How the Great War helped to open the doors of the Cosmos

On the 4th October 1914 93 prominent German scientists, scholars and artists issued a manifesto ‘Aufruf an die Kulturwelt!’ (An Appeal to the Cultured World). It was not an appeal for peace or diplomacy as you might expect from such an ‘enlightened’ group, but a visceral defence of Germany and support for her military actions.

At the time, a propaganda war was raging that was as fierce as the conflict on the ground, with Germany’s advance into Belgium condemned by neutral and Allied nations alike. After the systematic destruction of Dinant and Louvain, European press spoke of German barbarism and ‘rivers of blood’. Germans were christened ‘the Hun’ and denounced as savages –  an image which caused great offence to Germany’s educated elite.

In response, major newspapers in Germany and abroad published ‘Aufruf an die Kulturwelt!’ a manifesto categorically denying that Germany had trespassed in neutral Belgium, harmed civilians or in any other way acted contrary to international law. It refuted ideas of brutality by the German military, instead placing blame on the Entente nations, accusing Russia of ‘unmercifully butchering women and children’ on the Eastern Front and Allies in the West of using dumdum bullets to ‘mutilate the breasts of soldiers’. It was a passionate proclamation that Germany had been forced into taking up arms to fight a war in defence of humanity, threatened as she was by neighbours intent on destroying German culture. The distinguished signatories staked ‘our names and our honour’ to the claim that the anti-German propaganda swirling across Europe was entirely false.

 ‘We cannot wrestle the poisonous weapon—the lie—out of the hands of our enemies. All we can do is to proclaim to all the world that our enemies are giving false witness against us. You, who know us, who with us have protected the most holy possessions of man, we call to you:

Have faith in us! Believe, that we shall carry on this war to the end as a civilised nation, to whom the legacy of a Goethe, a Beethoven, and a Kant is just as sacred as its own hearths and homes’

The 93 signatories included the likes of Emil Fischer and Max Planck, but one name was conspicuous in its absence – that of Albert Einstein.

Einstein’s strong pacifist views were well known among his peers. When physician Georg Friedrich Nicolai drafted a counter-manifesto in protest to Aufruf an die Kulturwelt, Einstein was only too happy to edit and sign the document.

This counter-manifesto, entitled simply ‘Manifesto to the Europeans’ appealed for peace and unity across Europe, arguing that ultimately there would be no victors in the war. It mentioned no country by name, referring only to Europe and Europeans as one people with common values. It warned against the rise of nationalism among the ‘educated’ and implored all ‘good Europeans’ to speak out against the war which threatened the future of all countries and served only to hold back the development of civilisation. 

It is important to remember that Einstein had not yet published his finished theory of General Relativity and though well known in academic circles, his influence was not that which it was to become in the 1920s. Looking at the ‘Manifesto to the Europeans’ in hindsight, it is difficult to understand that its gentle, reasoned arguments gained only 2 additional signatories. Framed in today’s political climate, its message of unity across Europe is a sobering one. In the context of the time it was written, it was incredibly forward thinking, evidently too forward thinking for the zeitgeist of the early 20th Century. 

Einstein was left bereft at the lack of support, or in fact any kind of response to the manifesto, and he became increasingly disillusioned with his peers in Berlin. He could not understand how these men of intellect, men pushing the boundaries of science and the arts and indeed men whom he considered personal friends, were unable to critically analyse the situation, taking leave of all reason in favour of a pompous defence and unquestioning national allegiance.  

‘men of science and the arts have made public declarations which have already unmeasurably damaged feelings of solidarity among those who are devoting themselves to higher and freer goals’

As the conflict in Europe descended into an ever more bitter and bloody feud, Einstein’s contempt and frustration at the ‘madness of war’ only grew. Whilst he did not place blame for the escalation of conflict solely at Germany’s feet, he sought to define character flaws inherent in the German national consciousness. In 1915, he spoke of the German people as overly submissive and willing to believe anything fed to them by the power hungry elite whom Einstein believed were driven by a love of military force and desire to conquer – sentiments which would continue to be debated over a century later. Of the escalating tensions and what he believed to be a blinkered view of the people of Europe, Einstein commented that ‘it is difficult to accept the fact that one belongs to a species that boasts of its freedom of will’. He sought refuge from his frustrations in his work and it could be argued that if it were not for the discontent that drove Einstein into this relative isolation, our understanding of the universe today would be greatly reduced…

It was during this period that Einstein was able to concentrate on his research on gravitational theory, culminating in the publication of his general theory of relativity (GTR) which he presented to the Prussian Academy of Science, in late 1915. According to GTR, the observed gravitational effect between masses results from their warping of spacetime. GTR superseded Newton’s law of universal gravitation, changing the scientific landscape forever. It opened doors for the further exploration of the cosmos and the discovery an explanation of astrophysical manifestations such as black holes (among many other things). The impact GTR has had in not just the world of physics, but in humanity’s development and understanding of the world in which we live cannot be overstated.

I have written often about the links between astronomy and the Great War, using the constellations as a metaphor for the Silent Cities and exploring the philosophical power of the Western Front in parallel with the profound spirituality that comes with understanding the scale of the cosmos. Here we find there is a more tangible link – if the Great War had not occurred, if the ‘Manifesto of the 93’ had not been published, if Einstein had not felt so aggrieved and focused so heavily on his work, then perhaps he would not have published his theory on general relativity and the doors it opened to our understanding of the cosmos would have remained forever closed.

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