A spacetime interval 

A spacetime interval 

By Michael D. Gordin

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Einstein has become a symbol for many, a monument people have built, a symbol that they need for their own comfort.1—Leopold Infeld

Albert Einstein is dead. Bohemia, too, no longer exists. They have ascended to the realm of myths and legends, become words to conjure with—yet they are not, in general, invoked together. Legends have their own structure and rhythm, their own dominion over portions of our vast cultural landscape, and these two resonate with different groups, adding distinctly separate auras of fascination to anything they brush up against. 

For 16 months, from early April 1911 to late July 1912, Albert Einstein lived in Prague. Many people, including fans of Einstein lore or devotees of Prague’s unquestionable charm, skip over this fact. It was, after all, such a short time, and quite early in the physicist’s career too. Einstein was only 32 years old when he arrived in the city, and there was no hint of the international celebrity he would later attain. If you turn to just about any biography of Einstein, the Prague year (and a quarter) is handled with streamlined efficiency. How relevant could 16 months be? Historians have dismissed it as an “interlude,” a “sojourn” (sometimes a “brief” one), a “detour,” a “way station,” and, most frequently, with Italianesque brio, an “intermezzo.”2 

We should not be so hasty. For many historical icons whom we associate very specifically with the central places in their biographies, a closer look reveals that a short period spent in an unexpected locale early in their lives transformed their worldviews—and they in turn transformed our world. James Joyce is almost inseparable from the Dublin he immortalized in his fiction or the Paris where he lived and wrote in his prime, but from 1904 to 1915 he lived on and off in Trieste, then a Habsburg port city, and the impact that these periods had on him is unquestionable. Mohandas Gandhi transformed India using the political techniques he had developed as a lawyer in South Africa, yet his few years studying for the bar in London in the late 1880s profoundly structured his vision of the British Empire and his sense of India. Mary Wollstonecraft, English philosopher and apostle of women’s rights, was deeply marked by her unexpected firsthand view, in the early 1790s, of the bloody Terror in Paris. The examples multiply dramatically when we come to the massive displacements caused by the Russian Revolution, the Great Depression, and the rise of Hitler’s regime. Einstein would be exiled by the last of these as well; Prague was an earlier, less noticed, displacement. 

That Prague would figure into a tale of European history such as Einstein’s has been rarely remarked but in retrospect seems almost overdetermined. Once you start to look for it, Prague shows up as an important node in a surprisingly large number of transits across the past millennium. It was a major political center north of the Alps in the high Middle Ages, where it incubated a crucial reform movement within the Catholic Church that would continue to reverberate, often violently, through the Protestant Reformation and beyond. The Thirty Years’ War (1618–1648), a brutal conflict that left Central Europe devastated, began in Prague with the tossing of two emissaries out of a window (the second of three famous “defenestrations” to occur in the city). A flashpoint of nationalist mobilization in the middle of the nineteenth century, by the dawn of the next it had become one of the most brilliant centers of literature, painting, and architecture, a rival to Paris and Vienna. Subsequently, the city’s history turned much darker. The Munich negotations that enabled Adolf Hitler to expand his territory and his war machine held the fate of Prague and Bohemia in the balance; after the carnage of the Second World War (which left the architectural heart of the city mostly intact), the Communist coup in 1948 again catapulted Prague to the world’s attention. Less of a Cold War flashpoint than Berlin, Prague nonetheless grabbed the headlines twice: in 1968, when the Soviet-led invasion ended its eponymous Spring, and again in 1989, when Wenceslaus Square served as ground zero for the disintegration of European communism. This is the place that, for 16 months before World War I, was Albert Einstein’s home. 

Besides missing out on the intellectual interest of seeing a person simultaneously adapting to and resisting a foreign place, overlooking Einstein’s time in Prague does not make much sense from the physicist’s own point of view. When he moved there from Zurich in 1911, he did not know that he would decamp back to the Swiss city three semesters later. He thought he was moving his family to settle for quite some time. It is only after one knows that the Prague period was (relatively) brief that it can be dismissed as a diversion from the ostensibly “ordinary” trajectory of this extraordinary life. What if we did not read the past through the future, or through Einstein’s own retrospective haze? Let us take his time in Prague the way he initially did: seriously. 

