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Albert Einstein Renounces German Citizenship;”I Will Not Be Returning to Germany, Perhaps Never Again”
For Albert Einstein, being Jewish and German were not questions of identity but rather mutable matters of identification.
Germanness and Jewishness have each been impossible for centuries of European history. In a time when political legitimacy meant a nation-state, the Germans were long too big to be contained within a single one, and the Jews long too despised and dispersed to have their own. In the mid-20th century, the murderous atrocities of National Socialism would lock Germanness and Jewishness in seemingly mortal opposition. But before the rise of Nazism and its historic crimes, no inherent conflict stood between Germanness and Jewishness. Ostensibly, bloodline or heritage determined both of these. but in actuality each was an amalgam of confession, language and class, any of which could change over the course of a life.
For centuries in central Europe
For centuries in central Europe, being labelled both German and Jewish was commonplace. Often, what individuals meant when identifying themselves as one could reshape how they were understood to relate to the other. Declaring yourself to be German as well as Jewish acquired different valences when your audience primarily understood itself (and you) as one or the other. Identification is part individual volition and part a process of being identified – by states, religious groups and other institutions and communities. An individual’s biography is but one important variable in the equation. Let’s take one example you will certainly recognise. Eddington and Dyson declared Einstein’s predictions correct. The newspapers ran with it, and the moustachioed theoretical physicist captivated the public.
In late November 1919
It was all a bit inexplicable then, and remains a matter of discussion among historians today. In late November 1919, Einstein had his own take, in The Times in London:
Today I am described in Germany as a ‘German savant’, and in England as a ‘Swiss Jew’.
Should it ever be my fate to be represented as a bête noire, I should, on the contrary, become a ‘Swiss Jew’ for the Germans and a ‘German savant’ for the English.
As with much of Einstein’s humour, there is a barb within the bonbon. He understood that the names commonly used to describe one’s ‘identity’ are not entirely under one’s control. The crux of the issue is the term ‘identity’ itself. It can be tempting to think that identities are immutable and self-evident. Because neither is quite true, the sociologist Rogers Brubaker and the historian Frederick Cooper would prefer we dispensed with the term ‘identity’ altogether in favour of ‘identification’. As they noted in 2000, the longer and somewhat more clinical term
the bounded groupness
invites us to specify the agents that do the identifying.
And it does not presuppose that such identifying (even by powerful agents, such as the state) will necessarily result in the internal sameness, the distinctiveness, the bounded groupness that political entrepreneurs may seek to achieve.
Sometimes, you are the one doing the identifying (of self or other); sometimes, you are being identified. The magic comes in tricking you into thinking that those identifications are your intrinsic identity. Appreciating that power shapes how we think of ourselves and others opens up new perspectives on xenophobic nationalism and antisemitism, and new possibilities for thinking about ourselves and others.
Einstein’s changing identifications illustrate
Einstein’s changing identifications illustrate the role of power in identification and the mutability of claims to identity. Throughout his life, he was repeatedly referred to as a ‘German’ and a ‘Jew’, two terms that we have come to interpret, since the mid-20th century, as being at odds. Yet Einstein identified as both, albeit with reservations. He resisted attempts by others (especially state bureaucrats) to prescribe identifications to him, while also mobilising assertions of identification to support pacifism, Zionism and other commitments. It is quite rare for identifications to exist in the singular or to remain fixed over time, and so it proved in Einstein’s case.
The first record we have of Einstein’s views
The first record we have of Einstein’s views on being German involve him denying it. He was born in 1879 in Ulm, in the German state of Württemberg, and he retained that citizenship upon the family’s departure, shortly afterward, to Munich, the capital of the state of Bavaria. As he approached graduation from secondary school, Einstein refused to enlist in the obligatory military service. A month and a half shy of his 17th birthday (and thus still a minor) he asked his father to renounce his citizenship for him. As of 5 February 1896, when Ulm confirmed the decision, Einstein was officially stateless. He soon settled in Switzerland and eventually enrolled at the Swiss Federal Polytechnic School, later renamed the Federal Institute of Technology (ETH). in Zürich. He became a Swiss citizen on 21 February 1901. five years after he had forsaken his German citizenship. Born within the newly formed German Reich, Einstein was happier being Swiss.
Einstein’s Nobel Prize in Physics proved an inconvenience for his non-German Swissness
Einstein’s cavalier attitude to his Germanness put him at odds with some of his closest friends. Unique among scientist colleagues in the Central Powers, he was not subjected to the boycott and travel ban that the victorious powers of France, Belgium, Britain and the United States imposed after the war. The news of the confirmation of general relativity afforded an excellent occasion to invite Einstein, a well-known pacifist and opponent of the war. to Paris or New York where he might quietly lobby to end the boycott, which he opposed as a manifestation of virulent nationalism. The chemist Fritz Haber and other friends objected to Einstein’s globetrotting as disloyal to the sufferings of Germans. Einstein’s response dismissed the matter of national loyalty: ‘Allegiance to the political image of Germany would be unnatural for me as a pacifist.’ He went on the trip to the US, and then on another to Japan, China and the British Mandate of Palestine, all on his Swiss passport.
Einstein had grown quite vocal about identifying as a Jew and especially with cultural aspects of Zionism
As with most European states at the time, a portion of one’s taxes went to state-sponsored religious institutions by proportion with demographic registration. Registering in a religion therefore had fiscal implications for churches and synagogues, and they came to Einstein to collect. The first such exchange was farcical: Albert and Elsa’s marriage was apparently registered as Protestant. The newlyweds assigned the task of complaining about the error to Elsa’s daughter Ilse:
Prof Einstein and his wife have never belonged to a confessional community, although they are children of Jewish parents .
… Since Prof Einstein and his wife have never belonged to the Protestant church.
they are naturally not in a position to present you with a certification of their leaving the church community.
Albert Einstein (/ˈaɪnstaɪn/ EYEN-styne; German: [ˈalbɛʁt ˈʔaɪnʃtaɪn] (listen); 14 March 1879 – 18 April 1955) was a German-born theoretical physicist, widely acknowledged to be one of the greatest physicists of all time. Einstein is known for developing the theory of relativity, but he also made important contributions to the development of the theory of quantum mechanics. resource: wikipedia