Hitler and Einstein are towering icons, one often seen as epitomizing the megalomaniacal villain, the other, an example of the greatness of human achievement whose name is sometimes synonymous with the word “genius.” These two men were products of the 20th century, itself the result of an unprecedented amount of potential, opportunity, power, struggle and chance. They had many differences but also shared some things, one of which was chess.
The 20th century saw a feverish amount of invention and dissemination of ideas. Among the ideologies, theories, and emerging philosophies, the roughly 1,300-year-old game of chess received an unprecedented revitalization, particularly in Europe and America. One of the most important players in its history, Emanuel Lasker, was world champion for an entire generation, 1894-1921. Thus the new century began with its first chess celebrity. Lasker inspired future players and helped foster a new attitude toward chess that would be adopted by intellectuals and bohemians in countless coffee houses. As another world champion, Alexander Alekhine, declared, “The very idea of chess as an art form would be unthinkable without Emanuel Lasker.”
Chess Vs. Hitler Vs. Einstein
The mental art form that chess offered was a demonstration of what Karl Marx called “dialectical materialism,” or conflict amid the absence of chance. This would render chess appropriate to the austere tastes of revolutionaries, poets, scientists, coffee-fueled bohemians, a blood-thirsty world leader and a beloved physicist. Chess was thought of as classless, untainted by bourgeois ideology, pure. This led many of the key figures among both the Communist Revolution and the Nazis in Germany to champion the game and its ideals. Hitler, a reported chess player, came to power and Einstein, a sometime chess enthusiast (and friend of Lasker’s), fled. Metaphorically, chess’ notion of a pure, logical art form came to its utmost extreme in both men: one executing a cold-blooded, power-hungry assault on the world, the other exploring previously uncharted expanses of mathematics, thought and physics.
There are few actual records of Hitler’s relationship to chess but he is reported to have played it often in his youthful “coffee house” days. It was also certainly valued among the elite in the Nazi party. German-sponsored chess tournaments were commonly held; Joseph Goebbels, the German Minister of Propaganda, ordered German chess masters to visit hospitals and barracks to play exhibition chess matches; and some secret codes radioed through war-time Germany were thought to be in the form of chess notations. Many of the traits that chess was thought to idealize were also ones that often described the prevailing Jewish stereotype in 19th-century Europe: logical, imaginative and possessing a good memory. Paradoxically, people like this including Einstein and Lasker (both Jews) were driven out of Germany. The Nazis valued intellectualism while chasing away intellectuals. They acted on two opposing beliefs. This logical schizophrenia is actually an integral part of chess. Any chess game can be viewed as one player alternating between harming and helping himself. The German chess term “Zugzwang” is a situation in chess where one is forced to harm the self. This mental and competitive trickery seemed to both sour and lure Albert Einstein toward the game throughout his life.
Albert Einstein, who revolutionized modern physics, had a lifelong love/hate relationship with chess, taking to it as a child, abandoning it for much of his life but eventually coming back to it in his later years. Einstein wasn’t just diverted from the game by a busy life; he developed an aversion to it, at one point asserting, “the struggle for power and the competitive spirit expressed in the form of an ingenious game [of chess] have always been repugnant to me.” Despite Einstein’s reluctance to partake in chess throughout much of his mid-life he maintained friendship with Emanuel Lasker. Their relationship was also something of a love/hate affair. Lasker contributed to a pamphlet called “One Hundred Authors Against Einstein” and publicly criticized Einstein’s Theory of Relativity. Einstein meanwhile chided Lasker for wasting his time writing a superficial book on the game Go. There is also an oft-mentioned episode where after a visit, Einstein and Lasker exchanged gifts of signed copies of work that each had recently completed. A few years later the book that Lasker had given Einstein appeared at a bookstore apparently abandoned by the physicist. When asked if this bothered him, Lasker responded, “of course not”—in fact he had “accidentally” left Einstein’s gift on a subway.
Einstein stayed away from the game for a number of years and occasionally made critical remarks such as the following, which he wrote in the forward to a biography on Lasker: “Chess holds its master in its own bonds, shackling the mind and brain so that the inner freedom of the very strongest must suffer.” His reluctance to play seems to have come, not from a dislike but from a deep love of the game. Like an alcoholic might keep wine at arm’s length, Einstein recognized chess’ potentially inescapable power over him and refrained from “suffering” it during his most productive work years. He did play one famous chess match against fellow scientist Robert Oppenheimer in 1933. Einstein won in 24 moves. He told the New York Times in 1936, “I do not play any games. There is no time for it. When I get through with work I don’t want anything which requires the working of the mind.” But he did return to the game, reportedly playing it often in his later life. He gave in to chess’ competitive spirit, its grip on his mind and strenuous logical art, the sweet suffering of its shackles.
Hitler had no opportunity to return to chess in his later life. If you were to view the 20th century life as a metaphor of the purely logical chess game, you might conclude that Hitler’s goals and temporary victories were overcome and ultimately defeated. Einstein, through setbacks and obstacles, emerged victorious, having purified his ideas and achieved many goals—a large step forward for humanity.