In contemporary society, we may believe Albert Einstein was always a beloved, respected and revered adopted son of the United States.
As the NatGeo bioseries “Genius” notes, Einstein actually struggled to make his way from Nazi Germany to the United States, encountering several obstacles.
In the episode that premiered this week, the series shifted from focusing primarily on Einstein’s personal and professional life and took a deep dive into the political environment of the pre-World War II era. (The episode was especially poignant, given recent, renewed attacks on the credibility of “The Diary of Anne Frank” by online Holocaust-deniers.)
Einstein, who had previously been adamantly opposed to fleeing Germany, eventually realized the danger of staying. An internationally renowned physicist, it finally dawned on him his fame didn’t protect him; it made him a target.
We might assume the United States would give a scientist of Einstein’s stature warm welcome. Not so. J. Edgar Hoover was well aware of Einstein’s outspokenness and believed him to be a subversive and possible communist.
According to “Genius,” these labels — and Hoover — dogged Einstein.
Once in the United States, Einstein was feted as a celebrity, gaining private access to President Franklin D. Roosevelt and offering counsel to various influencers of the day.
However, Einstein’s continued outspokenness and countercultural opinions quickly made him a target. As the final episode of “Genius” will reveal on Tuesday, a series of high profile actions led Einstein to a period of professional exile and near-seclusion.
Of course, he already carried a reputation as a rabble-rousing liberal. Past troubles in Germany hadn’t made him cautious. Nor had his somewhat precarious U.S. immigration status.
He vocally opposed U.S. efforts to build the atomic bomb, especially because his discoveries were credited with its creation. He consciously thumbed his nose at segregationists by accepting an invitation to lecture at an all-black college. And after Julius and Ethel Rosenberg were sentenced to death after being convicted of espionage, he wrote to the judge to ask he give a lighter sentence.
Scandal is not an unexpected byproduct of genius. With talent and ability comes an altered perspective. Perhaps that’s why Einstein was unabashed about being a cultural Jew. He railed against anti-semitism as absurd and illogical, which may have been the minority opinion in those times, according to several historians.
Einstein’s different views also made him a scientific innovator. “New” will always court criticism. The same goes for bucking traditions and cultural mores.
Thus, the reality is “Genius” may serve as a good reminder we always live in interesting and disruptive social, religious and political times.
In the abstract, we hold warm feelings of a fluffy-haired icon who talked about nature and wormholes. Up close, Einstein is difficult and challenging, even 60-plus years after his death. The TV series hints Einstein’s true genius may have been his ability to fully be himself.