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What a Freshly Discovered Einstein Letter Says About Turkey Today

On October 29, 2006 Turkey celebrated the 83rd anniversary of its founding as a Republic. In its commemoration the Hürriyet, a high-circulation Turkish daily, carried a first page article “A REQUEST FROM THE GREAT GENIUS TO THE YOUNG REPUBLIC” by Murat Bardakçij. The request refers to a September 17, 1933 letter from Einstein to Prime Minister İsmet İnönü. In his article, Bardakçij juxtaposed Turkey’s current body politic and its preoccupations with those prevalent during the early ideological Republican years. “Now, here is the difference between the Turkey of the time when the Republican regime was only 10 years old and the Turkish Republic now aged 83. The first one is a young state with great promise for the future from which Einstein requests jobs for his friends; the other is where the daily agenda is shaped only by discussions about parks restricted to women, or whether shaking women’s hand is sinful or not....”

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Bardakçij stated that the letter was kept in the Prime Ministry’s archives. Interestingly, there are some hand-written Turkish annotations. 1 The top right notation shows that İnönü transferred the letter to the Maarif Vekaleti, Ministry for National Education on October 9, 1933. The other annotations are attributable to Reşit Galip, the sitting Minister. One says: “this proposal is incompatible with clauses [in the existing laws],”2 another: “[i]t is impossible to accept it due to prevailing conditions,”3 indicating that at the outset the proposal was rejected by the Ministry. According to Bardakçij, soon after “Turkey invited more than 404 German scientists and gave them university posts. The University Reform conducted at this time makes us think that someone at higher rank, that is president Mustafa Kemal [Atatürk], personally intervened in the matter.”5 Atatürk was determined to modernize Turkey.

Until the 17th century the Ottoman Empire was one of the most powerful countries in the world when it lost status as well as a world power because it did not keep up with or surpass Europe’s scientific and technological gains. The idea of publicly educating non-official, non-clerical subjects was not part of the Ottoman culture. After the Ottoman Empire was abolished, sweeping social reforms were implemented. In 1924 the medreses (religious colleges), tekkes (dervish lodges), and zaviyes (dervish cells) were closed down and in 1927 religious education was abolished in all schools. An edict required replacement of the Arabic script with a newly created Latin based alphabet by 1928.

Turkey’s new leadership was keenly aware that the existing system of civilian higher education was woefully lacking compared to the education provided by western research universities. The Republic inherited the Dar-ül Fünun (house of knowledge), a fledgling state university teaching some western sciences and three military academies as a system of fairly secular post-secondary education. This system needed to be replaced. The plan was to transform the Dar-ül Fünun into the University of Istanbul, create Istanbul Technical University from one of the military academies, and build Ankara University from the ground up.

Qualified personnel were unavailable in Turkey to complete this so they had to be “imported.” In 1932, Albert Malche, a Swiss professor of pedagogy, had been asked to visit Turkey to prepare a report on the Turkish educational reform. Among many other recommendations Malche called for a major infusion of academic talent from abroad. The passage of Germany’s “Civil Service Law” just after the January 30, 1933, Nazi takeover created the perfect window of opportunity for Turkey. The law forced the departure of intellectuals having Jewish heritage. Emigration to the US or UK was not an option given their restrictive immigration laws. Few university job opportunities due to America’s emergence from depression, widespread anti-Semitism, gender bias, and age discrimination in university hiring practices was well known among the intellectuals.

One of those first fired was Frankfurt pathologist Philipp Schwarz. Schwarz’s father-in-law, Professor Sinai Tschulok, emigrated to Switzerland after the 1905 Russian Revolution and happened to be Malche’s friend. Recognizing a double opportunity Malche contacted Schwarz. In March 1933, Schwarz established the Notgemeinschaft Deutscher Wissenschaftler im Ausland (The Emergency Assistance Organization for German Scientists) in Switzerland to help fired German scholars secure employment in countries willing to receive them.