This book takes as its point of departure a particular interval of spacetime—Einstein’s 16 months as a professor of theoretical physics at the German University in Prague—and follows that union of place and duration both forward throughout the twentieth century and backward to the distant centuries that still reverberated in local memory. This is not how most histories are usually written or how we typically analyze lives, but my purpose here is to demonstrate that we should reconsider the customary approach. At each moment of our lives, a plethora of possibilities lies ahead of us: not just possibilities of action, but also possibilities of interpretation. Events do not possess a single meaning the moment they happen; they are refracted and reinterpreted over and over again as the future, by becoming our present, forces the past to cohere into a single, linear narrative. In the pages that follow, I aim to hold open the manifold junctures and points of departure that mark a history for as long as they resist closure, which is rather longer than you might expect. To put things in Einsteinian terms, the spacetime interval eventually becomes a defined worldline, but that does not happen immediately and is only clearly discernible in retrospect. While it is still our present, history remains open; to see how it changes, we can dive into the records of the past and hold diverse meanings up to view in our mind’s eye. We can see the uncertainties implicit in Einstein’s and Prague’s interactions for quite some time before the narrative becomes static. Such lines are worthwhile to trace not merely because Einstein is Einstein and Prague is Prague. 

What does it actually mean to be in a place? We all move here and there at various times during our lives. Some of these locations, overlapping as they do with particular events or moments, assume extraordinary significance for us. We feel that we would be different people if we had not spent one summer out there or moved to that town for three years a few decades ago. We understand that places are important to us without always paying attention to the crucial role that time also plays. When you were there can matter enormously, both because of the historical moment of the place and who you happened to be just when you were there. A place can shape you—and you can shape the place—without you being aware of it. This is as true for people in the past as it is for us. We can follow someone’s path through the scattered traces he or she left behind (letters, mentions in other people’s memoirs, documents maintained by the state, and so on) and look at the ripples these passages propagate through their world, like those triggered by a rock tossed into a pond. 

Einstein could be the rock and Prague the pond—or vice versa if you prefer. We can see the implications of that brief entanglement of place and person, neither of which registered immediately. Because, a few years after he left the city, Einstein happened to become the most famous scientist who ever lived, and because Prague has been for over a millennium a central entrepôt in European cultural and intellectual life, we have a trove of sources with which to reconstruct their witting and unwitting relationships. Even though he was only there for three semesters, Einstein’s time in Prague, the capital of that Bohemia of yore, shaped the science, the literature, and even the politics of that city for decades to come. The same is true in reverse: for the four decades that followed his departure from Bohemia, acquaintances he had made there and ideas that he had been exposed to over a handful of months would continue to occupy him. This does not mean that Einstein’s Prague period was “the year that changed everything,” or even that Einstein recurred to it especially often (whether fondly or not), but rather that if we plant ourselves in 1911–1912 and foray from there across the lives of the city and the man, vast swaths of their histories can suddenly, and often surprisingly, appear connected. Neither Prague nor Einstein looks quite the same again. 

You likely have a mental image of Albert Einstein that bears some resemblance to the historical individual who was born in Ulm, Germany, on 14 March 1879 and died in Princeton, New Jersey, on 18 April 1955. Depending on the context, Einstein is routinely invoked as a genius, a physicist, a pacifist, a sage, and more. Much of what is generally presented as relating to the image of Einstein is exaggerated or even apocryphal, but nonetheless a good deal can be grounded in the actions of a flesh-and-blood figure who lived through and played a significant part in some of the most dramatic, traumatic, and awe-inspiring events of the first half of the twentieth century. 

Bohemia, these days, is something else entirely. The term might not recall anything other than those who have been dubbed “bohemians”: unconventional artsy types, lolling around like libertines in flouncy clothes and shambolic surroundings. (Einstein, famous in his later years for his disregard of sartorial norms, haircuts, and socks, is frequently called “bohemian” in precisely this sense.)3 “Bohemia” might be understood as the imaginary space where these folks converge. That meaning of the term was a nineteenth-century product of London and Paris and has little to do with the actual place originally known by that name.4 The term once referred to a medieval kingdom in Central Europe that later became the far northwestern province of Austria-Hungary.5 When the Habsburg Empire disintegrated in the wake of World War I, Bohemia began to shimmer out of existence, replaced by a designation with which it had once coexisted: Čechy, which is frustratingly plural. Čechy, together with Moravia (Morava), comprise the České země, “the Czech lands”; there is no space for “Bohemia” anymore. A delicate point of translation compounds this confusion: where German makes the distinction between “Czech” (tschechisch), a national identification, and “Bohemian” (böhmisch), a regional designation neutral with regard to nationality, in Czech the word český serves for both. The famous statement by Count J. M. Thun that “I am neither a Czech nor a German, but only a Bohemian” (Ich bin weder Deutscher noch Tschech, ich bin Böhme) is untranslatable into the Czech language.6 Geographically, the land that used to be known as Bohemia came to constitute after World War I the western portion of what was Czechoslovakia and became in 1993 the Czech Republic (or, if you will, Czechia). Although Bohemia as a historically specific term has now vanished in the wake of global conflict, genocide, communism, and the end of the Cold War, one can occasionally find glimpses of it when strolling around its principal city: Prague. 

