1897 - 1955

Albert Einstein German, Swiss and American?   

Einstein Archives, Hebrew University of Jerusalem

“... I shall become a Swiss Jew for the Germans and  a  German man of science for the English”...

"By an application of the theory of relativity to the taste of readers, today in Germany I am called a German man of science, and in England I am represented as a Swiss Jew. If I come to be represented as a bête noire , the descriptions will be reversed and I shall become a Swiss Jew for the Germans and a German man of science for the  English.”

From an essay on the Theory of Relativity, November 1919

As a son of a citizen of the Kingdom of Württemberg, Albert Einstein, born in Ulm in 1879, was a citizen of the German Empire by birth.

Birth certificate, 

Ulm, March 15, 1879

In 1894, the electrical engineering firm, J. Einstein & Co., located in Munich since 1880, turns bankrupt and Albert’s parents move to Italy. 

A few months later, the 16-year-old Albert follows his parents. He does not wish to return to Germany. However, he would have been accused of desertion if he had not reported for conscription by the age of 17. Therefore, he renounces his German citizenship and is exempt as of January 1896.

“Die mit Bericht vom 23. d. Mts. vorgelegten Acten, betreffend den Antrag des Kaufmanns Hermann Einstein in Pavia auf Entlassung seines Sohnes Albert Einstein aus der Württ. Staatsangehörigkeit...“

Release from German citizenship, January 28, 1896


Albert’s political views coincide with the spirit of the Swiss democratic constitution. 

In 1899, still a student in Zurich, he applies for a Swiss citizenship.

Two years later, once Einstein's „as far as it is known, ... unblemished reputation” has been attested by the police and he paid the legal fee of 600 Swiss francs, the “zealous, diligent und highly respectable” young man is naturalized as a Swiss citizen.

“To Mr. Albert Einstein, mathematician, of Ulm, Württemberg … the citizenship of the Canton of Zürich … is granted upon condition that within a month he provides proof of the payment of the admittance taxes in the sum of 400 Francs (community)  and 200 Francs (canton) …”

From the minutes of the governing council, February 7, 1901

Early in 1911, Einstein is appointed at the German University of Prague. Such an appointment is “contingent on the acquisition of Austrian citizenship” and thus, Einstein is requested to “take, without delay, the necessary steps to obtain the release from [his] present citizenship”. 

However, while it is confirmed that, with a delay of one semester and dressed in a most picturesque uniform, Einstein took the solemn oath of office, the process of naturalization is not finalized before Einstein leaves Prague for Zurich in 1912. 

Thus he remains a Swiss citizen  and never became a subject of the Austrian Empire.

Einstein‘s appointment at his alma mater, the „Eidgenössische Polytechnikum“ in Zurich, now renamed « Eidgenössische Technische Hochschule», was basically a cameo.

Already in spring of 1913 two colleagues arrive from Berlin to recruit the promising young scientist for the Prussian Academy of Sciences. Their offer is too tempting for Einstein to ignore. 

But he attaches a condition to his consent: he demands to keep his Swiss citizenship.

For the time being, there is no reason to doubt that the German Emperor had complied with Einstein’s request. 

When, soon after his move to Berlin, war breaks out, Einstein, though still of draft age, is not conscripted.

To his friend Paul Ehrenfest, August 19, 1914: 

“...I am musing serenely along in my peaceful meditations and feel only a mixture of pity and disgust.”

Repeatedly, official documents indicate that Einstein is a Swiss citizen. That is the case, for example, in the correspondence leading to Einstein’s election as a member of the board of trustees of the Physikalisch-Technische Reichsanstalt in 1916; and it is the case as well, when the registry office complains to Einstein’s employer, the Academy of Sciences, about this foreigner who does not unregister as required whenever he travels.

“The Swiss citizen, Dr. Albert Einstein, … repeatedly took trips without notifying the police…”

The Registry Office to the Academy of Sciences, 

March 8, 1916

Einstein has good reason to believe that indeed nothing has changed with his national affiliation and that his “engagement is of a thoroughly unique nature and does not fall under any government-position category”. 

Time and time again, he, also, stresses that he is a Swiss citizen. His alien status is not only respected during these years, but it is in fact welcomed as a justification for not withdrawing the physicist from his research. 

Einstein is expected to enhance Germany’s prestige, its glory, and so he does. 

Here appears a picture of the famous guest-lecturer from the east of the Rhine on the title page of the April 1st, 1922 issue of the  French magazine L'ILLUSTRATION.

All those years, Einstein travels on his Swiss passport, he pays the military service exemption tax to the Swiss Army, and, like every foreigner, is obliged to renew his residence permit in Germany on a regular basis.  

In April 1922, in order to limit the repeated correspondence and the related costs, the German Foreign Office suggests that the Swiss Embassy would apply for a permanent visa on behalf of Einstein.

