bad that the exchange rate was one Trillion marks to the dollar. After a few years of relative stability, the onset of the depression at the end of the 1920's once again reduced a large percentage of the population to destitution. There are documented cases of people growing rich by killing people and marketing their flesh as pork. No wonder so many people were willing to surrender their freedom to starve to death and their political freedom for the opportunity to eat regularly. In his criticisms of the German people, which often happened, the well-fed and secure Einstein displayed a social naivete.

Even though it does not cover his entire life, this is one of the best biographies of Einstein the man. While no biography can avoid his physics and this one does not, there is an emphasis on his other activities. The image we have of him now is that of a transcendent genius with wild hair and a wise, grandfatherly manner. He was one of the first celebrities of the media age, and he played to the public fairly well. The personal Einstein was often not a pleasant man. His sudden fame doomed his first marriage to Mileva Maric, and his actions in casting her off were crude at best. Even years after their separation and divorce, he referred to her in very derogatory terms, even to people who were friends to both of them. Throughout his life, even after his marriage to his cousin Elsa, he entertained a sequence of mistresses. His attitude towards Elsa was that she had to leave him to do what he wanted, her feelings in the matter were of little consequence. Her purpose was to cook, keep house and accompany him when needed. Einstein's relationship with his children was also strained at best. He did try to be a part of their lives, but never seemed able to empathize with the problems in their lives.

Einstein is often characterized as strictly a theoretician; it was refreshing to learn that he had real mechanical ability. He received several patents, two of which were for a navigational device for ships and the other for a refrigerator. The international royalties from the patents were one of the ways he was insulated from the monetary disaster of the early twenties.

While the saintly genius that we all know comes through in this book, the other aspects of Einstein's life will likely change your attitude towards him. Yes, he was a great man, perhaps the greatest intellectual genius of the last three hundred years. However, after his rise to prominence, he was largely incapable of forming emotional relationships beyond friendship and at times, he showed a tendency to be contemptuous towards the German people. While some of that was deserved, the Germans were no different than others and many of them were just trying to stay alive.
10 of 11 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars What History Should Be: Truth, Illuminating the Present 14 Sep 2005
By Arthur P. Smith - Published on
Albert Einstein. Adolf Hitler. Germany. The two iconic figures of the 20th century, shaped and nurtured, alternately embraced and rejected by the one nation. Posthumous competitors for the honor of TIME's "person of the century", Levenson's book details the progress and transformation of both men and their nation through the critical period from 1914 to 1932, while Einstein lived in Berlin.

The portrayal of Einstein here is of a great but flawed man, not quite the usual hagiography, despite the imagery reminiscent of the Christmas story at the start. Why did Einstein come to Berlin, the heart of Prussia, after renouncing Germany for Switzerland as a teenager? Why did Germany's extreme climate of militarism not repel him, at this time immediately before the great war? Levenson details the scientific inducements: German physics at the time was unparalleled, and Einstein in Berlin could enjoy the company of the established Max Planck and younger colleagues like Max Born and Lise Meitner, later Heisenberg and many others. But the offer of money and prestige was perhaps as important - Einstein would direct his own "Kaiser Wilhelm" institute of physics. Official Germany wanted to claim Einstein as its own, and Einstein, with just a touch of patriotism, accepted.

Levenson portrays those war years, and the Weimar Republic that followed, with great poignancy. The German people were itching to prove their greatness. Planck and other scientists declared their strong support for the war, and even Einstein tried to help with research on aircraft and more significantly on the gyrocompass. Einstein's close friend Fritz Haber was the Edward Teller of chemical weaponry, developing lethal gases in the same building where Einstein worked out general relativity. All of Europe suffered as the war was prolonged; Einstein himself falling ill to poor nutrition in 1918. Levenson shows how the replacement of the Kaiser by a new republic led by "social democrats", who acquiesced to the Versailles Treaty, divided Germany and would soon threaten the world again. On one side of the divide were those on the left, including Einstein: pacifists, Jews, intellectuals, seemingly now in control. On the other side, the right wing and the remnant of the armed forces; those who still thought the war could have been won, who decried Germany's fall.

Levenson tracks the growth of Einstein's celebrity status, starting in 1919 with the confirmation of General Relativity. The worldwide press, stimulated by the war years and the new movie industry, pounced on the photogenic and genial scientist, and Einstein did not shy away.

Levenson discusses Einstein's stunning contributions to physics in reasonably brief, accurate, and generally accessible terms. Even though his most important work predated 1914, Einstein still helped discover Bose-Einstein condensation, raised awareness of quantum problems, and founded general relativity theory and the theoretical basis for cosmology during his stay in Berlin. Berlin also saw Einstein embark on two quixotic quests that would occupy him to his deathbed: fighting against random chance in the quantum mechanics he helped create, and the search for a unified theory of everything, a pursuit that still engages physicists today. Levenson gets very close to Einstein's essence in describing these ultimately futile efforts - the confidence with which, every year or two, he proclaimed he had found a unified theory, and the humility that inevitably came some months later.

