The saga of the Einstein Tower

Bristol entertainment venue Colston Hall joins a number of monuments, buildings and street names to be renamed according to the values of a later time. Here, journalist and historian Andrew Robinson shares another significant instance in history when the name of a landmark was influenced by later events – not once, but twice…

Albert Einstein, standing in front of the Einstein Tower in 1926. (Photo by ullstein bild via Getty Images)
 

The Einstein Tower, a landmark 1920s building in Potsdam near Berlin, was renamed by the Nazi regime in 1933 due to the anti-Semitic prejudices of the regime, then restored to its original name after 1945.

Considering the global fame of Albert Einstein – Time magazine’s ‘Person of the Century’ – there are remarkably few buildings in the world that bear his name; and none of them is a household name. Not even the private house in Princeton, New Jersey, where Einstein lived after abandoning Nazi Germany for America in 1933 until his death in 1955, officially bears his name. That is because Einstein emphatically asked that this house should never become a museum or what he called ‘a place of pilgrimage’.

Maybe Einstein had in mind the saga of the echt expressionist Einsteinturm – the ‘Einstein Tower’ – a landmark in Potsdam near Berlin. This was built as a result of the international excitement in 1919 when British astronomers experimentally confirmed Einstein’s theory of general relativity. Actively supported by Einstein, the tower was intended as a solar observatory; it was constructed to a design by Erich Mendelsohn in the early 1920s, at the height of the Weimar Republic. Then, in 1933, it was relegated to a nameless ‘Institute of Solar Physics’ by the Nazi regime due to Einstein’s public criticism of the regime and also his Jewish heritage, and damaged during an air-raid in 1945. But it reverted to its original name after the Second World War, which remains in use. Ironically, it seems that Einstein himself – a classicist at heart where the arts were concerned – never really cared for the tower’s strange, even bizarre architecture, even though he strongly supported its scientific role.


The Einstein Tower, which was renamed for the physicist after the Nazis' fall from power in 1945. (Photo by Ihlow/ullstein bild via Getty Images)

 

The first renaming occurred two months after Adolf Hitler came to power, days after Einstein publicly resigned his longtime membership of the prestigious Prussian Academy of Sciences, ahead of a Nazi plan to revoke his membership on 1 April, ‘Boycott Jews Day’. The director of the observatory, Erwin Freundlich, who was part-Jewish, fell in with the Nazi initiative. “He may have thought, what’s in a name?” writes historian Klaus Hentschel in his study, The Einstein Tower (1997). But if so, Freundlich was much mistaken. “Initial political opportunism in the academic world only made it easier for the Nazi state to expand its powers.”

The bust of Einstein in the entrance hallway quickly vanished into a safe place, and was symbolically replaced by a stone (‘ein Stein’, in German) throughout the Hitler years. Soon, Freundlich himself was forced to leave Germany, like his patron Einstein. After 1945, Einstein adamantly refused to visit East or West Germany or to have any contact with German physicists, including the German academics now in charge of ‘his’ Tower—apart from the handful who had actively resisted Nazism. “The attitude of the German intellectuals – viewed as a class – was not better than that of the mob,” Einstein lambasted the Max Planck Society in 1949.

Very few of us would support the Nazi renaming of the Einstein Tower in 1933. Others may question if it was appropriate for Germans to restore Einstein’s name to the building after 1945, given his public disdain for post-war Germany. There seems to be no clear-cut answer.

Andrew Robinson is the author of Einstein: A Hundred Years of Relativity, Princeton University Press, 2015.

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