Michael D. Gordin


On his book Einstein in Bohemia

Cover Interview of April 01, 2020

A close-up

If you were to flip through the book in a bookstore, you might land somewhere around pages 85-90, or if not there somewhere else in chapter 3: “Anti-Prague.” The chapter as a whole is about Einstein’s daily life in Prague, and follows four different tracks: Einstein’s personal attitudes toward life in the city; the social circle he frequented, the salon of Berta Fanta, and its importance for putting him in contact with many influential figures in Prague’s later history; the deteriorating relationship between the physicist and his wife, which reached a breaking point in this period; and how Einstein negotiated a return to Zurich and eventually left the city. The page range I isolated is related to the first of these.

Einstein complained a lot about Prague. He wrote many letters to friends back in Zurich (and elsewhere), almost all of which denigrate both the city and the Habsburg bureaucrats who ran it. At times the correspondence can be amusing, but mostly it shows someone frustrated that things in his new home are not like Switzerland. The chapter is “anti-Prague” in two senses. First, that Einstein’s feelings toward the city were mostly negative. Second, that he developed his picture of a decaying Prague by contrast with orderly Zurich, which was an “anti-Prague” in the sense that a positron is an anti-electron: almost the same but with the opposite charge.

What were the gripes? Nothing especially shocking if you are familiar with the views of German travelers to the Slavic lands of East Central Europe. The water was bad, and you needed to boil it before drinking. There were bedbugs. Locals didn’t speak German enough or very well. The people were servile, they were “barbarians.” That might sound like strong language, but you should not judge Einstein too severely for it. His was a laundry list identical to other travelers’ complaints, and bedbugs are indeed unpleasant. That they also exist in Switzerland and Germany was not something Einstein noted. He also did not remark that Prague had electric lampposts on the street while Zurich still used kerosene. The contrasts all worked in one direction.

I do not want readers to judge Einstein as priggish and biased. When it came to encountering other cultures, his reaction was a very common one. That’s what I would hope readers took away from this episode: that Einstein was human, and he reacted to the world around him the way many people of his particular background and expectations would have done. Einstein may have been Einstein, but he was also a person.