“…since in view of the frequent trips Prof Einstein undertakes for the benefit of Science, it would bring him considerable relief and save money…”

 Einstein’s secretary, Ilse Einstein, to the Swiss Embassy, 21.4.1922

Even in the eyes of the German authorities, this „German professor“, now often on the road and re-establishing contact with his colleagues in countries that were until recently considered „enemy territory“, is undoubtedly a Swiss citizen.

In a letter to his superiors, the German ambassador, Constantin von Neurath, quotes from a Copenhagen newspaper: „Although a Swiss subject by birth and supposedly of Jewish origin, Einstein’s work is nevertheless an integral part of German research“. 

Von Neurath uses this flawed statement with good reason: The  Swiss Jew whom he would rather disregard, unfortunately proves to be one of the few “Germans” welcome abroad. 

On April 26, 1920, for example, Albert Einstein was nominated member of the  Royal Danish Academy of Sciences and Letters.

The more appreciated Einstein becomes abroad, the greater Germany’s desire to claim him as one of their own. 

In March 1922, about three years after the defeat in WWI, the Foreign Office creates a file labeled „Professor Einstein’s lectures abroad“ , in order to document the extent to which Einstein contributes to the rehabilitation of Germany's reputation, at least in the realm of the sciences.


This happens just in time to record Einstein’s trip to Paris, which represents an important breakthrough in the postwar rapprochement between the German and French scientific communities.

Yet while the newspapers report “This German conquered Paris”, Einstein himself, travelling on his Swiss passport, to the disappointment of the German officials, does not show any inclination to act as a representative of the German government.

At the end of November 1922 – just a few days after Einstein was awarded the Nobel Prize in Physics  – the question of Einstein’s national affiliation arises with unexpected urgency. 

Travelling in Japan, the laureate is unable to receive the award in person, on 10 December 1922, in Stockholm. 

Who will be the official representative to attend in his stead?

What no one dared question back in April, is now forgotten. Einstein’s national affiliation had become a matter of interpretation: „ .. as a scientific personality and as a researcher – in this position he was awarded the Nobel Prize – Professor Einstein definitely belongs to the German Reich.” 

The representative of the Prussian Ministry of Science, Art and Culture is convinced that even Einstein himself would find it hard to understand that he is not treated as a German in the context of an event of such importance for the German scientific community.

Unambiguously and explicitly, the representative of the Prussian Academy of Sciences - against his better judgment – spells it out : "Einstein is a citizen of the German Reich.”

Thus, on 10 December 1922, the German ambassador, Rudolf Nadolny, participates, on behalf of Albert Einstein, at the awards ceremony and at the gala dinner.

Already the following day this proves to be a hasty and now embarrassing decision. There is no evidence either for Einstein being re-naturalized  in or after 1914, or wishing  to be considered a German citizen.

Nadolny, a smart diplomat, approaches his superiors requesting to keep silent about this lapse and advises to make every possible effort to turn this prematurely presented reality into a fact.

After all those years, during which Einstein’s alien status was quite convenient to the German officials, they now must adopt a new attitude. With juridical ingenuity, they fabricate a seemingly irrefutable, retroactive legal justification for their current point of view:

As a professional in Prussian public service, on the basis of the decree of May 4, 1920 – namely a “regular full-time member of the Prussian Academy of Sciences” -  Einstein was sworn into office; first on the constitution of the German Empire on July 1st,1920, then on the Prussian Constitution on March 15, 1921.  By implication, Einstein must be considered a state official. 

As only citizens of the Reich can become state officials, he must be a ”Reichsdeutscher“. 

While his Swiss citizenship would not be affected, the German authorities were now determined to treat Einstein as a German subject.

In 1923, together with the dramatist Gerhart Hauptmann and Max Liebermann, the painter, Einstein is awarded Prussia’s most distinguished order of merit, the Pour le Mérite for Sciences and Arts.

Back from his months-long voyage to the Far East, in March 1923, Einstein is confronted with the line of reasoning which the Prussian officialdom recently developed. But he refuses to be outwitted. 

In his letter of March 24, 1923, to the Prussian Academy of Sciences, he refers to the condition on which he agreed to accept the appointment in 1913. He is convinced that his personnel file gives proof of this arrangement.

Accordingly, he informs the Nobel Foundation and requests that the diploma and the medal be delivered to him by the Swiss delegate.

The decision not to entrust with this task the Swiss delegate but the Swedish one, as announced by the managing director of the Foundation, Henrik Sederholm, in his letter of April 11, 1923, could have been a diplomatic dodge.

In June 1923, in an animated discussion at the Ministry of Science, Art and Culture, Einstein presents his point of view.

It will take more than half a year before he is ready to accept the legal opinion of the German authorities. And even that he does with explicit reservations. 

On February 7, 1924, the conflict comes to a close with Einstein’s smart letter to his employer, the Prussian Academy of Sciences:

“The question has been raised at the Academy whether in addition to my Swiss citizenship I also claim rights to Prussian citizenship. At the Academy’s prompting I had a discussion with Dr. von Rottenburg at the Ministry of Culture about this. He resolutely held the view that my engagement by the Academy was connected with legal acquisition of Prussian citizenship, as no grounds for a contrary interpretation can be drawn from the files. I raise no objection to this interpretation.”

