Never visit a city in a bad mood. First, you won't enjoy it. Second, you could get the impression that the townsfolk are a bunch of narrow-minded drunken asswipe provincial twats, and that might not be true. On the other hand, it might be true, which would be the reason you're not enjoying it.
Take the crypto-Swabian city of Ulm. It rests on the border between Baden-Württemburg and Bavaria, spanning the upper reaches of the Danube. It fancies itself a city devoted to architecture, mixing utterly breathtaking mediaeval buildings with more orthodox modernism.
I went there by chance.
Two weeks ago, southern Germany celebrated Pfingsten, or Whit Monday, the day after Pentecost. (We celebrate many religious holidays with silly names here in Germany; my fave is the Ascension, or the Kristi Himmelfahrt.)
Friday morning, before the holiday, I had a meeting in Stuttgart. Friday afternoon, trains in southern Germany seized. The TGV was booked out. The InterCity express to Munich ran two hours late. (Don't act so surprised. It was Mussolini who made the trains run on time, remember, and not You-Know-Who.)
I decided to leapfrog my way east on a series of local trains, instead. This gave me a couple of hours to kill in Ulm.
Some trains hinted at the character of the disembarking locals.
Fate landed me in a Bavarian Arkansas. Packs of good ol' boys roamed the streets, drunk to the eyeballs, shouting at women, each other, and often at you.
Germany has a pretty high tolerance for public drunken-ness—as do I, to be honest. But this was hyperdrunk. Many Ulmers had abandoned work for the long weekend, and hit the sauce from breakfast on, by the looks of things. Harmless, boisterous drunkards, you say? These guys hovered on the edge of turning nasty-drunk, wanting to pick a fight. If you grew up in an alcoholic family, you know of these things.
Dodging a few smashed beer bottles, I headed into town from the railway station, and happened upon a work of art. It was an ultra-minimalist piece: twenty-four slabs of granite stacked like a puzzle, which gave the impression of an unfinished car park. Nonetheless, it served its purpose, which was to recall that Ulm is the birthplace of Albert Einstein.
As you know, I'm a big fan of Einstein. Master Right and I even visited his home in Princeton, where he fled in the early thirties to escape the Nazis. Einstein praised Princeton warmly, and found it a congenial place in which to spend his last three decades.
Einstein felt much less warmth toward the town of his birth. Admittedly, he knew little of it, since the family moved to Munich 15 months afterward. He was polite, though, calling Ulm a city of "refined artistic tradition and simple, healthy character."The local burghers quote this sentence often*, since it seems to be the only unequivocally nice thing the great genius ever said about the place. Though he kept his manners, an undercurrent of bitchiness flowed through Einstein's remarks on Ulm.
He claimed that the house in which he was born was a damn good place for birthing, since an infant has few "aesthetic needs".
After his Nobel Prize in 1922, the city council named a street "Einsteinstraße". He wrote to thank them, and said that while he was grateful, he would console himself that he is "not responsible for what was happening [in the street], nor what would happen in it." Outraged that a public street should be named after a Jew, the Nazis renamed Einsteinstraße the following year. Ulm city council changed it back after the war, and when Einstein later heard of it, he said:
"This quaint business with the street- name has come to my attention back then and it has quite amused me. It is not known to me if anything has changed in the meantime and I am even less aware when the next change will be happening but I do know how to curb my curiosity. (...) I believe that a neutral name, for example 'Turnabout Street' would be more appropriate to the German character and would not necessitate a renaming with the course of time."
He repeatedly refused honorary citizenship in Ulm.
The city doesn't quite know what to make of Einstein's attitude. Though she happily remembers her scientists and mathematicians—both Keppler and Descartes lived here for a spell—Ulm has a strained relationship with her most famous son.
Originally, the city council felt the need to consult the University of Tübingen to see if all this fuss about relativity were really that big a deal, before they wrote a letter to congratulate Einstein. One mustn't be reckless with letters, right?
Immediately after the war, relatives and friends of the resistance fighters Hans and Sophie Scholl named the adult education centre Einstein Haus (on Einsteinstraße, of course). These same individuals were responsible for the 1984 birthplace memorial above. It dismayed them, no doubt, that the only official commemoration on the site, almost four decades after the war ended, was a plaque donated by the Calcutta Arts Society.
I managed to track down the official Einstein Memorial, tucked in an odd corner outside some municipal offices. Erected in 1982, the Denkmal mimics that famous 1951 photo of the great man sticking out his tongue. Sculptor Jürgen Goertz chose to show his subject emerging from a snail's shell, to represent "nature, wisdom and skepticism over man's control of technology".
