From very early in his life, Einstein gave hints of a deep-seated streak of fatalism. It never prevented him from acting, from behaving as if what he sought to do could influence events. But the countervailing strain was always there, the perception that the apparently unique spark of any one human life must ultimately vanish into the vastness of the cosmos. The previous year, 1931, bound for California, he experienced a storm at sea. He wrote in his travel diary that “the sea has a look of indescribable grandeur, especially when the sun falls on it. One feels as if one is dissolved and merged into nature. Even more than usual, one feels the insignificance of the individual and it makes one happy.”
Insignificant—and hence autonomous, free to do what one had to do. In the end, Einstein simply left the stage. On December 12, Albert and Elsa Einstein set out from Berlin for the United States. A photograph taken at the entrance of the train station shows an ordinary travelers’ tableau. Elsa looks a little worried, harried; she could be thinking about the luggage, or perhaps, more seriously, about her daughter Ilse, who was ailing. Einstein’s face is unrevealing, almost grim. The overall impression is of impatience, a desire to be done with photography and catch their train. There is no way to read the image, except with hindsight, as the end of an era.
Before they reached the train station, Einstein and Elsa had to close up their house at Caputh. They may have paused at the door to Einstein’s study or on the porch, looking down the sweep of lawn to the lake, visible then through the leafless trees. There might have been a glance round the back of the house, a survey of windows shut and doors latched, and then in and out again, carrying their bags. One of them locked the door—probably Elsa, the master of all practical matters in the Einstein household. Finally, when nothing remained to be done, they walked away from the house. Einstein spoke. “Take a good look,” he told Elsa. “You will never see it again.”
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In exile, Einstein rethought his core political beliefs and the moral reasoning that underpinned them. Being Einstein, he was faster to the conclusions that shift forced on him than almost all of his contemporaries.
On January 30, 1933, as Hitler took the oath as Chancellor of a republic about to become a Reich, Albert Einstein was safely out of reach in Pasadena. For the moment, there was little overt danger. Well treated by his American friends, he could be positively playful, even trying his hand at bicycling. The famous photograph of Einstein atop his two-wheeler was taken that February. He leans over, his front wheel a little askew. He seems a trifle unsteady but he grins hugely; life is pleasant in southern California.
Even after Hitler consolidated his hold, Einstein restrained himself for a while. Early in February, he even wrote to the Prussian Academy to discuss salary matters, fully as if he intended to resume work in Berlin later that year. But any illusions he may have had shattered almost immediately thereafter. On February 27, the Reichstag in Berlin burned to the ground. The crackdown on the left began immediately, with the SA and the SS competing to arrest and brutalize any perceived threat to the Reich.