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Einstein expert describes academic climate for scientists in Nazi Germany

by Sherry Fisher - August 28, 2006

As fear spread through the scientific institutes in Germany a year before the rise of the Nazi party, Albert Einstein warned his colleagues that the danger was not just Hitler, but war fever.

That was the historical scene pictured by Patricia Rife at a physics colloquium July 31 at the Thomas J. Dodd Research Center.

Rife, a historian of science from the University of Maryland University College, Graduate School of Management and Technology, spoke on "Einstein and Nazi Germany: 1923-1946."

Rife received a Dodd Center travel grant for archival research for two weeks in July.

Einstein, a Nobel Prize-winner in physics, became famous during the 1920s, Rife said, traveling the world with his second wife, Elsa.

He met with world leaders who spoke about physics, philosophy, and spirituality, and had famous friends.

Throughout the 1920s, however, Einstein faced growing persecution in Germany, Rife said.

Anti-Semitism was pursued by the rising Nazi party and the political right, and Einstein's work on relativity was denounced as a vast Semitic plot.

Rife has conducted research at the Nobel Prize archives in Stockholm, Sweden, and the Berlin Free University on the discovery of nuclear fission for her book Lise Meitner and the Dawn of the Nuclear Age (Boston and Birkhauser, 1999).

She has interviewed more than 50 physicists worldwide who knew or worked with Albert Einstein, and has gathered a rare photographic collection on Einstein.

She says UConn's archival photographs were a "complement and addition" to her 20 years of research on Einstein.

In 1933, when Hitler became chancellor, Einstein and his wife were in California. But Einstein spoke out immediately in a radio interview.

A friend of his, actor Charlie Chaplin, contacted people in Los Angeles, and Einstein's message against Nazi Germany was broadcast around America.

Many people are surprised at how outspoken Einstein was, yet he had witnessed first-hand the dangers of the rising Third Reich, Rife said.

Universities quickly came under Nazi law, she noted, and within four months, university positions were purged: Jewish scholars were arrested, and those regarded as liberals were banned from the university.

Einstein's savings account was confiscated, his house and library were padlocked, and he was expelled from the German Academy of Science.

Rife quoted Hitler: "Our national policies will not be revoked or modified even for scientists. If the dismissal of Jewish scientists means the annihilation of contemporary German science, then we shall do without science for a few years."

Young physicists who left Nazi Germany were very worried that the German government would fund a nuclear weapons project, so they met with Einstein during the summer of 1939, and a letter was written to President Franklin D. Roosevelt and signed by Einstein citing concern about the creation of an atomic bomb.

"It was a pivot point for the development of the so-called top-secret Manhattan Project," Rife said.

"It was the fear of the Germans, the energy surrounding nuclear fission, that prompted an immediate response by the U.S. government. But it is also my premise that it was the influence and fame of Albert Einstein. President Roosevelt took Einstein's voice seriously and created a small department and pool of funding, which later turned into the Manhattan project."

Rife said Einstein was an activist for world peace, and devoted much of his life speaking and writing about the subject.

She quoted him: "To have security against atomic bombs and against other biological weapons, we have to prevent war. For if we cannot prevent war, every nation will use every means at their disposal, and in spite of all promises they make, they will do it."

Einstein held out the olive branch of hope, Rife said.

"He tried to show people that it was war and the issues surrounding it that we have to work against.

"I teach students all over the world," she added, "and that's the message I try to bring to them."  

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