'Was there a plot to assassinate Professor Einstein in London on Tuesday night?'
So pondered the Western Gazette on 6 October 1933. Albert Einstein had just given a politically charged talk at the Royal Albert Hall. But had his life been in danger?
The great physicist paid several visits to Britain over his career. His 1933 stay — from July to October — included several engagements in London. Nazi assassins were a constant threat.
Einstein was noted not only for his groundbreaking physics, but also as a champion of pacifism. As an intellectual of Jewish background, he was reviled by the Nazis, who had reportedly put a price on his head.
In 1933, Einstein realised he could not return to Germany. The refugee professor eventually found his way over to America. Along the way, he stayed for several weeks in England, at addresses belonging to his friend and fellow anti-fascist Oliver Locker-Lampson MP.
These included a house in North Street, Westminster and a cottage in Esher. Somewhat bizarrely, he also stayed in a wooden shack near Cromer, Norfolk as a hideaway from the Nazi bounty hunters. Photos show the professor supposedly under armed guard, although his protectors look more like trumped-up gamekeepers.
On 3 October 1936, Einstein made a very public appearance as key speaker at the Royal Albert Hall — the most famous Albert in history, giving a talk at a shrine to the second most famous Albert in history.
The event was a security nightmare. Scotland Yard had reportedly received a tip-off that a plot was in progress. Policing was beefed up to the kind of level we'd expect today. German agents weren't the only ones hostile towards Einstein. The Daily Mail instructed its readers to stay away from the event. In its eyes, the mild-mannered physicist was part of a communist threat to the nation.
A cordon of police guarded every entrance. 'Hidden in the mews and garages immediately at the back of the hall were large squads of foot police,' revealed one report. Mounted police were also on standby.
In the event, there was no trouble. The crowd of 10,000 heard a rousing speech from Einstein on the subject of 'science and civilisation'. The lecture touched on themes of tolerance, justice and how to save Europe from the growing menace of fascism. This was an early example of a celebrity charity event. Proceeds from ticket sales went towards assisting other refugees from the Nazi regime.
A visit to the House of Commons
Aside from the keynote speech, Einstein kept a low profile while in London, for fear of attempts on his life. When he did occasionally emerge, he cut a distinctive figure.
During a July heatwave, one journalist spotted him at Waterloo station 'looking remarkably cool in a thin white cotton jacket, a tennis shirt and loose white trousers' — the only person in the station not sweating in a thick suit and bowler hat. 'With his thick mop of curly grey hair framing his large benevolent face, he looked much more like a musician than a scientist'.
Einstein paid a visit to the House of Commons on 26 July 1936. During the session, his friend and host Oliver Locker-Lampson MP spoke to the House about the plight of Jews in Germany. If the Nazis had turned out their 'most glorious citizen', he said, looking at Einstein, then what might be the fate of others? Locker-Lampson then introduced a bill to extend citizenship to Jewish refugees. Sadly, it never made it into law.
Efforts were also made to grant British citizenship to Einstein, but again nothing came of it. The homeless professor took up a position at Princeton University a few days after his Albert Hall talk. His parting words showed deep warmth for his erstwhile hosts. 'No matter how long I live I shall never forget the kindness which I have received from the people of England'.
Einstein gives a talk at King's College
Einstein had visited London on several occasions before his 1933 visit. The professor had first stopped by in 1921 to give a talk at King's College on the Strand about general relativity. Press reports describe Einstein as a modest figure. Among all the robed dons of the university, he looked like a humble music teacher (he got that a lot — and he was indeed an accomplished musician).
Press reports suggest the 42-year-old academic was a little nervous. 'Einstein's hands twitched,' said one account, 'and he appeared to wish he was anywhere but where he was'. The speech, given in his native tongue, was nevertheless well received. 'The German language,' said one journalist, 'has never appeared so pleasant'. Students were later heard to quip that they had understood every word... of the German, if not the theory.
A dinner at the Savoy
Einstein returned to the capital in October 1930, where he was photographed arriving at Victoria station. This time, his mission was not one of science but to raise awareness of the plight of East European Jews. The professor stayed with Sir Herbert Samuel, a politician who shared Einstein's liberal leanings (and, incidentally, his moustache style).
During the visit, Einstein was guest of honour at a dinner at the Savoy Hotel. The meal was attended my many well-known figures, including Lord Rothschild and George Bernard Shaw.
As far as we're aware, Einstein never fully returned to London after the second world war. We say 'fully', because a small part of him did make the journey in 2012, some 60 years after his death. In that year, sections of his brain were put on show in a free exhibition at the Wellcome Collection. This time their was no price on his head.