Oct. 17, 2022

Einstein’s Escape from Nazi Germany

Einstein’s Escape from Nazi Germany

October 17, 1933. Albert Einstein arrives in the United States after fleeing antisemitic persecution in Nazi Germany.


Cold Open

It’s a warm July night in 1933 in rural Norfolk, England.

A gamekeeper sits outside a hunting cabin, his rifle flat across his lap. It’s late, and his eyelids droop with weariness. But he knows he can’t fall asleep. He’s under clear instructions to keep watch all night.

But fearing he might nod off anyway, the gamekeeper stands and begins patrolling the perimeter on foot – hoping the movement will help him stay awake. He grips his rifle tight with both hands and scours the surrounding bushes.

As he walks, the gamekeeper’s thoughts turn to the man sleeping inside the hunting cabin. He’s a famous Jewish physicist who recently fled Germany, where the Nazi Party has just risen to power. When the physicist arrived in England, the gamekeeper’s employer offered to provide him with accommodation in his remote hunting cabin, along with twenty-four-hour protection from any would-be Nazi assassins.

And those are who the gamekeeper is thinking about when he hears a twig snap. The gamekeeper strains his ears. Then, he sees movement from inside the bush, so he crouches, begins a slow approach, squinting into the shadows…

A pheasant erupts from the undergrowth and flaps off across the heath.

Once his heart stops pounding, the gamekeeper allows himself a wry smile. All this talk about “Nazi assassins” has clearly put him on edge.

As the gamekeeper walks on, the sound of the cabin door opening makes him turn around. A figure stands in the doorway. Light from a gaslamp throws his wild, unkempt hair into relief. Then, a soft German-accented voice cuts through the night, asking, “Is there something the matter?” And the gamekeeper replies: “No. Mr. Einstein. I’m sorry I woke you.” Albert Einstein smiles, nods, and retreats back inside the cabin.

In late July 1933, Albert Einstein fled to England from Germany. The rise of Adolf Hitler and the Nazi Party convinced the 54-year-old physicist that the country of his birth was no longer safe for Jewish people like himself. In England, Einstein shelters in the hunting cabin of a Conservative politician. But he will not stay there for long. Soon, Einstein will leave Europe altogether, eventually arriving on the shores of his new home, the United States, on October 17th, 1933.


From Noiser and Airship, I’m Lindsay Graham and this is History Daily.

History is made every day. On this podcast—every day—we tell the true stories of the people and events that shaped our world.

Today is October 17th: Einstein’s Escape from Nazi Germany.

Act One: Tides of Tyranny

It’s the morning of June 24th, 1922, eleven years before Einstein will flee Nazi Germany. 

In a Berlin suburb, a black Mercedes idles on a street corner. Three men sit inside the vehicle, their gaze fixed on the front door of a house across the road. Ernst Techow, the 20-year-old driver, tightens his grip around the steering wheel to stop his hands from trembling.

Ernst and his companions are members of a right-wing terrorist group known as the Organisation Consul. After Germany’s defeat in World War I, the German government was forced into signing a peace settlement called the Treaty of Versailles. Many Germans felt the economic sanctions imposed by the Treaty were excessively harsh, and they blamed the government for agreeing to the terms.

Soon, the Germans’ economic misery cultivated paranoia. Rumors began to spread that the government was being controlled by a shadowy cabal of Jewish elites, sabotaging Germany from within. A tide of anti-semitic nationalism swept the country, fuelling the rise of terrorist groups like the Organisation Consul, or the OC.

The OC wants to overthrow Germany’s liberal democratic government and replace it with a right-wing dictatorship. Today, Ernst and his fellow terrorists have come to carry out an assassination. Their target is Walther Rathenau, the Foreign Minister. Rathenau is targeted not only because he is a powerful figure in the government, but also because he’s a Jew. To them, Rathenau is a personification of everything the OC despises.

The door to the house opens and Rathenau steps out. The bald-headed politician climbs into the back of a chauffeured convertible, which pulls out of the driveway and accelerates down the street. Ernst slips his Mercedes into gear and follows. When Rathenau’s car slows at the first junction, Ernst pulls up alongside. The young man closes his eyes and braces himself for what comes next.

The two assassins in the backseat whip out submachine guns and pepper Rathenau with bullets. One of the assassins shouts: “Go!” and Ernst doesn’t hesitate. He slams his foot down and speeds off around the corner.

In the wake of Walther Rathenau’s assassination, police scramble to identify other possible targets. Soon, they suspect Albert Einstein, one of Rathenau’s friends and a high-profile Jewish physicist, could be next.

A few weeks later, after Rathenau’s death, Einstein is working in his study, puzzling over a mathematical problem, when there’s a knock on his apartment door. The 43-year-old physicist stands up slowly, his shaggy eyebrows knitted in concentration. Einstein mutters to himself as he crosses the apartment. Only when he opens the door to find two policemen standing there, does Einstein momentarily set aside his calculations.

