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The End of the Golden Age


The last four years of the reign of William II of Germany—that is, those that stretched from the outbreak of the First World War until the Emperor’s abdication—were of such tragic weight and consequence that they have tended to obscure the twenty-six years that preceded them. As a result, when these are studied at all it is generally only for the clues they yield to the catastrophe that was to follow. This is an unfortunate distortion, for seen in its own right the period from 1888 to 1914 was characterized by a degree of institutional stability, technological progress, and economic prosperity that Germany as a whole was not to enjoy again until the last years of the twentieth century, as well as by a cultural and intellectual eminence second only to that of the classical age of the years between 1770 and 1830.

That earlier time had been the age of the Kantian revolution in philosophy and the poetic and dramatic triumphs of Goethe and Schiller and Hölderlin, accomplishments which, because unchallenged by anything comparable in the sphere of politics, had won for Germany a reputation as the land of Dichter und Denker. In contrast, the second “age of genius,” as it was sometimes called, was dominated by natural scientists. The reign of William II witnessed tremendous progress in biological and virological research, which was facilitated by the foundation of great new research institutes financed by industry and the state, and was a golden age of physics which culminated in 1915 with Einstein’s general theory of relativity. It was a time of great discoveries like tuberculin, and salvarsan, the “magic bullet” against syphilis, and the X-ray. And it was above all a time when science enjoyed an unblemished public renown, and scientists applied themselves to their calling with a disciplined zeal that reflected their belief that they were serving the cause of human progress. In 1911, when the Kaiser Wilhelm Society was founded, the chemist Emil Fischer declared, in a tribute to Paul Ehrlich, the discoverer of chemotherapy, that the future did not lie in the conquest of colonial empires; rather “chemistry and with it, more generally, all of natural science is the true land of boundless opportunities.”

This faith in science was not unalloyed, and as it became more organized and more specialized, doubts emerged. Max Weber was not alone in fearing that the traditional centers of scientific inquiry, the universities, were becoming “state capitalist enterprises,” managed for purposes external to learning for its own sake, and that freedom of inquiry was beginning to give way to the production of knowledge useful to the state for technical and economic reasons, if not for purposes of legitimating state authority.1 And others remembered Nietzsche’s concern over the heedless pace of modern science (“as if science were a factory and every minute’s delay would bring punishment after it”) and his troubled question, “What will become of science if it doesn’t have time for culture?… Whence, where, why all science if it does not lead to culture? Perhaps to barbarity?”2 These doubts, from which the early years of the period were relatively free, increased in number as Germany moved toward war and totalitarianism.

To introduce readers to the role of science and scientists in this critical period in German history, Fritz Stern, Seth Low Professor of History Emeritus at Columbia University, is uniquely qualified. He was born in 1926 in Breslau, where his father, a doctor, was a friend of the chemist Fritz Haber, who became his godfather, and one of his cousins was on intimate terms with Einstein. He has long been convinced that the German question, in all its guises, has had a decisive and tragic influence on the history of the world. It was perhaps inevitable that, after completing his great work on Bismarck and his banker Bleichröder and, particularly, his penetrating study of the romantic cultural pessimism that so colored rightist political thinking in Germany in the 1890s and during the Weimar Republic,3 Stern should have begun to wonder about the ethos and sense of commitment of the great scientists of whom he had heard so much in his youth, the role of personality in their careers, the special pressures exerted upon them by official responsibilities or by government policy, and, since so many of them were Jews, how that fact affected their lives and work. These are the essential themes of his new book, and what he has to say about them is based upon intensive research on three continents.

It should not be surprising that the Jewish question is so central to this book. Stern rejects the thesis propounded by Daniel Goldhagen in his book Hitler’s Willing Executioners that, with respect to the Jews, almost all Germans had an eliminationist cast of mind, and in a persuasive chapter points out that this is unproved and so inclusive as to be historically unprovable. That anti-Jewish prejudice existed in many forms is, however, undeniable, and Stern suggests that it had a certain seductive force for Germans, allowing them to believe in their own superiority while regarding specific traits—ruthless ambition, dogged self-assertion, a desire for power and money—as typically Jewish. This tendency was not, of course, restricted to Germany. When Einstein was being considered for a post at the University of Zurich, a faculty report asked his patron for more information about his character, since

Herr Dr. Einstein is an Israelite and since precisely to the Israelites among scholars are ascribed (in numerous cases not entirely without cause) all kinds of unpleasant peculiarities of character, such as intrusiveness, impudence, and a shopkeeper’s mentality in the perception of their academic position.