Since when did a goddamn snail represent that? And since when did Einstein champion "skepticism over man's control of technology"? Quite the opposite, I would have thought.
The snail is perched atop a stylised rocket, with water falling underneath to suggest a vapour trail. Hence, it becomes a fountain, the Einstein-Brunnen. Problem is, you don't immediately read the fountain part as a rocket. And you don't immediately get the snail shell on top. How does one interpret this sculpture?
As you walk around the piece, you see a breach in the shell, where a glob of goop pours out of the Nobel Laureate's skull. Perhaps Goertz had read of Einstein's unusually large head as an infant. Pauline Einstein, when she first saw her son, felt she may have given birth to a monster.
With all of this ooze, cast in dark-coloured bronze, I found it hard not to read the Einstein Brunnen as a pile of shit. (I mean that literally, not figuratively.)
Now, that's not necessarily a bad thing. Einstein deplored the cult of personality which grew around him, and his face emerging from a dogpile might pay tribute to his unpretentiousness and impish sense of humour. It could be an ironic joke. Then again, it might be a giant fuck you to the subject himself.
On closer inspection, we see that a local has offered his opinion. And in English, too.
I showed these photos of the Einstein Brunnen to Master Right—who, you may recall, is Japanese, and a step or two removed from our European cultural prejudices. His first reaction? They're mocking him for being Jewish. I must confess, the dark skin, exaggerated nose and googly eyes made me think the same thing, at first.
Ulm had a bit tof an Einstein year in 2004, the 125th anniversary of his birth. The centre of town filled with more statues, and an exhibition was held at the new city museum. As part of the fetivities, Austrian Dirk D'Ase composed an opera, Einstein in Amerika.
Most of the information on the work is in German, so my interpretation may be way off. It seems that the music was sublime. The libretto, however, indicated the following:
- Einstein's last years were a lonely misery.
- He was wracked with guilt for having created the science which caused hundreds of thousands of souls to perish in Hiroshima and Nagasaki. One scene was set on the Enola Gay.
- He was harassed and bribed by McCarthyist thugs who wished to destroy the notes of his life's work.
The librettist chose this fanciful version of events over the documented truth. That is:
- Einstein spent his final years in Princeton in the company of beloved family members
- He regarded it as a place of comparative peace and freedom, and said so.
- He sponsored so many Jewish friends and relatives for immigration into the USA, that they had to ask him to stop.
- He demonstrated that the work on which he collaborated with Nils Bohr did not, directly, lead to the development of the bomb. Though he freely admitted that he wrote to Roosevelt to tell him of the Nazi nuclear programme, and urged him to begin one in response.
Perhaps being run out of your homeland by the Nazis isn't suitable material for musical theatre?
EDIT: I have just seen Nicolas Roeg's film of Terry Johnson's play Insignificance. Though Johnson labels his play as fiction, D'Ase seems to have taken the play as an historical document.
In spite of her taste for opera, Ulm remains tone-deaf. The city simply cannot strike the right note in appreciation of Einstein. One would hope this is not the result of lingering anti-semitism.
Ulm's Jewish community got along well with its Evangelical Lutherans. Hermann Einstein, Albert's father, even contributed to statuary in the Ulm Minster.
(Ulm Minster, by the way, is a fascinating building. The world's first megachurch, it was built to seat twenty thousand worshippers when the city's population had barely reached ten. Until 1901, it was the world's tallest man-made structure.)
A slab inside Ulm Minster. I'm tempted to think it's inscribed in Hebrew, but I'm not sure.
The Lutherans were a cool bunch. But their Catholic counterparts, numerous in Bavaria and Baden-Württemburg...well, I can't say.
It would be a shame if this lack of civic emotional intelligence keeps Einstein from being remembered, in his birthplace, for his most important work. Not the work of a physicist, but of a humanitarian. In Ulm, one hears no echoes of the moral authority in his voice.
What gave rise to this odd perception of Einstein amongst his fellow Ulmers—indeed, among his fellow southern Germans? Let us hope that these mis-steps are no more than the gaucheness of the rube, and not remnants of a bigotry which the world fought to bury long ago.
And that the drunks stay rowdy, not angry.
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*Much of this information comes from a brochure given to me by the Ulm city tourist office. Fellow Einstein Fan Y.S. Kim has reproduced it in part on his excellent Einstein tribute page.