You could describe Albert Einstein’s relationship with Ulm as reserved but polite. Which is not very surprising: as is well known, Einstein only lived here for 15 months and had no memory of his time in Ulm. Reserved too, because he generally did not make much of worldly honours. When the Ulm sent him the "Felicitations of the City" in 1920 – two years before he was awarded the Nobel Prize – Einstein responded in a thank-you letter, praising Ulm’s "successful and benevolent land policy", which is seen as "exemplary nationally and internationally".
So the first interaction between the city and its most famous son "did not go badly". The Nobel Prize winner also reacted well and with characteristic humour when Ulm wrote on the occasion of his 50th birthday, informing him that one of Ulm’s streets had been named after him: "I have already heard about the street named after me. My consoling thought is that I'm not responsible for what happens in it".
Nazi seizure of power in 1933 – everything changes
This polite, if rather superficial interaction, came to an abrupt end in 1933. The National Socialists seized power in Germany. The Jewish Albert Einstein had already warned of these fascistic leanings and chose not to return from a lecture tour of the USA, where he had been teaching at Princeton for three months a year since 1930. He published the following declaration in March 1933:
"As long as I have the opportunity, I will only reside in a country ruled by political freedom, tolerance and equality of all citizens before the law. Political freedom means the freedom to express political opinion in spoken and written words. Tolerance means respecting all forms of an individual’s opinion.
These conditions are not met in Germany at present. People who have contributed a great deal to fostering international relations, some of them leading artists, are being persecuted there. Like every individual, the social organism can suffer from psychological illness, especially in difficult times. Nations tend to survive such an illness. I hope that healthy conditions will soon prevail in Germany and that great men like Kant and Goethe will not only be celebrated from time to time, but that the principles they taught will also find their way into public life and public consciousness."
The Nazi rulers in Ulm reacted: Einsteinstraße was renamed "Fichtestraße" the very same month. Albert Einstein was stripped of his German citizenship the following year.
While the conflict between Einstein and his birthplace was more or less restricted to political issues at first, the problems faced by the Jews in Germany became more existential over the next few years. The boycott of Jewish businesses began in 1933, followed by the "Nuremberg Laws" (race laws) in 1935 and the "Kristallnacht" pogrom night in 1938. The unimaginable horror to which these developments would ultimately lead, the Holocaust, was not apparent to all those affected at the time, however. And yet, a large number of Einstein’s relatives in Ulm did turn to him in the years preceding the outbreak of World War II asking for help. Einstein did what he could, supplying immigration sponsorships and letters of recommendation, which helped many family members to leave Germany safely before the catastrophe began. For Lina Einstein, Bertha Hofheimer, Marie Wessel, Hugo Moos and Julius Moos – all cousins of Albert Einstein – there was no salvation, however. They were murdered by the Nazis.
The post-war period – attempted rapprochement
The streets were renamed shortly after the end of the War, in July 1945, in an attempt to erase the legacy of National Socialism from the city. Fichtestraße once more became Einsteinstraße. Einstein is said to have heard of this a year later, remarking in jest: "They should pick a neutral name like 'weather vane street' – that would better suit the political nature of the Germans and would not need to be changed over the course of time".
Ulm’s city governments made repeated attempts to improve relations with Albert Einstein over the following years. Was this to compensate for guilt? Perhaps a subconscious desire for absolution? Or was it an honest attempt finally to do the right thing again after 12 years of incomprehensible crimes? It was probably a combination of all these conceivable reasons. From today’s perspective it may seem surprising that Einstein was willing to resume communication with the city so soon after the Holocaust. But he did. He always responded to the birthday wishes the city sent each year. He did refuse to accept honorary citizenship though, referring to the crimes committed by the Nazis against his fellow Jews. However, he did this in a personal, confidential letter to the Lord Mayor, sparing Ulm’s leaders a public rebuke.
When he wrote to thank the then Lord Mayor Theodor Pfizer for sending him a brochure about the city’s celebrations for his 70th birthday, he struck a tentatively conciliatory tone: "We are living in a time of tragic and bewildering events, which makes it twice as nice to see any sign of human kindness".
It is also true that Einstein never returned to Ulm though. It is not hard to understand why.
Today – Einstein’s traces in Ulm
Ulm has not forgotten Albert Einstein. Public buildings, memorials and pieces of art tell his story at multiple locations around the city.
The EinsteinHaus, for example – home to the Ulmer Volkshochschule (adult education centre). Einstein’s advocacy for individual independence and world peace, his humanity and scientific achievements exemplify the spirit of the education centre. There has been an exhibition on the first floor with pictures depicting Einstein’s life since the EinsteinHaus opened in 1968.
Max Bill – founding director of the Ulm School of Design (HfG) – also worked to preserve the memory of the great physicist. The monument he designed can be found close to the house in which Einstein was born. The twelve vertical stones symbolise the hours of daytime, while the twelve horizontal stones represent the hours of the night.
Other memorials to Einstein in Ulm include the fountain at the Zeughaus (armoury), the Einstein plaque and the stained glass window in the Minster.
But is the picture complete? Is it enough for someone of such historical importance as Albert Einstein? Ulm has actually found it difficult to do justice to its most famous son. But is that surprising? How are we to honour the legacy of a significant figure of contemporary history without running the risk of glorifying ourselves? We always talk about “only” 15 months that the brilliant physicist spent in Ulm. To what extent is Albert Einstein from Ulm?
People in Bern, where Einstein once worked, have had to ask themselves similar questions. Likewise the people in charge of Princeton University, where he taught, and those of Hebrew University in Jerusalem, who administer his estate. They have all found an answer in their own way. And Ulm will find this answer too. Perhaps with an Albert Einstein museum like England, where Einstein’s grandmother Helen lived.
Whatever the answer turns out to be: the legacy of the man who explained the relationship between space and time is not tied to a specific place or city! His legacy is found in people’s minds.
And yet Ulm has an obligation. This is where he was born. This is where his family lived. We must tell his story. So that many generations to come after us may appreciate it. In Ulm – the place where it all began on 14th March 1879.