Albert Einstein was a refreshing counterexample to the disembodied genius. With his flaring hair, gentle eyes and quizzical smile, a distinctly embodied Einstein peers out from countless images splattered across almost every corner of contemporary culture. His careless disregard for fashion, most prominent in later years, has garnered him the frequent epithet of “bohemian.” His visage is so ubiquitous that a cartoonist can suggest his presence with under half a dozen squiggles. We see him, and we know who Einstein was.
We think less often about where he was. When we do, a few places stand out: the patent office in the Swiss capital of Bern in 1905, the broad avenues of interwar Berlin, and the quiet hamlet of Princeton, New Jersey, where he lived out his final two decades.
Picture Einstein in each place and you get a different story. The Swiss Einstein was the precocious genius, who overturned classical physics with special relativity and quantum theory. The Berlin Einstein was an international celebrity, adored by millions as the Newton of the modern age while garnering enemies because of his deeply felt views about pacifism, nationalism and Zionism. The Princeton Einstein was the sage of the 20th century, warning of the dangers of the future under the shadow of the atomic bomb. Tell me where your Einstein is, and I will tell you who he is.
What happens, then, if we look at the Bohemian Einstein? I do not mean the disheveled unconventionality often ascribed to him—I mean “Bohemian” with a capital B. From April 1911 until August 1912, Albert Einstein occupied the chair in mathematical physics at the German University in the third city of what was then the Austro-Hungarian Empire: Prague, the capital of the medieval kingdom of Bohemia.
Looking back on it with hindsight, this doesn’t sound like a particularly impressive vantage point from which to view his life. After all, it lasted only 16 months. He must have been on his way back to Switzerland virtually as soon as he had unpacked his bags upon arrival. What kind of Einstein do we get if we follow him around Prague, and then trace the connections that began there and radiated throughout his life?
The result is a new Einstein, whose biography is inflected in different ways as we find him deeply enmeshed not just with scientists but with writers, philosophers, politicians, and—through the lodestar of Prague—a participant in some of the major dramas of the 20th century.
To see how, consider Einstein’s position when he entered the city with his wife and two young children (the baby, Teddy, was under a year old). He was a physicist with a continental reputation, but he was not yet a household name. That would only happen in the wake of the successful British eclipse expedition in 1919 to confirm general relativity, Einstein’s theory of gravitation.
When he arrived in Prague, not only did that theory not exist, but the physicist hadn’t even really begun to work on it. In the summer of 1911, from his apartment and office on opposite banks of the Vltava River—known as the Moldau in German, and thus to Einstein, who knew no Czech—Einstein shifted his attentions away from the burgeoning quantum theory and toward a new theory of gravity. The version he worked out in Prague, known as the “static theory,” proved to be a failure, but it prompted his first predictions of the bending of starlight around massive bodies and his early efforts to encourage eclipse expeditions. Concentrating on Prague highlights the history of this distinctively Einsteinian theory.
Einstein’s Prague was not just a place to work on general relativity. While there, he taught three semesters at the German University, so called after the Charles-Ferdinand University in Prague split in 1882 into two separate institutions along linguistic lines: one Czech, one German. (German-speakers represented only 7 percent of the city’s population when Einstein lived there.) The increasing polarization among nationalist activists across the linguistic divide swirled around Einstein. He remarked upon it as a minor irritation—“The population for the most part cannot speak German and acts hostile toward Germans,” he wrote in a letter back to Zurich—but yet it constrained his sphere of action throughout the city, thrusting him into circles of German-speaking intellectuals.
Some of these were Zionists like Hugo Bergmann and Max Brod, who first introduced the physicist to the movement. He found it too nationalist at the time and begged off, and yet when he found his path to supporting aspects of Zionism later in the decade, his engagement with the movement was mediated by figures he had met in Prague. (So was his break with it in the wake of violence in Palestine in the 1930s.)
German-speaking philosophers, both those who lauded relativity as the beacon of a new science and those who denounced it as gobbledygook (often with a distinct anti-Semitic tinge), were based within the very same university that Einstein had left in 1912. When Czechoslovakia became an early victim of Adolf Hitler’s militarist expansionism in the fall of 1938, Einstein watched horrified from across the Atlantic. His reactions to National Socialism were frequently expressed with metaphors and allusions to his own time as a German minority in Prague.
And, finally, there was the stunning array of writers in Prague, both German- and Czech-speaking, who made Einstein their subject well past his death in 1955. Only one writer of note seems to have been immune to the mania. A decade before his death and the posthumous publication of his great novels The Trial and The Castle, a young Franz Kafka met his contemporary at a salon in the spring of 1911. Neither great Jewish intellectual remembered the meeting after the fact. Einstein’s Prague and Prague’s Einstein stand as potent symbols of the 20th century, but they are not Kafkaesque ones.