Germany rediscovers Einstein
Fifty years after his death, the German-born scientist is being reclaimed by the country he rejected. The government is going all out to latch onto Einstein.
Suffering from an acute lack of heroes after losing two world wars, Germany has reclaimed Albert Einstein as one of its greatest national figures even though the Jewish physicist fled the Nazis hating his native country.
A century after the German-born scientist formulated his famous theory of relativity in Switzerland, and 50 years after his death on April 18, 1955, Einstein is being reclaimed by the country he rejected.
Celebrations of the so-called 'Einstein Year' of 2005 are taking place around the world, but nowhere are the tributes to the man with the droopy eyes and bushy grey hair so laden with historical baggage as in Germany.
The German government has gone all out to latch onto Einstein, who became one of the world's first pop icons after his theories about space, time and relativity revolutionised science in the early 20th century.
'It is a bit strange,' said Juergen Neffe, author of a German biography on Einstein that has been near the top of best-seller lists here since it was published in January.
'Einstein hated the Nazis and extended his hatred to all Germans for letting it happen. It's certainly true that he hated Germany, but he would nevertheless be pleased about Germany's development in the last 30 years.'
Germany's rediscovery of Einstein began in 2003 when he was picked by millions of television viewers in a survey as one of the 'best Germans' of all time — a surprising 10th on a list topped by the first post-war chancellor Konrad Adenauer.
Born in the Bavarian city of Ulm in 1879, Einstein moved to Switzerland at 17 to evade military service. After graduating from the Polytechnic School in Zurich he wrote scientific papers in his spare time while working as a Swiss patent officer.
In 1905, Einstein's 'miracle year', he formulated his theory of relativity, an explanation of the relationship between time and space that challenged a view of the universe that had stood since the days of Sir Isaac Newton 200 years before.
Einstein's fame soared in 1919 after his theory was proven. He won a Nobel Prize in 1921, after which Germany and Switzerland both claimed him as theirs.
But Einstein didn't stop. His special theory also provided the basis for his most famous discovery, E=mc2, an equation that opened the door to the atomic age. The formula is known around the world even if few understand it.
Einstein returned to Germany in 1914 and lived in Berlin for 19 years before fleeing Hitler's Nazis in 1933. He took a post at Princeton University, and spent the rest of his life there.
His house in Berlin was ransacked by the Nazis. Einstein, who also held a Swiss passport, gave up his German citizenship in 1932 and became a naturalised American citizen in 1940.
But all that history hasn't stopped the government in Berlin from embracing him like a long-lost son. It's trumpeting the 'Einstein Year' by splashing his famous quotations in giant red letters on walls of the chancellery and other public buildings.
'Einstein's words can still inspire us today,' said Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder after unveiling a 1932 quotation from Einstein on his office building.
The government has also pledged €500 million seed money to a science and innovation research fund in Einstein's name.
'They are using Einstein the icon to promote education and research,' said Neffe, whose book 'Einstein: Eine Biografie' is part of a huge tide of published and broadcast material on Einstein swamping Germany this year.
'He was the first global pop star of science at a time when world stars were first emerging,' Neffe added. 'He was a political man who used the media as they used him. He was always fun to be with, always joking. Sometimes when he was supposed to give a speech he would just play his violin instead.'
The 'Einstein Year' is also being marked in Berlin with tours, a scientific conference and a major exhibition.
One seminar called 'Relatively Jewish: Albert Einstein — Jewish, zionist, non-conformist' examined his ties to Berlin's Jewish community and recalled a 1930 violin concert he gave.
Countless television programmes have delved into Einstein's private life, including rumours of extra-marital affairs, speculation about illegitimate children and his affinity for the vibrant nightlife of Berlin's roaring 1920s.
There are 40 new walking tours of the parts of Berlin where Einstein lived and worked. Even though the apartment buildings were destroyed in World War Two, his summer house in Caputh near Potsdam has survived to become a popular attraction this year.
The Albert-Einstein secondary school in the Berlin district of Neukoelln is also getting into the celebrations. It was the first of about 30 schools in Germany to be named after Einstein and the only one to ask his permission — in October 1954.
The school's headmaster Klaus Lehnert sees a certain irony about the Einstein fever in view of his disdain for Germany.
'It was surprising that Einstein even let the school use his name back then because he had cut all ties to Germany and rejected other attempts from Germany to honour him,' he said.
Lehnert admits he has been overwhelmed by the intensity of Germany's rediscovery of Einstein this year.
'He said he didn't want to have anything to do with the people who killed his Jewish brothers,' Lehnert said. 'But he had a lively exchange of letters with the students. Evidently he saw hope for a younger generation and made peace with them.'
In one of the Einstein letters the school proudly displays, the physicist wrote he would agree to let the school be named after him but added a wry reflection about Nazi's proclivity for renaming of streets and buildings just a generation earlier.
'I would include a pious hope that there won't be a return of conditions that lead to a renaming epidemic,' Einstein said.