Fritz Stern
Fritz Stern; drawing by David Levine


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

a religious faith in power which found in [Heinrich von] Treitschke an appropriate, not an exaggerated, expression. This religion dominates the minds of almost all of the cultured elite; it [has] almost completely extruded the ideals of the Goethe-Schiller era.

Despite his commitment to science, he had the gloomiest of forebodings about its future, and in a moment of bitterness he wrote: “Our entire much-praised technological progress, and civilization generally, could be compared to an ax in the hand of a pathological criminal.”

While Einstein sought to escape from World War I by concentrating on his own work, Haber responded to the crisis with patriotic enthusiasm. Along with Paul Ehrlich and Max Planck, he was one of the signers of the Manifesto of the 93, a declaration that asserted Germany’s innocence in causing the war and denied that its troops had committed atrocities. This was a sign of his impulsive love of country, as well as of his political naiveté, for the manifesto alienated the very neutralist opinion that it was supposed to impress.

In more practical matters Haber could be adroit. He became the most important organizer of science in wartime Germany, educating the German military to the necessity of developing alternate sources for raw materials the nation had once imported and transforming his institute in Berlin, Stern writes, into a kind of Manhattan Project for the production of the nitric acid and the synthetic saltpeter that were indispensable for explosives and fertilizers. At the end of the war, the war minister wrote to him:

Germany was not destined to emerge victoriously from this war. That it did not succumb already in the first few months to the superiority of its enemies in munitions, dynamite and other chemical compounds of nitrogen is in the first place due to you…. Your brilliant successes will always live in history and remain unforgotten….

What was unforgotten rather, especially among Germany’s antagonists, was that Haber had been the proponent of the use of poison gas as a weapon and the one whose researches made it feasible. He later claimed that he had done so in the hope of bringing the war to a quick conclusion and in the belief that gas was a more humane weapon than artillery bombardment. But no one who had suffered the horror of a gas attack was persuaded by these arguments and at the war’s end his name was on the Allied list of war criminals to be extradited for trial. It did not come to that, but when the fighting stopped, Haber, whose wife had committed suicide during the war, and who himself had worked relentlessly for four years, was close to a nervous breakdown.

To Einstein, meanwhile, the defeat of Germany came as a liberation from the weight of militarism; he was relatively optimistic about the future of the new Weimar Republic and wrote happily, “I am enjoying the reputation of an unblemished Socialist.” Indeed, as Stern makes clear, he was one of the beleaguered republic’s strongest assets, for in 1919 observations of the solar eclipse confirmed the theory of relativity and he became an international celebrity. In the years that followed, his frequent visits abroad helped to reduce anti-German feeling by focusing attention on the eminence of German culture and science, and they were encouraged by the German government for that reason. Well aware that his discoveries were repudiated in many quarters in Germany because of professional jealousy or anti-Jewish prejudice, Einstein remarked with his usual acerbic humor, “Funny people, these Germans. I am a stinking flower for them and still they keep putting me in their buttonholes.”

Despite their differences over wartime policy, Haber and Einstein remained fast friends, and in the postwar years Haber was constantly vigilant lest Einstein be lured away by one of the offers that frequently came his way and persuasive in arguing that this would represent a national disaster. Together, they worked energetically and with some degree of success to improve international scientific cooperation and to reduce the postwar tendency in the West to exclude Germany from scientific conferences. Meanwhile, Haber became the driving force behind the founding of the Emergency Committee for German Science, which was designed to raise funds for basic scientific research, not easy in a time of runaway inflation and accomplished only at the risk of giving private industry excessive influence over the direction of policy. As patriotic as ever, Haber was worried about the effects of the disarmament clauses of the Versailles Treaty on Germany’s independence and renewed his contacts with the military; he may have been involved in secret deliberations about poison gas and about armed collaboration between Germany and the Soviet Union. His own institute, meanwhile, was experimenting with pesticides and had developed the poison gas called Zyklon B, of whose future use he could have had no intimation.