Frowning, he says: “Good afternoon, officers", and asks what the matter might be.

One of the policemen, the younger of the two, seems genuinely excited to be meeting Einstein. When his General Theory of Relativity was proven correct in 1919, Einstein was catapulted into international fame. His theories about the essential nature of the universe were beyond comprehension for most people, but they made headlines across the globe and captured the public’s imagination.

But Einstein’s popularity is not universal. Due to the rise of anti-semitism in post-war Germany, the fact that Einstein is Jewish has made him an enemy of the nationalist far right. His opponents dismiss Einstein’s theories as “Jewish science”, and his name has been included on hit lists drawn up by terrorist groups. And that’s why these police officers have come calling: to warn Einstein that his life could be in danger.

Quickly, Einstein and his wife, Elsa, pack up their things and leave Berlin under the cover of darkness. They rent an apartment in the port city of Kiel, where they remain for several months.  From here, Einstein continues formulating his latest theories, trying to distract himself from the worrying political situation by throwing himself into his work.

And it’s not long before Germany’s turmoil seems to settle down. As the government cracks down on terrorist groups like the OC, Einstein deems it safe to come out of hiding. And his life, more or less, goes back to normal.

But in December of that year, Einstein has a breakthrough and wins the Nobel Prize in physics. If his celebrity status wasn’t already assured, it certainly is now. And over the next few years, Einstein embraces the glamorous lifestyle of the world’s pre-eminent genius, traveling the world and giving guest lectures in Palestine, Japan, and Brazil.

In 1930, he travels to the United States to spend two months as a research fellow at the California Institute of Technology. When his steamship docks in New York Harbor, Einstein is given a hero’s welcome by thousands of handkerchief-waving fans. Once in America, Einstein quickly warms to the country. In an essay entitled “My First Impression of the USA”, the physicist writes: “What strikes a visitor is the joyous, positive attitude to life... The American is friendly, self-confident, optimistic, and without envy.”

And maybe one reason why, even though he retains his professorship at the University of Berlin, that Einstein spends more and more time in the States. He becomes a visiting professor at Caltech and Princeton. But despite his fondness for the US, Einstein refuses to abandon Germany and insists on Berlin remaining his home.

Soon, however, forces outside Einstein’s control will cast a frightening shadow over the future of Europe. As Adolf Hitler comes to power, he will bring with him a determination to rid Germany of its Jewish population and will turn the greatest scientist of the 20th century into a refugee.

Act Two: Escape to England

It’s March 1933, seven months before Albert Einstein immigrates to the United States.

Einstein stands on the deck of a ship as it cuts through the North Sea, his unkempt mane of white hair tousled by the wind. He’s sailing back to Europe from America, where he recently completed a research fellowship at the California Institute of Technology. But the 54-year-old physicist’s brow is furrowed with concern at thoughts of his homeland.

Over the last few months, the political situation in Germany has escalated rapidly. Germany has deteriorated. Two months ago, Adolf Hitler was appointed German Chancellor. He quickly passed legislation to consolidate his power and turn Germany into a dictatorship. Throughout Hitler’s rise, Einstein remained optimistic that Nazism was a temporary symptom of Germany’s economic plight, and that Hitler and his ideology would fade away as soon as the economy recovered. But when Hitler became Chancellor, Einstein had to admit he was wrong. Nazism had taken root in Germany and it was not going away.

Now, Einstein and his wife Elsa are on their way back to Berlin, but only to collect their belongings before leaving for good.

As Einstein looks out at the sea, he feels a hand on his shoulder. He turns to see Elsa’s face, streaked with tears. She tells him that she has just received news that their Berlin apartment has been ransacked by the Gestapo, the Nazi secret police. Apparently, Einstein’s name has also appeared in a Nazi pamphlet alongside the ominous words: “NOT YET HANGED.”

It dawns on Einstein that by returning to Berlin, he will be walking into a potential death trap. So when the ship docks in the Belgian city of Antwerp, Einstein, and Elsa don’t continue on their homeward journey. Instead, they go straight to the German consulate, where they surrender their passports and renounce their German citizenship.

Then Einstein and Elsa rent a cottage while they contemplate their next move.

Back in Germany, the situation is getting worse every day. Books by Jewish intellectuals are being rounded up and burned. Jewish academics are being fired from universities. A reward is even offered for Einstein’s capture – $5,000 dead or alive.

Fortunately, as a world-renowned physicist, Einstein has no shortage of options. Any university in the world would welcome him onto their faculty. But for Einstein, the choice is clear. He has already accepted a part-time research position at the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton, New Jersey. Einstein is confident that his colleagues there will gladly make the job permanent.

First, though, he needs to escape Europe. Now that there’s a price on his head, Einstein fears it’s only a matter of time before the Gestapo shows up in Belgium and brings him back to Germany to be made an example of. So soon, Einstein establishes contact with a British charity dedicated to helping academics escape Nazi persecution. The so-called Academic Assistance Council provides Einstein with a boat to smuggle him and his wife out of Europe and across the channel into England.

