Video about the project

Sunday, 31 March 2013

A few physicists and anthroposophists in the 1920s

Many changes about the way we look at physics came to a head in the 1920s. Albert Einstein was consolidating his theory of relativity. Ernest Rutherford helped us to understand about the fundamental make-up of matter. Max Plank and Albert Einstein were questioning some previous assumptions how radioactivity and light behaved. Edwin Hubble discovered that the universe was expanding. The most important even in 20th century science happened in the 1920s – quantum mechanics was born. Throughout the 1920s Robert Millikan confirmed that “cosmic radiation” existed. Towards the end of the 1920s Ernest Orlando Lawrence conceived the cyclotron. Possibly rocket science, both the discipline and the word, were also born at this time. Werner Heisenberg, already a scholar when quantum mechanics appeared in the early 1920s, by then was working towards his principle of uncertainty.
The Lehrs family rubbed shoulders with these physicists. Käthe was taught by Einstein and by the man she later married, Hans Edler. Rudi and Ernst would have come across some of the others as they pursued their studies in Berlin and Jena. Ernst Lehrs found himself at a conference in Stuttgart with Edwin Schrődinger. Schrődinger worked in Stuttgart for a while  and attended the same conference as Lehrs. Anthroposophism met head on with physics.
Rudolf Steiner, anyway, became well known for his clarity of vision. Physics was almost becoming mystical. Steiner seemed to concede that what the physicists were claiming was naturally true – and had been all along. We may these days find his lecture “Concerning Electricity” somewhat naïve. But for war-damaged and by-the-new-physics-confused Ernst Lehrs, and several other young men of his generation, Steiner was offering that something extra and a sense of home. By February 1923 he was forming his youth movement of which Ernst would become a part. We should remember that Steiner also had studied maths and physics and was particularly interested Goethe’s scientific papers, especially those dealing with colour.   
What most impressed Ernst Lehrs was the invitation from Steiner to think intuitively rather than discursively. The physicists anyway were turning the known and trusted science on its head and in fact suggesting something less natural and a little more esoteric. Why not, then, trust a master of spiritual matters more? At least he was one grounded in scientific discipline.   
World War II took its toll. Käthe used most of energy in getting herself and her daughter away from Germany but still kept an interest in science which she passed on to her daughter. Einstein went to America in 1933, where he found respect for relativity and never came back to Germany. Hans Edler became involved in designing the doodle-bug and the V2. British and American scientists built the first atom bomb. Ernst Lehrs, prevented from teaching in a German school because of his Jewish blood, went to Holland and then England as an anthroposophist rather than as a scientist.        

Wednesday, 27 March 2013

Hyperinflation 1922 – 1923 and the Rentenmark

Germany under the Weimar republic after World War 1 suffered badly financially. It had huge debts to pay and no gold reserves. It started printing money. A cycle of rising prices and wages followed. Some astute young men made killings in trading stocks and shares only to have their fortunes collapse shortly afterwards. Those living on fixed incomes suffered the most. Pensions and allowances became meaningless. Those in work encountered the inconvenience of having to turn their money into goods as soon as possible. There was a good trade in wheelbarrows – soon papers money was worth more as paper or kindling than as money and took up a lot of space, and once it was spent you needed to take home the preserved goods which were usually in tins and jars and therefore heavy.
 In the middle of all of this Käthe, Clara’s twenty-six-year-old daughter, marries. How would they pay for the wedding and importantly the dress? How did Clara survive this time? We know that Käthe married Hans Edler on 19 May 1923. At the moment we only hold a record of a registry office wedding. Possibly there was a church wedding as well, though the austerity of the times and Clara’s, Hans’ and Käthe’s great interest in science may have precluded this.
We know that Ernst senior was quite high up in the firm where he worked and therefore Clara would be receiving some sort of widow’s pension, presumably index-linked. Even in the 1920s she would be the sort of person to be allowed credit: she was clearly financially sound. The dressmaker may have been prepared to wait – especially if her own son was one of the bright young men who were trading successfully on the German stock exchange.
Even Clara, though, would have to turn cash into goods fairly quickly. Imelda the maid arrives in one scene with a wheelbarrow full of groceries.
Hans Lehrs junior describes an incident in his autobiography, Gelebte Erwartung, where he hesitates to buy a rucksack. When he returns to the shop, it has gone up in price. This is such a nice anecdote that it had to go into the story. I then needed to find a reason for why he decided to buy a rucksack at that time. I’m not going to give that away just yet, though. 
The Rentenmark was brought in on 15 November 1923. Its value was based on property and land and offered a pattern for secured loans that we still use today. This was only a temporary measure until the Reichsmark was brought in later. I know already that I have to make Clara able to understand this all very well. Later, she will use the deflation that occurs in the later 1920s to help her build the house on Schellbeg Street. I’ll probably therefore invent a conversation between her and possibly Ernst junior about the topic.   

Adam Ferguson's When Money Dies explains all about the German hyperinflation. 