Nor could he have known how quickly and radically his life was to change. His hectic existence had left him no time for political reflection. He may have felt vaguely that an authoritarian government of the type favored by General Kurt von Schleicher would be better than Weimar’s fumbling party system. But he had no conception of what it would be like for Germany to fall into the hands of Hitler. He was to learn within days of the Enabling Act of March 1933 when a new law was promulgated for the “Restoration of the Civil Service” that required the dismissal of all non-Aryan civil servants. Because of his war service, Haber could have stayed on as director of his institute, but only by tolerating the dismissal of men who had been his trusted colleagues. He would not accept that humiliating condition and sent in his resignation, which was accepted immediately and, as he noted with bitterness, aroused no objections, least of all from industrial firms like I.G. Farben that had profited so richly from his work. Characteristically, he sought to enlist aid for the dismissed scientists and in May 1933 wrote Einstein, who had by this time left Germany. Einstein responded generously, but could not resist the wounding, if apt, remark:

I can conceive of your inner conflicts. It is something like having to give up a theory on which one has worked one’s whole life. It is not the same for me because I never believed in it in the least.


In Stern’s study of Einstein’s German world, which included so much genius and ambiguity and tragedy, he has included portraits of two other remarkable figures. Walter Rathenau, the son of the founder of AEG, the great electrical concern, was basically driven by the desire for recognition—as an industrialist and financier like his father, as an intellectual whose writings about the spiritual condition of his country were taken seriously, and ultimately as a political leader in time of crisis. But he was well aware that his Jewishness stood in the way of his ambitions. He wrote in 1911,

In the youth of every German Jew, there comes a moment which he remembers with pain as long as he lives: when he becomes for the first time fully conscious of the fact that he has entered the world as a second-class citizen, and that no amount of ability or merit can rid him of that status.

Unlike Fritz Haber, however, he did not consider the possibility of alleviating his condition by converting to Christianity, which he felt would be a form of opportunistic capitulation. He was determined to realize his ambitions on his own terms or not at all, not entirely aware, perhaps, that this defiance would alienate more people than it impressed and increase the hazards he would have to face.

Once the war came in 1914, Rath-enau was appalled, as Fritz Haber had been, by the lack of preparations made by the military to conduct it effectively, and he kept pointing the failures out to the War Ministry until its officials reluctantly authorized him to make a statistical survey of the supply situation and to establish a central authority to control distribution of materials. This was the War Raw Materials Section of the War Ministry, which he directed until April 1915 and which probably staved off critical shortages that could have stopped the German war machine in its tracks. His resignation may have been prompted by disappointment at not having received a ministerial post; but the lack of amicable relations with his military colleagues may also have played a part, and he complained privately that the fact that as a private citizen and a Jew he had volunteered to serve the state was resented both by those who considered the state their own domain and by the Jews as well.

The fact was that Rathenau had a talent for alienating people by his propensity for giving advice, which was all the more annoying because it was right. The two books that he wrote in the last years of the war—Days to Come and To Germany’s Youth—were systematic analyses of the social weaknesses—not least the rigid bureaucracies—that Germany had to overcome if it were to recover from the effects of the war; but they were written in a cloying and pretentious style, crammed with quotations and recondite allusions, that led many people to dismiss their author as an overeducated windbag. When the Weimar Republic began its short and troubled career, Rathenau’s patriotism impelled him to seek an opportunity to serve it, and his economic talents qualified him for high office, but few people seemed to want him as a colleague. It was not until 1920 that he was asked to serve as a member of the German delegation to the Spa Conference on reparations. Some hoped that his knowledge of economics might persuade the Allies to moderate the reparations clauses of the Versailles Treaty, but that possibility was vitiated by the presence on the German delegation of General von Seeckt in full uniform and the fulminations of the industrialist Hugo Stinnes, who wanted to pay no reparations at all and resented Rathenau, who he said possessed a “fremdrassige Seele” (soul of an alien race), for seeking a compromise.

Rathenau’s political moderation had, however, impressed Joseph Wirth of the Center Party, who became chancellor in 1921 and persuaded Rathenau to join his cabinet, first as minister of reconstruction and then, fatally, as foreign minister in 1922. The Wirth-Rathenau policy called for fulfillment of the treaty terms, in the hope of persuading the Allies of Germany’s sincerity and eventually gaining a reduction of reparations. It was not a popular policy, and the choice of Rathenau to implement it was probably a mistake, for his technical abilities were offset by a fertility of imagination that made it easier for him to devise new schemes than to stick with established ones. He was also excessively sensitive to snubs. At the economic conference organized by Lloyd George at Genoa in 1922, Rathenau became so nervous at being excluded from private talks in the prime minister’s villa that he allowed the Soviet delegation to persuade him to go off with them to Rapallo, where he signed a special pact of friendship and collaboration with the Soviet Union. The announcement of this had the effect of a bombshell, ending the Genoa talks without result, hardening France’s intransigence with respect to reparations, and probably making inevitable its invasion of the Ruhr in January 1923.

