Happy Birthday Albert Einstein - Genius of Schöneberg

If you take the U4 to Bayerischer Platz in Schöneberg, then head north up Aschaffenburgerstraße before taking your first right, you’ll find yourself on Haberlandstraße - an unremarkable, West Berlin street lined with typical apartment blocks that can be found throughout the city.

Observant pedestrians, however, may notice a memorial block no taller than a foot high outside the no.5 building, where a concrete slab tells readers that the theoretical physicist Albert Einstein resided in the adjacent building for much of his time spent living in Germany between 1911 and 1933.

The Swabian eccentric, who is as widely known for his bedraggled hair and maverick social conventions as he is for his contribution to physics,  penned much of his defining work in the German capital. While he was living in Prague in the early 1900s, a group of esteemed physicists travelled from Germany to persuade Einstein - a growing force in the field – to assume the Director role in the newly opened Kaiser Wilhelm Institute for Physics, which is no longer situated in the capital, but now in Munich renamed after another giant in modern physics - Max Planck.

Upon accepting the invitation to the post, Albert was reported to have said “the Germans are gambling on me as they would a prize hen. I do not really know myself whether I shall ever really lay another egg.”

Six years later, though, his landmark theory, The General Theory of Relativity was affirmed beyond doubt, asserting him as one the most important minds in modern history, catapulting him to iconic status.

As academically brilliant as he was, it was not uncommon for the bohemian professor to suffer moments of absurdity. One light-hearted anecdote of Einstein living in Berlin involves him traveling home from a social engagement in a taxi and proclaiming to the bewildered driver that he had forgotten where he lived. Asking the taxi driver (who did not recognize the professor) if he knew where Albert Einstein lived, he was told “Of course, everyone around here knows where he lives,” to which Einstein replied, “Good, take me there, then.”

Albert Einstein’s influence extended beyond Physics and into the political. A staunch pacifist, Einstein renounced his German citizenship not once, but twice in his life. In order to avoid military conscription at 17 years of age, he forfeited his German passport and left for Switzerland where he was given citizenship. He was then given it back after the fall of the German Empire following the country’s defeat in World War I, and once again renounced it amidst the rise of the Nazi party – replacing it for an American one, whilst also continuing to hold his Swiss citizenship.

Einstein played an integral role in the creation of the now defunct German Democratic Party, a political force crushed under the weight of Hitler’s fascist movement. He was widely known for his liberal anti-imperial values. In 1949 he wrote an article titled “Why Socialism?” arguing a case for the deconstruction of the capitalist economy in order to make room for a socialist one. Einstein’s Marxist leanings went largely unreported, and continue to play an unimportant role in the common narrative of his life.

True to his unconventional nature, Einstein married his cousin, Elsa Löwenstahl in 1919. The pair lived together in the aforementioned Schöneberg flat, before retreating to the countryside in Potsdam when Einstein’s fame made living in the city an inconvenience. During a trip to America in 1933, Adolf Hitler came to power, prompting Einstein to make his trip a permanent one.

In a city bursting at the historical seams, it can be easy to forget that as you walk along a seemingly innocuous street in the peaceful district of Schöneberg, you could be retracing the steps of a genius.

By Scott McBurney

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