In July 1914 Germany was on the very brink of war. Hostilities were already raging, however, in an apartment in the country’s capital. Yes, Albert Einstein and his wife, Mileva, were navigating the endgame of a failing relationship in their sprawling Berlin residence. For almost a decade, the German intellectual had been at the forefront of his field, dazzling academics with his earth-shattering theories. But behind the scenes, the world-famous scientist exhibited a far more sinister side.
Einstein was born on March 14, 1879, in Ulm, a city which, at the time, formed part of the German Empire’s Kingdom of Württemberg. Gifted in physics and math from a young age, Einstein gained a teaching diploma from the Swiss Zurich Polytechnic in 1900. However, despite taking up a doctor of philosophy course at Zurich University, he soon left the city and moved across Switzerland to Bern.
Once there, Einstein took a job evaluating intellectual property applications at the city’s patent office. The part-time student was still interested in academia, however, and in 1902 he formed a discussion group with some acquaintances. Dubbed the Olympia Academy, the circle met up for informal debates on topics concerning philosophy and science.
In 1905 Einstein finally handed in his dissertation and gained his Ph.D. from the University of Zurich. Indeed, those early years of the 20th century proved to have been highly prolific for the young German. He had in fact found the time to lay the groundwork for academic treatises that would propel him into the public eye. In the same year that he was awarded his doctorate, for instance, Einstein published four papers – each of which would take the scientific world by storm.
Today, these works are known collectively as the Annus mirabilis papers, after the Latin for “extraordinary year.” First published in the German scientific journal Annalen der Physik, the four articles are generally credited with the invention of modern physics. After all, the revolutionary works transformed humankind’s understanding of time, space, energy and mass.
Among the concepts discussed in the Annus mirabilis papers was the idea of special relativity. This was Einstein’s understanding of the complex relationship between space and time. Later, he would develop this thesis into what we now know as the theory of relativity. Probably Einstein’s most famous achievement, the theory puts forward the notion that energy equals mass times the speed of light – E = mc2.
Over the years, Einstein’s incredible intellect won him much praise. Invited to work with some of the most extraordinary minds of his era, he continued to push the boundaries of science until his dying day. And by the time that he passed away, at the age of 76 in 1955, he had accrued an impressive collection of honors and awards.
To the general public, both before and after his death, Einstein was viewed as an enigmatic celebrity; he was a wild-haired eccentric whose name became synonymous with genius. But behind closed doors, the fabled physicist may not have been such a friendly figure. In fact, evidence has emerged that paints Einstein in an entirely different light to that of his lovable public image.
While Einstein was attending Zurich Polytechnic, he met a fellow student called Mileva Marić. The only female in a class full of men, the Serbian was considered to be an exceptionally gifted mathematician. However, the 26-year-old’s academic career came to an abrupt stop in 1901 when she fell pregnant with Einstein’s child.
The following year, Marić traveled back to Serbia and gave birth to a daughter, Lieserl, whose fate remains unknown. Some historians believe the infant was adopted, others think she may have died. Nonetheless, Einstein’s lover returned to Switzerland alone, and the pair later married in January 1903. The following year, a son, Hans, came along, followed by a brother, Eduard, in 1910. However, life in the Einstein household was far from perfect.
By 1912 Einstein had become close to his cousin Elsa Löwenthal, a divorced mother of two daughters. But even though the pair soon entered into an extramarital affair, Einstein and Marić continued to keep up appearances. In fact, in the following year, when the scientist was invited to continue his work in Berlin, it was his wife who went on ahead to secure accommodation.
Despite this, Marić was unhappy about the April 1914 move, and the couple’s relationship continued to suffer. However, the extent of their difficulties remained unknown until a stash of letters between Einstein and Marić were discovered 70 years later. In them, Einstein detailed a shocking list of conditions aimed at keeping their marriage afloat.
According to the documents released in 1987, Marić was required to ensure that her husband’s laundry was done and to maintain his wardrobe. She was also ordered to serve him three meals a day in the comfort of his own room. Additionally, Einstein demanded that his wife keep his living and work areas neat and tidy at all times. Other entries placed strict limits and guidelines on personal interactions between the couple.
Apparently, Einstein requested that Marić forgo his company, both at home and while traveling, along with any expectations of “intimacy.” Furthermore, he demanded to have ultimate control over many situations. For example, he desired to be able to silence his wife whenever he wished and to banish her from his study as he saw fit.
Amazingly, Marić appears to have agreed to Einstein’s demands – at least for a time. But just three months after the family’s arrival in Berlin, Marić took little Hans and Eduard and returned to Zurich. The separation was permanent, and the couple eventually divorced in 1919. That same year, Einstein and Löwenthal tied the knot, and the physicist adopted her daughters, Ilse and Margot.
However, Einstein’s apparent mistreatment of those nearest and dearest to him did not end there. Reportedly, he engaged in a number of affairs while married to Löwenthal. He even spoke openly with her family about his liaisons, sometimes appearing to boast about his apparent sex appeal. “Out of all the dames I am in fact attached only to Mrs L who is absolutely harmless,” he later wrote in a letter to Margot.
Another worrying aspect of Einstein’s character was exposed in his relationship with his sons. Publicly, the scientist won praise for donating the money he was awarded for winning the Nobel Prize in 1921 to Marić and the boys. However, when Eduard was diagnosed with schizophrenia as a 20-year-old, his father reacted with horror.
Eduard was eventually committed to a psychiatric institution in 1932. And even though Einstein maintained a correspondence with his youngest son, he never visited him. Then, the following year, Einstein and Löwenthal fled the rise of Nazi Germany and emigrated to the U.S. Left behind, the troubled Eduard would never see his father again.
Even when his beloved second wife and first cousin became seriously ill with heart and kidney problems, Einstein appeared to show a lack of compassion. While Löwenthal was dying, Einstein apparently threw himself into his work, believing that his studies would help him through the difficult time. But on December 20, 1936, his wife passed away, leaving Einstein alone and bereft.
But even though these revelations call Einstein’s character into question, there are some who insist that he was not the monster he appeared to be. They would point to the Nobel Prize winner’s personal correspondence published in 2006. These letters, mainly to Löwenthal and Margot, hint at a more loving relationship with his sons and a surprisingly honest marriage with his second wife. Whatever the real truth, though, it seems that there is far more to history’s most famous scientist than meets the eye.