This essay is an excerpt from Einstein in Bohemia by Michael D. Gordin.


1. Leopold Infeld, Albert Einstein: His Work and Its Influence on Our World (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1950), 125.

2. “Interlude”: Carl Seelig, Albert Einstein: A Documentary Biography, tr. Mervyn Savill (London: Staples Press Limited, 1956), 119; “sojourn”: Anton Reiser [Rudolf Kayser], Albert Einstein: A Biographical Portrait (New York: Albert & Charles Boni, 1930), 87, and Ze’ev Rosenkranz, Einstein Before Israel: Zionist Icon or Iconoclast? (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2011), 33 and 254; “detour”: Albrecht Fölsing, Albert Einstein: A Biography, tr. and abridged Ewald Osers (New York: Penguin Books, 1997 [1993]), 322; “way station”: Jürgen Neffe, Einstein: A Biography, tr. Shelley Frisch (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2007 [2005]), 161; “intermezzo”: Giuseppe Castagnetti et al., Einstein in Berlin: Wissenschaft zwischen Grundlagenkrise und Politik (Berlin: Max-Planck-Institut für Bildungsforschung, [1994]), 10; Dieter Hoffmann, Einsteins Berlin: Auf den Spuren eines Genies (Weinheim: Wiley-VCH, 2006), 2.

3. Arnold Sommerfeld, “Zum Siebzigsten Geburtstag Albert Einsteins,” Deutsche Beiträge 2 (1949): 141–146, on 143; Lewis Pyenson, The Young Einstein: The Advent of Relativity (Bristol: Adam Hilger Ltd., 1985), 61 (although Einstein’s secretary Helen Dukas definitively rejected the idea on p. 64: he was “anything but ‘bohemian,’ ” from a letter of Dukas to Pyenson of 16 September 1974); Fölsing, Albert Einstein, 114; Jean Eisenstaedt, The Curious History of Relativity: How Einstein’s Theory of Gravity Was Lost and Found Again, tr. Arturo Sangalli (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2006 [2003]), 112; Roger Highfield and Paul Carter, The Private Lives of Albert Einstein (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1993), 133.

4. See especially Richard Miller, Bohemia: The Protoculture Then and Now (Chicago: Nelson-Hall, 1977); and Jiří Kořalka, Tschechen im Habsburgerreich und in Europa 1815–1914: Sozialgeschichtliche Zusammenhänge der neuzeitlichen Nationsbildung und der Nationalitätenfrage in den böhmischen Ländern (Vienna: Verlag für Geschichte und Politik, 1991), 62.

5. Starting in the ninth century foreign sources began to refer to the region using a variety of names: Beheim, Bohemia, Beimi, Boemani, and Beheimare. The term is derived from the name of a Celtic tribe, the Boii, who were the last occupants of the region in the pre-Christian era, during the Roman Empire. They did not last long. At the end of the fifth century the Germanic Langobards moved in, followed in the sixth century by the Slavis (Sklavinoi in the west and Antoi in the east), the ancestors of the Slavs who presently dominate the area. Jiří Sláma, “Boiohaemum-Čechy,” in Mikuláš Teich, ed., Bohemia in History (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1998), 23–38.

6. Thun quoted in Stanley Z. Pech, The Czech Revolution of 1848 (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1969), 30. For more on the adjectival distinction, see Tilman Berger, “Böhmisch oder Tschechisch?: Der Streit über die adequate Benennung der Landessprache der böhmischen Länder zu Anfang des 20. Jahrhunderts,” in Marek Nekula, Ingrid Fleischmann, and Albrecht Greule, eds., Franz Kafka im sprachnationalen Kontext seiner Zeit: Sprache und nationale Identität in öffentlichen Institutionen der böhmischen Länder (Köln: Böhlau, 2007), 167–182.

About the Author

Michael D. Gordin is the Rosengarten Professor of Modern and Contemporary History at Princeton University. His books include A Well-Ordered Thing: Dmitrii Mendeleev and the Shadow of the Periodic Table and Five Days in August: How World War II Became a Nuclear War (both Princeton). He lives in Princeton, New Jersey. Twitter @GordinMichael