So, from February 7, 1924 he is also a German citizen. 

Or has he been a German citizen already since the founding of the Weimar Republic? 

Or does his German citizenship possibly date back to when he assumed office at the Academy in 1914?  

In one sense, the new status may work to his advantage. No longer will he have to apply and pay for a visa in Germany. 

But he continues to cross the border to Austria, to the Netherlands and to Switzerland on his Swiss passport.

That changes in 1925. 

For Switzerland never got over the Nobel Prize „defeat“ and holds Einstein responsible for the blunder made by the German authorities.  

While the Swiss consulate readily renews his regular Swiss passport, special concessions are out of the question. Thus his request for a diplomatic passport is turned down, although in light of his frequent trips abroad, not least in his position as a member of the Commission for Intellectual Cooperation of the League of Nations, such good will might have been even in Switzerland’s best interest.

The German Foreign Office willingly fills the gap. In any way possible, the Foreign Minister wishes to accommodate the scientist, who proves so beneficial to German prestige. 

Two weeks after an informal talk with Ministerialdirektor Kruess, the same official who in December 1922 had already suggested that Einstein should be treated as a German citizen,  Einstein is given some gratifying news.

Two weeks pass by and Einstein's German diplomatic passport is ready, just in time for his trip to Argentina, Uruguay and Brazil  in March of 1925.

“To my great joy, I am able to forward herewith, as promised, the diplomatic passport for your trip to Latin America, including the Argentinian visa.”

The original letter of February 5, 1925 may have been personally signed by the Foreign Minister, Gustav Stresemann.

In 1930 and 1931, on his second and third trips to the United States, Einstein again travels on a German diplomatic passport . He uses the same passport in summer of 1932 when he hides for several weeks from the fascist persecutors in Belgium.

‘An Albanian passport  which did not belong to Albert Einstein’

On his last trip to Pasadena, in December of 1932, Albert Einstein travels as a Swiss citizen.

Three months later, on his way back to Europe in March 1933, he makes the decision to resign from his Berlin position.  

Since the German citizenship had been tied to his position at the Academy of Sciences, it is his understanding that his resignation would also entail the loss of the latter.  

In order to be on the safe side, immediately after his arrival in Antwerp, on March 28, 1933, he approaches the German embassy in Brussels, to receive instructions about how to relinquish the German citizenship:  

“I am a Swiss citizen, however, due to an appointment by the Prussian Academy of Sciences, also a Prussian national. This position I vacated by letter. What steps do I have to make to resign from Prussian citizenship?”

This proves to be more complicated than expected. 

Though the Prussian district office in charge promptly confirms that Einstein duly paid his taxes, which is obviously the only condition required for the requested release, the new German government does not want to tacitly let go the enemy of the state.

For the time being, one rather intends to humiliate and decry the “Silly Fool”, and eventually fire him with pomp and circumstance.

“The manservant at the German legation at Brussels was ordered to cure a loitering Asian of the delusion of being a Prussian citizen.”

This happens on April 24, 1934, and is officially announced  five days later. 

From April 29, 1934, Einstein ceases to be a German Reichsbürger;  he remains a Swiss citizen only.

After  his arrival in October 1933, Einstein had not left the US territory.

At the end of March 1934, a joint resolution is introduced by the Congress to grant Einstein US citizenship:

Ashamed and saddened, Einstein rejects the offer. He does not want to assume any privilege but to be treated like any other new immigrant.

Consequently, as soon as he decides to make Princeton his permanent residence in 1935, he files his first papers. For that purpose, he has to leave the United States as the necessary visa must be obtained at a US embassy. 

With the nearest US Embassy located in Bermuda, he travels there together with his wife, Elsa, her daughter Margot, Margot’s husband Dima Marianoff, and his secretary Helen Dukas.

On a postcard to their friend Otto Nathan, Albert Einstein praises the island where “fruits are growing directly into your muzzle”.

Einstein must have been intoxicated by Bermuda's beauty. How to explain otherwise all the mistakes in his Declaration of Intention ?

By 1935, Albert Einstein had lost German citizenship and was only a Swiss national.

He had married his second wife, Elsa, in June 1919, not in April 1917.

Elsa’s birthplace was Hechingen, and her birth date was January 18, 1876.

Albert Einstein’s first son, [Hans] Albert was born on May 14, 1904, and the birth date of his second son, Eduard,  was July 28, 1910.

Not until five years later, following Elsa's death and Margot's divorce from Dima, Albert and Margot Einstein together with Helen Dukas become American citizens.

Be that as it may,  Einstein remained a Swiss citizen until the end of his days.

Credits: Story

Exhibit Curator, Barbara Wolff — Albert Einstein Archives 
Curator's assistant, Andrea Bachar —  Albert Einstein Archives  
Exhibit technical management, Dalia Mendelsson — The Library Authority, Hebrew University

Credits: All media
The story featured may in some cases have been created by an independent third party and may not always represent the views of the institutions, listed below, who have supplied the content.
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