In February 1933 while on a visit to the United States, Einstein knew he could not return to Germany with the rise to power of the Nazis under Germany’s new chancellor, Adolf Hitler.
He and his wife Elsa returned to Belgium by ship in March, and during the trip they learned that their cottage was raided by the Nazis and his personal sailboat confiscated. Upon landing in Antwerp on 28 March, he immediately went to the German consulate and turned in his passport, formally renouncing his German citizenship. A few years later, the Nazis sold his boat and turned his cottage into a Hitler Youth camp.
Later that same year, Einstein discovered that the new German government had passed laws barring Jews from holding any official positions, including teaching at universities. Historian Gerald Holton describes how, with “virtually no audible protest being raised by their colleagues,” thousands of Jewish scientists were suddenly forced to give up their university positions and their names were removed from the rolls of institutions where they were employed.
Einstein’s works were among those targeted by the German Student Union in the Nazi book burnings, with Nazi propaganda minister Joseph Goebbels proclaiming, “Jewish intellectualism is dead.” One German magazine included him in a list of enemies of the German regime with the phrase, “not yet hanged”, offering a $5,000 bounty on his head. In a subsequent letter to physicist and friend Max Born, who had already emigrated from Germany to England, Einstein wrote, “… I must confess that the degree of their brutality and cowardice came as something of a surprise.”
After moving to the U.S., he described the book burnings as a “spontaneous emotional outburst” by those who “shun popular enlightenment,” and “more than anything else in the world, fear the influence of men of intellectual independence.”
Einstein was now without a permanent home, unsure where he would live and work, and equally worried about the fate of countless other scientists still in Germany. He rented a house in De Haan, Belgium, where he lived for a few months. In late July 1933, he went to England for about six weeks at the personal invitation of British naval officer Commander Oliver Locker-Lampson, who had become friends with Einstein in the preceding years. To protect Einstein, Locker-Lampson had two assistants watch over him at his secluded cottage outside London, with the press publishing a photo of them guarding Einstein.
Locker-Lampson took Einstein to meet Winston Churchill at his home, and later, Austen Chamberlain and former Prime Minister Lloyd George, where Einstein asked them to help bring Jewish scientists out of Germany. British historian Martin Gilbert notes that Churchill responded immediately, and sent his friend, physicist Frederick Lindemann to Germany to seek out Jewish scientists and place them in British universities. Churchill later observed that as a result of Germany having driven the Jews out, they had lowered their “technical standards” and put the Allies’ technology ahead of theirs.
Einstein later contacted leaders of other nations, including Turkey’s Prime Minister, İsmet İnönü, to whom he wrote in September 1933 requesting placement of unemployed German-Jewish scientists. As a result of Einstein’s letter, Jewish invitees to Turkey eventually totaled over “1,000 saved individuals.”
Locker-Lampson also submitted a bill to parliament to extend British citizenship to Einstein, during which period Einstein made a number of public appearances describing the crisis brewing in Europe. The bill failed to become law, however, and Einstein then accepted an earlier offer from the Princeton Institute for Advanced Study, in the U.S., to become a resident scholar.
He became an American citizen in 1940. Not long after settling into his career at the Institute for Advanced Study (in Princeton, New Jersey), he expressed his appreciation of the meritocracy in American culture when compared to Europe. He recognized the “right of individuals to say and think what they pleased”, without social barriers, and as a result, individuals were encouraged, he said, to be more creative, a trait he valued from his own early education.