When we think of Albert Einstein, we associate him most with Germany, Switzerland, and the United States—less often with Britain. Yet Britain is the country that launched Einstein as a worldwide phenomenon, and Einstein’s British relationship flourished for over half a century.
From the 1890s, Einstein said, British theoretical and experimental physics sparked his scientific development in Switzerland. In 1919, British astronomers confirmed his general theory of relativity published in wartime Germany, which made Einstein internationally famous. And in 1955, Britain gave rise to his most enduring political statement: the Russell-Einstein Manifesto against nuclear weapons, initiated by Bertrand Russell—the last document Einstein signed before his death in the U.S.
Less well known is that Britain saved Einstein from likely assassination by Nazi extremists in 1933. During the course of that year, Einstein hid away alone in an isolated British holiday hut in rural Norfolk, under armed guard by locals led by Commander Oliver Locker-Lampson, an upper-class landowner who was a decorated First World War veteran and Conservative member of Parliament.
While researching this bizarre episode for my book Einstein on the Run: How Britain Saved the World’s Greatest Scientist, I encountered a surprising fact: Einstein’s two hosts in Britain in 1933 were decidedly right-wing English figures, not leftists like Russell, as might have been expected given Einstein’s militant pacifism and socialist sympathies pre-1933 and post-1945 (when the F.B.I. suspected Einstein of being a Communist sympathizer).
Locker-Lampson was a well-known anti-Communist who fought for the Russian czar, and an open admirer of Adolf Hitler until the Nazis began to persecute the Jews. In 1930, Locker-Lampson published a highly laudatory article, “Adolf Hitler As I Know Him,” in a right-wing British national newspaper, calling Hitler “a legendary hero.”
Frederick Lindemann (later Lord Cherwell), Einstein’s other host, was an Oxford physicist who had invited Einstein to the university; although not sympathetic to Nazism, Lindemann was “an out-and-out inequalitarian who believed in hierarchy, order, a ruling class, inherited wealth, hereditary titles, and white supremacy,” according to his colleague Lord Robert Blake in the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography.
Einstein’s two hosts in Britain in 1933 were decidedly right-wing English figures.
Both Locker-Lampson and Lindemann were close to Winston Churchill. In 1933 they attended Einstein’s first (and only) meeting with Churchill, arranged by Locker-Lampson, where both Einstein and Churchill favored an armed response to Nazi militarism. Churchill “is an eminently wise man, and it became quite clear to me that these people have planned well ahead and will act soon,” Einstein informed his wife after the meeting; Lindemann was “untiring,” while Locker-Lampson was “touching,” and “seems to have no egoistical motives for his undertaking—a black swan.”
What attracted Einstein to these three Conservative figures? First and foremost was their anti-Nazism and sympathy for Jewish refugees. However, nearly as important were two other feelings: one intellectual, the other emotional. With Lindemann, Einstein shared a lifelong belief in academic elitism—that only the most intellectually distinguished German-Jewish refugee physicists should be invited to join Oxford’s physics faculty, regardless of the refugees’ personal peril. With Locker-Lampson, Einstein shared some of the commander’s can-do, gung-ho personality. Locker-Lampson’s extremism and impulsiveness, as expressed in his urge to cock a snook at Hitler by giving Einstein refuge, inspired Einstein. (Hitler eventually attacked Locker-Lampson as “a Jew and a communist”!) It chimed with Einstein’s well-known childhood and adult aversion for authority, especially Prussianism in Germany. As he paradoxically joked to a friend around this time: “To punish me for my contempt of authority, Fate has made me an authority myself.”
Andrew Robinson is the author of more than 25 books. His latest, Einstein on the Run, is out now from Yale University Press