Predisposed to German science and culture and recognizing the opportunity that presented itself, Turkey invited Philipp Schwarz 6 to Ankara. He brought along a set of CVs. In turn, Galip’s party arrived with a list of vacant professorships. Agreement was reached in nine hours of negotiations. However, it was clear at the outset that the German professors would remain only until their Turkish pupils could take over. On August 1, 1933, the day after the Dar-ül Fünun was officially closed the Istanbul University was opened using Dar-ül Fünun’s physical plant, a small fraction of the original faculty, and more than thirty world-renowned émigré German professors who were on their way to Turkey. Unfortunately, Atatürk’s death came much too early for all concerned, especially Turkey itself. A number of his visionary programs were not fully developed by his successors. Some were curtailed for economic reasons; some were allowed to be sabotaged by petty functionaries.

On the political scene, republican Turkey has experienced many twists and turns. The army, which still is led by staunch republican officers who are religiously anti-religious, is always on alert should the democratic process shift Turkey too far to the Left or toward Islamization. During its 83 republican years Turkey has experienced a series of coups. Several economic shocks led to the 2002 elections, which brought conservative/Islamist AKP party to power, led by the former Islamist mayor of Istanbul, Recep Tayyip Erdogan. This government is trying to legislate various Islamist laws and practices. While potential admission to the EU is uncertain the Army is watching.

Murat Bardakçij used the Einstein letter because the Hürriyet, is predisposed to challenge any movement toward a theocracy. Recently, thousands in the secular community marched in favor of Atatürk’s reforms and against the ruling religious party’s attempts to erode Turkey’s secular traditions

During his research for the book Turkey's Modernization: Refugees from Nazism and Atatürk's Vision, this author had access to all of Einstein’s personal correspondence including communications with over a dozen of the German intellectuals saved by Turkey. These covered all of Einstein’s negotiations prior to assuming his post at the Princeton Institute for Advanced Studies. At no time did any of this archival information suggest or hint at the existence of the above letter so it seemed incredulous when the letter was first transmitted by a Turkish friend in early October, 2006. Immediately email queries were sent to official Einstein archivists at the Princeton Institute and the Hebrew University 7 in Jerusalem. Neither archivist had ever seen the letter before but one suggested the possibility that Einstein signed someone else’s letter or had presigned some stationery.

A number of questions come to mind. How was the letter discovered, where was it discovered and by whom? If the letter is real why did it take years for its revelation and why present it now? Was it written by Einstein himself or by someone at the OSE writing on his behalf? If it was not written by Einstein did he affix his signature before or after the letter was typed?

Irrespective of the answers to any of the above questions, and based on other unquestionable evidence, there is absolutely no doubt that the letter is in full concert with Einstein’s thoughts and actions for months preceding its posting and for years thereafter.

1 This letter has been circulating within Turkey via the web for some time prior to its publication by the Hürriyet. This author received at least five e-mails from Turkish friends with the letter attached starting early October 2006.

2 "Teklifin mevzuatõ kanuniyeyle telifi mumkun degildir."

3 "Bunlarõ bugunku seriata gore kabule imkan yoktur."

4 The first group of invitees in 1933 numbered 30. It later grew to over 190 intellectuals and with families and staff the totaled over 1000 of saved individuals. For a complete listing of the individual intellectuals see Reisman, Turkey's Modernization: Refugees from Nazism and Atatürk's Vision. (Washington DC: New AcademiaPublishers, 2006) pp 474-478

5 According to Istanbul University’s historian of science Prof. Feza Günergün (Cumhuriyet, Science and Technology Supplement, Nov. 3, 2006, Year: 20, Number: 10240) Einstein’s letter of September 17, 1933 was preceded by the July 6, 1933 agreement between the Turkish government and the “Notgemeinschaft” organization, (to be discussed later) at which time contracts for 30 German scientists had already been issued. Günergün suggested that by his letter “perhaps encouraged by this agreement Einstein made an attempt to send another 40 to Turkey.”

6 P. Schwartz , Notgemeinschaft Zur Emigration deutscher Wissenschaftlernach 1933 in die Turkei. (Marburg: Metropolis-Verlag, 1995)

7 According to Einstein’s will the Hebrew University is the official repository of his archival documents.