This did not, however, prevent Einstein from getting the position. So also in the case of Paul Ehrlich, who, as Stern points out in a penetrating chapter on his work, suffered many slights and hindrances because of his Jewishness but was sustained by moral and practical support from colleagues and superiors like the famous internist Theodor Frerichs, once Bismarck’s personal physician, Robert Koch, the discoverer of tuberculin, and Friedrich Althoff, a department head in the Prussian Ministry of Education from 1882 to 1907, whose ambition, Stern writes, “was to make Prussia’s universities and research centers the best in the world, even against the will of opinionated professors with their insistence on autonomy, and in the teeth of prevailing religious biases.”

In the same way, Max Planck, the father of the quantum theory, spent much of his time and energy continuing Althoff’s work and, when the bad times came under Hitler, did what he could to defend Jewish scientists against attacks by the Nazis. In general, Stern feels that at its higher levels German science was distinguished by harmonious creativity, and that, although prejudice continued to be wide-spread in the country, by and large the achievements of Jews were recognized as an immeasurable boon to the nation, to German industry, and to Germany’s international prestige, a fact to which the Emperor himself, a notorious anti-Semite, was not insensible. Even so, Jewish success was won at great psychic cost.


The careers of Fritz Haber and Albert Einstein, which are the subject of Stern’s central chapter, illustrate this. The two men met for the first time in 1911 at a scientific conference in Karlsruhe. Both were already famous, Haber for his discovery of the fixation of nitrogen from the air, an achievement of great importance for German industry after it had been made prac-tical by the Haber-Bosch process, which is still used today, Einstein for the extraordinary papers of 1905 that changed the prevailing view of the nature of the universe. As head of the Kaiser Wilhelm Institute of Physical Chemistry and Electrochemistry in Ber-lin, Haber had a major part in bringing Einstein to the capital in 1914, and the two men became intimate friends from the beginning, when Haber acted as adviser and go-between during the collapse of Einstein’s first marriage.

Despite strong differences of character and personality—Einstein always the theorist and Einzelgänger, or loner, Haber the organizer and promoter, devoted to strengthening the ties between scientific progress and practical life—they shared one thing that made them friends until Haber’s death. Stern writes:

Both cherished the scientific ethos, even if their ambitions and professional paths diverged; both were autodidacts; both had known early, daunting failures. They both had a sense of their calling and an austere view of their profession. They would have understood Freud’s assessment in 1910: “Science betokens the most complete renunciation of the pleasure-principle of which our minds are capable.”

Their dedication and the intensity of their labors took a toll on their health and, in each case, destroyed the happiness of their married life. Haber’s first wife wrote in 1909 of his “smothering assertiveness for his purpose [i.e., of pursuing science] in the home and in the marriage,” adding:

All of Fritz’s other human qual-ities except this one [the will to work] are close to shrinking and he is, so to speak, prematurely old.

Einstein, when he was working on the mathematical foundations of what was to become the general theory of relativity, wrote to his divorced cousin Elsa, with whom he was in love but whom he later renounced,

In the last half year I have worked more strenuously than ever before in my life and a few weeks ago I now finally solved the problem…. Now I have to give myself some peace or I shall go kaput right away.

Both Haber and Einstein were Jews who did not practice their religion. Haber, indeed, as if hoping to keep at a minimum any negative effect that his Jewishness might have upon his career, converted to Christianity in 1892 when he was twenty-four, although he was never a churchgoer and most of his friends continued to be Jewish. In his life religious ardor was replaced by an intense German patriotism and a desire to serve the state, which sometimes took excessive and unfortunate forms. In contrast, Einstein, except for a brief moment of “deep religiosity” in his youth, seemed to be indifferent to religion, which he regarded as a form of “the foolish faith in authority” that was inimical to truth. It would never have occurred to him to seek to advance his career by anything as self-serving as conversion, and, in any case, he scorned the zeal with which German Jews pursued assimilation. He had a deep admiration for German education and classical culture, but was insensible to anything like national feeling.

As Stern shows, this became clear after the outbreak of war. To the national enthusiasm of the days ofAugust 1914, Einstein was completely immune. He regarded the conflict from the beginning as something insane and suicidal and wrote to a friend, “In a time like this one sees what a wretched animal species we belong to.” From the beginning he was inclined to blame the Germans more than the Allies for the catastrophe that had ripped the civilized world apart, writing to his fellow pacifist Romain Rolland that the German victory of 1870 had left the country with

  1. 1

    See Lawrence A. Scaff, Fleeing the Iron Cage: Culture, Politics and Modernity in the Thought of Max Weber (University of California Press, 1989), pp. 228-229.

  2. 2

    Friedrich Nietzsche, Unzeitgemässe Betrachtungen (Stuttgart: Kröner Verlag, 1964), pp. 50-51.

  3. 3

    Gold and Iron: Bismarck, Bleichröder, and the Building of the German Empire (Knopf, 1977); The Politics of Cultural Despair: A Study in the Rise of Germanic Ideology (University of California Press, 1961).

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