The Man Who Out-Sainted Einstein

James Franck Has Never Been Honored in Germany

Meeting of Minds: Scientist James Franck, second from left, sits with Niels Bohr, left, and Albert Einstein, second from right, with I. I. Rabi on the far right-hand side.
Meeting of Minds: Scientist James Franck, second from left, sits with Niels Bohr, left, and Albert Einstein, second from right, with I. I. Rabi on the far right-hand side.

By Benjamin Ivry

Published November 19, 2011, issue of November 25, 2011.

James Franck, a Jewish scientist who was born in Hamburg, Germany, and was a co-winner of the 1925 Nobel Prize in physics, is honored by The University of Chicago’s James Franck Institute and by the James Franck German-Israel Binational Program, hosted at five leading Israeli technical schools. Yet nothing commemorates the work Franck did inside Germany, as we learn from a 2007 biography, “Aufrecht im Sturm der Zeit” (“Rectitude in Tempestuous Times”) from GNT-Verlag.

In the work’s recent translation, “Science and Conscience: The Life of James Franck” from Stanford University Press, author Jost Lemmerich points out, “There is no institute bearing his name, no scientific award in his memory.” This is a particularly cruel irony, since Franck’s most remarkable distinction may be that on a human level, he was even more saintly than his friend and colleague Albert Einstein, and among the beneficiaries of Franck’s saintliness were Germans in the postwar era.

A physicist and historian of science, Lemmerich quotes correspondence between Franck and Einstein to this effect. A careful translation by Ann Hentschel, “Science and Conscience” details how Einstein and Franck, although both Jewish refugees from Nazi Europe, differed greatly on the very Jewish issue of rakhmones, (compassion,) in their treatment of Germans who were not Nazis.

In December 1945, Franck wrote to Einstein, calling him “a kind of Jewish national saint.” He asked for Einstein’s support for a public plea to the Allied victors not to indiscriminately punish Germans for Nazi crimes. “The feeling of revenge is, of course, strong in Jewish circles,” Franck wrote. “If that goes on, the Nazis will have won in their battle for demoralization of the whole world.” He added, “I do not intend ever to set foot in Germany again, because I do not want to come into contact with people who have said yes to Nazism, but I will have no part in the punishment and gradual elimination of the innocent.” Einstein’s reply was swift and unequivocal:

The Germans slaughtered millions of civilians according to a carefully conceived plan in order to steal their [jobs]. They would do it again if they could. The few white ravens among them changes absolutely nothing…. Dear Franck! Keep your hands off this foul affair!

Franck did drop that specific appeal, although he replied to Einstein: “The endeavor for a greater influence of ethical morality must not be given up; if the Nazis have robbed from people like you the belief that there is a sense in supporting this, then they have simply won.” His still-cherished ideals were also expressed in a 1947 letter to his friend, the German chemist Karl Friedrich Bonhoeffer, older brother of anti-Nazi Lutheran theologian and martyr Dietrich Bonhoeffer. Franck opined that “Hitler’s total war… whipped up so many bad instincts that it will take a while for the whole world to be able to learn more healthy ethical compassion again.”

Franck’s courage in confronting Einstein was the product of long years of experience described in “Science and Conscience.” Not giving in to vindictiveness, however justified, was part of Franck’s definition of keeping the faith. This began during his World War I military service, which commenced shortly after he made the discoveries that would win him the Nobel Prize, shared with his German-Jewish colleague, Gustav Hertz, for pioneering contributions to the understanding of how electrons, atoms and molecules interact. Franck volunteered for combat in 1914, whereupon a superior officer explained that Franck would be eligible for the officers’ training school if he agreed to be baptized. Franck responded by asking “whether he would be a better officer if he were to be baptized against his convictions.” Bypassing training school, Franck was nonetheless promoted to lieutenant and eventually awarded the Iron Cross First Class.

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