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Einstein's German World
by Fritz Stern
ISBN 0691074585 / 9780691074580 / 0-691-07458-5
Publisher Princeton University Press
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Albert Einstein was, it has seemed to some scholars, a genius sui generis, a man who transcended his own time and native country to become a citizen of the world. Fritz Stern is not among their ranks. A retired professor of history at Columbia University, Stern here offers a set of essays on the cultural milieu of late 19th- and early 20th-century Germany, and more specifically of the brilliant culture of German Jews, many of whom had, like Einstein, been largely assimilated into the surrounding culture in what Stern calls "an astounding ascendancy" but who were forced by separatist laws to accept second-class status. Chaim Weizmann, a chemist of Einstein's generation who founded modern Zionism, knew this well; when one of his teachers assured him that Germans would give up their anti-Semitism once they realized how much Jews had contributed to their prosperity and their rich culture, Weizmann replied, "Herr Doktor, if a man has a piece of something in his eye, he doesn't want to know whether it's a piece of mud or a piece of gold. He just wants to get it out."
The intellectuals of Albert Einstein's generation spun gold, Stern shows. Their number included Paul Ehrlich, the inventor of chemotherapy; Walther Rathenau, a captain of industry with an informed love of literature and music; and Fritz Haber, a physicist who discovered a means of fixing nitrogen from the air. All were swept away, murdered or sent into exile, by the events of the 1920s and '30s. Surveying the ruins of World War II, the French philosopher Raymond Aron remarked to Stern, "It could have been Germany's century"--if only, that is, Germany had not succumbed to the madness of national socialism. Fritz Stern's careful essays show just how much Germany, and the world, lost when it did. --Gregory McNamee [via]