But Levenson's focus is not just Einstein, but the culture of which he was part, and which he partly inspired. Relativity fed into ongoing radical changes in the arts of the time: music, architecture, movies, writing. Some of this was a reaction to the war years and the release from authority the new republic brought. The tragedy and poverty of the trillion-fold hyperinflation period is here - Einstein suffered less than most through funds he had laid aside abroad. Levenson's collection of black and white photos of the period illustrate the range of radical change and questioning: two photos of nudists are featured opposite a seated Einstein. The immorality of the age (Einstein's womanizing was at least Clintoneseque) may have been hyped by the new media - certainly the stories of serial killers and slasher novels are disturbing to us now.

The problems, from hyperinflation to "girl shows", were natural grist for the mill of right-wing outrage at "foreign influences", Jews, and left-wing intellectuals. Levenson details the background of hatred that existed here well before Hitler came along, becoming increasingly strident as the Nazis gained influence. Einstein's reaction to this was an increasing identification with his fellow Jews. While never considering himself a Zionist, Levenson shows Einstein's selfless nature in working to raise money for people he never personally knew; there is a sad contrast with Einstein's poor treatment of his own family.

As a historical work the writing is often somewhat dry; Levenson spent nine years on the book, and has extensive end notes. Starting the book at the end of a long day, I was fast asleep by page 40. But the narrative is excellent, and at times thrilling - we know the outcome, but what Levenson does is show the gradual destructive changes within the German people of the time. The account recalls a quote from Soviet gulag survivor Alexander Solzhenitsyn - "the line separating good and evil passes not through states, nor between classes, nor between political parties either, but right through every human heart, and through all human hearts. This line shifts. Inside us, it oscillates with the years." Einstein was imperfect, as we all are; Levenson shows Hitler's self-justification striving for a moral society - the shades of gray here abound. But 1914-1932 saw Solzhenitsyn's oscillation magnify and become almost coherent across the people of one nation, rejecting those like Einstein who were out of phase. Secrecy, lack of respect for human life, fostered hatred of "others" (communists, blacks, Jews), and Hitler's demagoguery were key ingredients. Levenson's text in places suggests dangers in our current world, where we see truth replaced by ideology, that we would be well to watch out for.

If it is easy to see a bit of Einstein's genius and geniality in ourselves, it is also easy to see the shadow of Hitler in those we disagree with. Internet discussions are notorious for descending into cries of Nazism. This brief period of history in Germany is critical to understanding both the best and worst parts of our own nature. There are other books that will tell you more about Einstein's life. There are certainly more comprehensive books on Hitler and the roots of World War II. But

Levenson, combining the two iconic subjects, provides a valuable and unique lens with profound implications for understanding ourselves.
4 of 4 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Einstein in Berlin 27 Mar 2005
By Ames - Published on
Einstein in Berlin covers 16 years in the great scientist's life, from 1914 when he accepted the post as a professor in Berlin to 1932 when he was forced to leave Germany forever to escape anti-semitism. Einstein did some of his most important work in Berlin, including the general theory of relativity, and the science of relativity is explained in depth by Levenson. The novel also chronicles Einstein's personal life, and the politics of Germany (and the entire world) during these 16 years. In short, Levenson brings together science and history to give the reader an understanding of the man behind one of the greatest minds of all time: Albert Einstein.

Levenson probably was compelled to write this story out of a desire to show the world the true Albert Einstein. He is glorified in the public mind, and though he was indeed an dedicated, eccentric scientist with wild hair, that was not the whole Einstein. He was a poor student, and nearly did not graduate from college because of his contempt for the schooling system. During his marriages, Einstein always had mistresses, and treated his wives and children with reserve. He was a zionist, a Jew, and a pacifist. To understand the man, the reader must first understand the cirsumstances in which he lived.

For anyone interested in science, this is a must-read. Levenson goes into great detail explaining Einstein's theories, making them somewhat easy to understand. He explains all the preparations and experimenting that went into the development of the theories, and writes about Einstein's blunders as well as his successes. He reveals the man behind the science, and makes him seem more human; some readers would be suprised and encouraged to know that the great Einstein was horrible at math. He, too, had faults, and Levenson exposes all of them, whithout detracting from Einstein's glory.
3 of 3 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Einstein in Context 11 May 2004
By Tanya Willow - Published on
This book gives a context to science that I have not seen before. Scientists do not work in an isolated bubble (though this one wished he had), but in a home and cultural environment.
Berlin, which prided itself on its science, went through dramatic changes, and the cowardice of the so-called intellectual elite was stunning. Yet Einstein himself seemed unsurprised by this. He was forever enthusiastically working toward the betterment of society, but had no faith in the people in it. He found people predictably disappointing.
The book contrasts his public commitment to his private cruelties. He himself was a disappointing individual, but not in the usual ways of public cowardice. Instead he had a callousness and seeming indifference to his families that he never showed the strangers he worked so hard to enlighten. He was not someone you would want to be married to or have as your father. But he would be great to kibitz with.
Still, his brilliance was not isolated to physics. He had brilliant philosophies and political observations. When I went to the Boston Museum of Science to see his exhibit, I was shocked to learn that he earned himself a file at our own FBI for his views, which I do not remember the book mentioning. It seems he was also brilliantly dangerous, and his disdain for authority was found equally unsettling to both the Nazi and the American governments.
This is a cover-to-cover read, educational historically as well as on Einstein himself and his physics. I have read a few books on Einstein and found this one of the best.
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