As Einstein stands on the deck of that small skiff, he watches the hazy outline of Belgium’s northern shores recede into the mist. A lump forms in his throat and his Einstein's eyes fill with tears. He wonders if he will ever return to mainland Europe, and if he does, what kind of Europe he will be coming back to.

When the boat reaches English shores, Einstein is transported to London. There, he is greeted by a British politician named Commander Oliver Locker-Lampson. The commander offers to provide Einstein with accommodation and protection. And Einstein spends the next six weeks in the Commander’s hunting cabin in the Norfolk countryside, but all the while, he is making arrangements to sail back across the Atlantic to America.

Soon, Einstein has arranged for himself and Elsa to travel to America in October. But before leaving, he feels a responsibility to share his fears about the looming crisis in Europe. A staunch pacifist, Einstein believes that Hitler’s militant nationalism will set Europe on a path of destruction, and he feels duty-bound to speak out.

On October 3rd, Einstein delivers a speech in the Royal Albert Hall in London. He stands before a packed auditorium and declares: “If we want to resist the powers which threaten to suppress intellectual and individual freedom, we must keep clearly before us what is at stake, and what we owe to that freedom which our ancestors have won for us after hard struggles.” Einstein’s words are met with a standing ovation.

Days later, Einstein and Elsa board an ocean liner and embark for America. On October 17th, after a two-week voyage, the New York skyline appears on the horizon. Like millions of migrants before him, Einstein’s spirits soar at the sight of the Statue of Liberty, guiding their ship into port.

As Einstein settles down in Princeton, he will begin enjoying a quiet comfortable life in academia. But soon, his peaceful routine will be disrupted by a daunting proposal that will force Einstein to choose between his personal values and the national security of the country he now calls home.

Act Three: Life in America

It’s a warm July evening in 1939 in Princeton, New Jersey; six years after Einstein’s arrival in America.

Albert Einstein is at home when the doorbell rings. He opens the door to find two fellow scientists, Leo Szilard and Eugene Wigner, standing on the stoop. Einstein’s face breaks into a wide smile.

He knows these men from their time together as young academics living in Berlin. Like Einstein, Leo and Eugene fled Germany when Hitler came to power. Then Einstein tells his old friends what a pleasant surprise it is to see them and invites them both inside. That’s when Einstein notices the look of grave urgency on his visitors’ faces. Clearly, this is not a social call.

Once the three men are seated in Einstein’s cozy, cluttered living room, Leo explains that they’re here to notify Einstein of an alarming development in physics. Earlier this year, scientists in Nazi Germany discovered that by splitting apart a uranium atom, they could produce a huge amount of energy - a process known as “nuclear fission.”

When Leo heard that the Germans had discovered this process, he was worried. Leo realized that a chain reaction of split uranium atoms could create enough energy to become the most powerful bomb known to mankind. And if such a bomb ended up in the hands of the Nazis, the world could find itself facing totalitarian domination. 

Einstein nods slowly. He understands the gravity of the situation. But he doesn’t understand what this has to do with him. Leo and Eugene exchange a glance. Then Eugene explains that they want to write a letter to President Franklin D. Roosevelt, warning of the potential danger of nuclear energy, and advising the President to start building an atomic weapon here in the United States.

Einstein knows where this is going. Leo and Eugene want him to sign their letter. Einstein is regarded as the most brilliant scientist of the age. And if the President is going to listen to anybody, it would be him.

But it’s not a straightforward decision. Einstein remains a committed pacifist. To endorse America’s pursuit of an atomic weapon would be a betrayal of his most fundamental principles. Then again, if the Nazis acquired a nuclear weapon before America, the consequences could be far worse…

Ultimately, Einstein signs the letter, deciding that it is in the best interests of humanity. The letter soon arrives on President Roosevelt’s desk, kickstarting America’s efforts to develop and build an atomic bomb – a program that will become known as the Manhattan Project.

Throughout his life, Albert Einstein was committed to expanding humanity’s understanding of the world. With his involvement in the Manhattan Project, Einstein will fear he might have helped further mankind’s capacity to destroy it. But although he will later express regrets about his involvement in America's atomic program, it seems fitting that one of the most important scientists of the 20th century was at the forefront of one of the most significant scientific developments of the age - an occurrence made possible by Albert Einstein’s immigration to America on October 17th, 1933.


Next onHistory Daily.October 18th, 1867: The U.S. formally takes possession of Alaska after purchasing the territory from Russia.

From Noiser and Airship, this is History Daily, hosted, edited, and executive produced by me, Lindsay Graham.

Audio editing by Mollie Baack.

Sound design by Derek Behrens.

Music by Lindsay Graham.

This episode is written and researched by Joe Viner.

Produced by Alexandra Currie-Buckner.

Executive Producers are Steven Walters for Airship, and Pascal Hughes for Noiser.