'Einstein in Bohemia': A forgotten chapter for the famed scientist

In Einstein in Bohemia, Michael Gordin provides a meticulously researched, accessible, and fascinating portrait of Einstein, filtered “through the lens of his ties to Habsburg Prague.”

The medieval Charles Bridge in Prague (photo credit: REUTERS/DAVID W CERNY)
The medieval Charles Bridge in Prague
(photo credit: REUTERS/DAVID W CERNY)
In April 1969, nine months after Soviet tanks occupied Wenceslaus Square, an article on the front page of Mlada Fronta declared “Prague Forgets Einstein.” Although streets around the world were named for him, the author pointed out, the city where he worked as a professor from April 1911 to August 1912 had done nothing to honor his memory.
In Einstein in Bohemia, Michael Gordin, a professor of history at Princeton University (and the author, among other books, of A Well-Ordered Thing: Dmitri Mendeleev and the Shadow of the Periodic Table and Five Days in August: World War II Became A Nuclear War) provides a meticulously researched, accessible, and fascinating portrait of Einstein, filtered “through the lens of his ties to Habsburg Prague,” the capital of what was once known as Bohemia. Not always the main character of the story, Gordin’s Einstein emerges as a complex person, “defined as are all human beings” by interactions with the world around him.
Einstein in Bohemia
covers a lot of ground. Although Einstein returned to Zurich in 1912 without a compelling theory of general relativity, we learn that he did predict in Prague that the bending of starlight around a gravitational body such as the sun was amenable to empirical verification, an insight that led to the 1919 eclipse expedition, confirming his status as the greatest scientist of the modern age. And Prague was also especially friendly to the philosophical tradition of logical positivism that considered itself an extension of Einsteinian physics.
Gordin reveals as well that Einstein, who was born in Germany but considered himself a displaced Swiss, held contradictory feelings about Prague, citizenship, and national identity, while virtually all of his friends and university colleagues viewed him as a “German joining their island in the Slavic sea.”
And Gordin supplies a close reading of Tycho Brahe’s Path to God (by Max Brod, the friend and literary executor of Franz Kafka), which, though set in 17th-century Bohemia, has been widely used as a source of information about Einstein’s character and experiences in Prague. He demonstrates that although on the surface associations between Einstein and Johannes Kepler are credible, Brod intended to compare Brahe’s “abstracted astronomical assistant” with the flamboyant 20th-century poet, Franz Werfel.
Most important, Gordin draws on Einstein’s life before, during, and after Prague to illuminate his attitudes about his ethnic and racial identity. The child of non-observant Jews, Gordon indicates, Einstein embraced religion until the age of 12, when he decided to forgo a bar-mitzvah. As a student in Zurich, a patent clerk in Bern, and a professor he declared himself on bureaucratic forms as konfessionslos (without religion). But when he learned his appointment in Prague depended on a profession of faith, he replaced his original attestation with mosaisch (the religion of Moses) and told a friend, “Yesterday I swore my solemn oath of office at the Bohemian governor’s in a most picturesque uniform, whereby I helped myself to my Jewish ‘faith,’ which I had assumed once more only for this end. It was a droll scene.”
In 1920, when registration as a Jew required him to pay taxes to synagogues in his community, he returned to the status of konfessionslos, emphasizing that “As much as I feel myself a Jew, just as much do I confront traditional religious forms as a stranger.” In 1933, however, Einstein told Max Planck that “the war of annihilation against my defenseless Jewish brothers has compelled me to place the influence that I have in the world on the scales for their benefit.”
Gordin reviews as well Einstein’s views toward Zionism, which ranged from “initial hostility to fellow-traveling affiliation to public distancing.” A pacifist and an anti-nationalist, Einstein supported “a form of true symbiosis between Arabs and Jews in Palestine,” marked by “the existence of permanently functioning mixed administrative, economic and social organizations.” In 1930, he maintained that if Jews did not cooperate fully with Arabs, their position in the region would become untenable: “It makes me less sad that the Jews are not clever enough to understand this, as that they are not righteous enough to want it.” Asked to become the president of Israel in 1952, following the death of Chaim Weizmann, he pled ill health; leaders of the Jewish state, including David Ben-Gurion, Gordin implies, were neither surprised nor displeased.
Gordin ends his book by juxtaposing Einstein’s expressions of homesickness with the enduring desire in Israel for stories about the iconic scientist. And with the erection of plaques in 1979 outside his office and his home in Prague, written in English, and aimed at tourists rather than the local population. Einstein’s “sickness,” Gordin suggests, “was not having a home in the first place.” Bohemia “has long since vanished,” moving instead “to the land of myth. There you can find Einstein.”
Glenn C. Altschuler is the Thomas and Dorothy Litwin Professor of American Studies at Cornell University.
By Michael D. Gordin
Princeton University Press 
343 pages; $29.95