Saturday, 23 March 2013

Albert Einstein

To most of us Albert Einstein was a slightly eccentric professor of physics, whose appearance matched the stereotype and maybe even have created it. He was immensely important to science and even those of us who know little about physics will associate the theory of relativity with that name. We may also know he was great mathematician, a good violinist and a Jew who was forced to live in exile.
It’s not difficult to find information about Einstein. The difficulty is in working out what he would have seemed like to Clara and her family.
The Lehrs, the Loewenthal and the Edler women were all interested in science. Käthe, Clara’s daughter actually studied at Berlin University whilst Einstein was still there and we know she attended a few of his lectures. It is possible that Clara and sons Ernst and Rudi may have attended some of his public lectures.
He first comes into my version of Clara’s story in 1917 just as he is about to leave the university and go and work in Switzerland. At this time he was quite ill but this was also the year that he applied the theory of relativity to the whole universe. By 1920 there were anti-relativity protests which some now believe actually had an anti-sematic agenda.
Einstein’s ideas on relativity captured the imagination of many. We know that Käthe was particularly excited about these new ideas and wanted to complete her doctorate studying under Einstein. She didn’t, of course, because she married another of her lecturers, Hans Edler.      
Einstein had a reputation for being quite witty. Perhaps his most well-known quote is “Two things are infinite: the universe and human stupidity; and I'm not sure about the universe”. Beware however, and here is a note about doing historical research: even using Google Scholar you can find pages and pages of unverified quotes, some coming from sites with an .ac URL. They may have not come from him. ASL provides the sources for the quotes at least. Two which Clara and Käthe may have come across in the early part of their story are:
"With fame I become more and more stupid, which of course is a very common phenomenon."
--Einstein to Heinrich Zangger, December 24, 1919.
"It is not so important where one settles down. The best thing is to follow your instincts without too much reflection."
--Einstein to Max Born, March 3, 1920. AEA 8-146.
We build up our myth about the man with the help of whichever material we can find. My task here has been to understand which version of that myth Clara and her family believed.       

Sunday, 17 March 2013

Fashion Statements

Although I’m possibly now writing for an adult readership - I still maintain that young people who have read Potatoes in Spring will enjoy The House on Schellberg Street – I’m writing this piece the same way as I write fiction for younger people. I see a picture in my head and I have to recreate that in the head of my readers.
However for some of the flashbacks, going back to the late 1800s and early 1900s I’ve had to create the pictures. I’ve had to know what people wore, how they furnished their homes and what the cities were like.
It’s been great fun finding out, especially when it came to dresses.

The earliest scene is in 1883, when Clara would have been almost twelve. She wouldn’t have her hair pinned up yet. Sunday best – or Saturday, for at that time Clara was still Jewish - may have included wearing a bustle. The skirt on the dress would have been knee-length and for ordinary days she would have worn a pinafore over a plain frock or blouse and petticoat.   
By the time Clara is twenty and meets her husband to be in 1891, dresses were still long and full. It is possible that the evening dress she wore for an unorthodox Hanukah celebration may have looked a little like one of these.                                        

By 1900 she is a young mother and la belle époque is just beginning in Berlin and Paris. There was romance and glamour. Electricity was being used more and more. She takes her six-year-old son riding the trams.
Her dress would have still been long, right to the ground, though less full than in the late 1800s. She would have worn a coat and a large hat. Leo would have probably worn a knickerbocker suit similar to the one shown here. The family was reasonably well-to-do and Clara takes him out shortly after he has come back from school.       

We meet Clara’s young family again in 1905. Little has changed in fashion in the last five years but perhaps we can now see nine-year-old Käthe in a full dress coming just below the knee. She would wear this with lace-up ankle boot.
In 1910, Leo is a young man and goes cycling a round Berlin. He would have worn a knickerbocker suit not so very different from what he’d worn as a little boy. There are lots of examples here.
Käthe joins the university and may have worn one of the newer, plainer, just above the ankle dresses in 1917.
In 1918 the whole family goes into mourning as Ernst Lehrs dies on 8 October, aged just 56. Although the family is now Christian, they still observe the Jewish habit of tearing their clothes for the funeral. The strict Victorian rules about mourning were being broken. Though Clara wearing a yellow blouse and having yellow feathers in her black hat are a little controversial there is no expectation that the family will wear black for months on end.
Käthe becomes engaged to be married in 1922. I had the most fun finding a dress for her to wear the evening Hans proposes. Eventually I decided on this. In the early twenties we have the jagged hemline that shows quite a bit of leg though more through the dress than below it. The low waist flatters her figure and the floaty chiffon sleeves show off her elegant arms. I’ve decided that this gentle gold is one of her best colours.       

Saturday, 9 March 2013

Berlin 1900

By 1901, the Berlin tramway system was electrified and there were even underground trams.  Trams moved along wide streets shared with horse-drawn carriages. Women still wore long skirts. Many households employed a maid but not a whole army of servants. The Lehrs family were middle-class. Ernst Lehrs was a salesman. This didn’t mean that he want form door to door selling his wares but rather that he negotiated deals for his firm. The Lehrs family was comfortably off.   
They probably lived in the Pariser Strasse, not far from the Kurfürstendam. We have this evidence form Käthe Lehrs’ marriage certificate. This street is now quite commercial. But even just a few years ago the elegance of the apartments there was still recognisable.
The Lehrs family had one great disadvantage. They were strictly speaking Jewish. Jewish families were still able to live without fear of persecution then. Many of them were wealthy and enjoyed a comfortable life-style. This may have engendered some jealousy. Deep-rooted dislike of Jews still existed in any case.  
A few years later, the Clara and Ernst Lehrs decided to convert to the Christian Evangelical faith. This was not because of some deep-seated religious conviction but rather because they sensed it was a more fashionable religion. The Lehrs, and before that the Loewenthals, were actually lovers of science so religion was a convenience rather than a faith.   
Women were not yet fully emancipated. Berlin was an exciting city to live in. Life was quite good for the Lehrs at that time.