But this was not the reason for his undoing. Einstein, who was interested in Rathenau’s personality and was a shrewd critic of his talents and weaknesses, had urged him not to take the post of foreign minister because it would be considered a Jewish provocation. This was prescient. Rathenau’s acceptance of the post was regarded as an outrage by apoplectic patrioteers of the right, and after Rapallo he was accused of treason by Karl Helfferich of the Nationalist Party. He was warned that his life was in danger, but he refused to take elementary measures of security. Pride and stubbornness were not the least of this complicated man’s qualities. They did not help him now, for he was murdered by rightist thugs on June 24, 1922, as he was driving to his office.

If Rathenau was always motivated by private ambition, the driving force in Chaim Weizmann’s life was the vision of a Jewish homeland in which—as Stern writes—“the best qualities of his people could be nurtured, in which men and women would make a barren land fruitful, unfettered at last from ancient hatreds and oppressions that had left such deep wounds and insecurities.” Born near Pinsk in 1874, he grew up in Germany, Switzerland, and England, where, like many Jews of his time, he was drawn to the natural sciences and became a first-rate chemist; he might have dedicated his life to the laboratory had not Zionism absorbed most of his thought and energies. For this cause he possessed the requisite gifts: utter dedication and diplomatic gifts of the first order, including great personal charm. It was these that made him, in the words of David Ben-Gurion, “the greatest Jewish emissary to the Gentile world,” able to appeal to the liberal imagination in England and the United States, and to awaken a sense that Zionism was a noble cause.

Nor were his gifts as a scientist unimportant. During World War I he developed a new method of producing acetone, a vital ingredient in the manufacture of heavy artillery, and this gave him a standing with the British government and led to friendship with people like Lloyd George, Balfour, Winston Churchill, and Jan Smuts. Stern describes with great skill how this led to the Balfour Declaration of November 1917, which transformed Zionism from a dream to a practical possibility, and what happened later, when Britain’s support of the homeland idea was compromised by the decline of its position in the Middle East and its growing conviction that it was necessary to appease the Arabs. Stern is particularly successful in describing how Weizmann was increasingly caught up in quarrels of different Jewish factions, ranging from assimilated Jews, who were indifferent to the idea of a homeland and believed that it militated against their own interests, to the moderate and radical wings of the Zionist movement. One of his most vocal critics was Einstein, who supported the Zionist cause but warned him against “nationalism à la prussienne,” adding that if a way was not found to cooperate with the Arabs, “we deserve the fate that will befall us.” This advice Weizmann did not find helpful, and he commented that Einstein seemed “to be acquiring the psychology of a prima donna who is beginning to lose her voice”; but what Einstein said was truer than he was willing to admit.

Throughout his life he had relied on moral persuasion to achieve his objectives. But in the years after 1933 that proved to be less effective, and when Weizmann urged the British government to agree to allow Jewish refugees from National Socialism to go to Palestine, he was balked by the British White Paper of 1939. Similarly, in 1945 and 1946, when the Jewish underground resorted to terrorism against the British forces in Palestine, he was powerless to prevent a course of action that he recognized as an offense against practical reason. Even when he went to Washington in 1948 to plead for the immediate recognition of the state of Israel, his success, which marked the culmination of his career, was at best a tentative one. Although he was elected the first president of the new republic, he had little influence over its policy during the cycle of violence and war that jeopardized its existence in the years that followed.

Something like the growing dissonance that Weizmann felt between himself and his times was common to most of the prominent members of what Stern has called Einstein’s German world. This was true of Walter Rathenau, who had believed that a policy of accommodation with the West would alleviate Germany’s postwar condition but discovered, at the cost of his life, that his country recognized force as the only legitimate solution; and it was equally so for Paul Ehrlich and Fritz Haber and Max Planck, who idealized the life of science but learned that it could be lived only at the expense of shameful compromise with the world of politics and prejudice. Only Einstein himself seemed immune to the pain that this discovery brought, but then Einstein had never expected much of the human race in any case and so was not surprised.

This Issue

November 4, 1999