Bern, Switzerland – Genius and Myth

Share

As we drove towards the city of Bern, capital of Switzerland, my wife and daughter were playing with two of their favorite toys.  Pat was busy with her digital video camera.  Anna was figuring out where to go with the help of her Global Positioning System (GPS). The invention of these toys and much else was made possible by the genius of one man, Albert Einstein. It was therefore only right and proper that, upon our arrival in Bern, we first made our way to the small apartment at 49 Kramgasse where Einstein conceived and developed his Special Theory of Relativity.

Einstein working as a patent clerk
Einstein working as a patent clerk
Einstein's apartment
Einstein's apartment

He had arrived in Bern at the age of 23 in 1902 and had rented this second floor apartment from 1903 until 1905.  Meanwhile, he had supported himself by working as a clerk at the Swiss Patent Office nearby. During his time in Bern, he published 32 scientific works. Among his most important papers were those published in 1905, for which he was ultimately awarded the Nobel Prize.  As I climbed the narrow stairs up to the apartment, it was awesome for me to realize that Einstein had climbed those very same stairs every day a century earlier, at the time when he was producing his best work and was at the peak of his powers.  Later in his life, during World War Two, Einstein was successful in persuading US President Franklin D Roosevelt to prepare atomic weapons. This led to the development of The Manhattan Project, which produced the two bombs dropped on Japan in 1945 and which must have given this noted pacifist something to think about. Today, the apartment is home to a small Einstein museum. The rooms where Einstein lived and worked have been restored to depict his exact lifestyle a century ago.

Bob and Anna in front of Einstein's house
Bob and Anna in the street in front of Einstein's house
Clock tower in Bern Switzerland
Clock tower in Bern Switzerland

The street on which the house stands has covered sidewalks, to which access can be gained through an archway in front of the building. In the middle of the street stands an eye-catching zytglogge or clock tower.

The Einstein house is close to Bern Cathedral.  The city of Bern was founded in 1191 by Berthold V, Duke of Zahringen.  The duke decided to name the city after the first animal killed in a hunt that he was holding. The unfortunate creature that first met its end was a bear, which in German is “bar”, and the city was so named.  Over the centuries “bar” has been corrupted to “Bern”. The first church on the cathedral site was built at around that time.  We visited the present cathedral, which is massive.

Bern Cathedral's ornate archway
Bern Cathedral's ornate archway

At its entrance, over the main portal, is a spectacular carving showing the Last Judgment and containing more than 200 figures in stone and wood.  Fortunately these images were not destroyed when Switzerland became Protestant at the time of the Reformation.

Moses Fountain
Moses Fountain

Yet, to compensate for that, the Moses Fountain was erected just outside the cathedral in 1545. The statue of Moses faces the cathedral and is pointing to the Second Commandment which forbids “graven images”.  However, many other graven images inside the cathedral were destroyed at the time of the Reformation, including several side chapels which were replaced by pews. A huge new church was then able accommodate a congregation many times the size of the local population, which seems rather unnecessary.

Walled city of Bern
Walled city of Bern

We walked on a terrace dating back to the 14th century, which had been built just to the south of the cathedral. It gave us a panoramic view of Bern and in particular of the Aare River, which encircles Bern almost entirely.  The river flows in the shape of a horseshoe and the city lies within the horseshoe. The city is therefore protected by the river on three sides.  With a short high wall on the fourth side, the city thereby enjoyed a degree of security essential for survival in medieval times.

Bundeshaus in Bern
Bundeshaus in Bern

We also visited the Bundeshaus in Bern, which is the home of the Swiss national parliament. The Swiss Confederation is made up of 26 separate cantons and dates back to 1291.   My dear wife and daughter were outraged to learn that women have only recently been permitted to vote in Swiss parliamentary elections.  The first canton to give women the vote did so in 1959 and all cantons had done so by 1990.

William Tell monument in Altdorf, Switzerland
William Tell monument in Altdorf, Switzerland

I was more upset by the absence of any memorial, statute or tribute outside the Bundeshaus in honor of William Tell.  Over the centuries, it has sometimes been necessary for Switzerland to fight for its independence. I had always understood that Tell was a Swiss national hero and freedom fighter, famous for driving the Austrians out of Switzerland in the 14th century.  Who can forget the legend of Tell being captured and then forced to shoot an arrow to remove an apple from each of his two sons’ heads?  His first shot rang true and the older boy, Walter, lived. However, Tell’s second shot to split the apple over his son Adam, went into his throat at the larynx, the area now known as the Adam’s apple. It would appear the Swiss may regard William Tell as a myth.  After all, we have no statues to Robin Hood in London or to Davy Crockett in Washington DC.