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The Real Lesson of the Racial Slurs in Albert Einstein’s Private Travel Diaries

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In 1971, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees literally turned Albert Einstein into their poster child. They produced a placard that brandished the renowned physicist’s image: in this specific case, they employed Philippe Halsman’s world-famous and haunting photograph of the German-Jewish refugee scientist in which his mournful eyes could not but help grab your attention. The photo was accompanied by the ingenious slogan, “A bundle of belongings isn’t the only thing a refugee brings to his new country. Einstein was a refugee.”

One could not think of a more relevant piece of printed ephemera for today’s world. As I noted in the preface to the new edition of Einstein’s travel diary to the Far East, Palestine, and Spain, from 1922-1923, which I edited, “[o]nce again, there are destitute refugees desperately trying to flee persecution and violent conflicts, huddled on unseaworthy vessels, sometimes drowning, and—if they do survive—are penned up in barely humane conditions in refugee camps. Once again, parents are frantically trying to get their children to safety, only to endure heart-wrenching and perilous journeys. Once again … walls of cement, barbed wire and prejudice are being erected to keep [foreigners] out.” And once again, despite the abundant cultural richness refugees and immigrants bring to their new homes, they are portrayed as threatening by their host nations.

Einstein has been known as an icon of humanitarianism for many decades. However, with the publication of this new edition of his Far East travel diary, the world has been shocked to learn that this paragon of benevolence and staunch champion of civil rights from the 1930s onwards was not always tolerant of his fellow human beings. The diary reveals entries that must strike the modern reader as highly disturbing, unveiling the fact that even this wise sage with the penetrating gaze held prejudiced and stereotypical beliefs about people from other nations.

But how could this be? How can one reconcile Einstein’s ubiquitous public saintly image with his distasteful private thoughts in which he described the Chinese as “[i]ndustrious, filthy, [and] obtuse” and “often more like automatons than people.” Even though Einstein sympathized with the harsh living conditions many of the Chinese people had to contend with, we also learn from the journal that “[i]t would be a pity if these Chinese supplant all other races” and that, perhaps most offensively, he cannot “understand what kind of fatal attraction Chinese women possess which enthralls the corresponding men to such an extent that they are incapable of defending themselves against the formidable blessing of offspring.”

Neither does Einstein spare members of his own ethnic group — in this case ultra-orthodox Jews in Jerusalem — from his insensitive comments. He described men at the Wailing Wall as “dull-witted ethnic brethren” and a “pitiful sight.”

These comments from Einstein’s six-month voyage to the Far and Middle East don’t exist in a vacuum. In 1918 he was asked by the mother of a brilliant German biology student to dissuade her son from joining the front in the First World War. Einstein complied and wrote: “Can this post of yours out there not be filled by an unimaginative average person of the type that come 12 to the dozen? Is it not more important than all that big scuffle out there that valuable people stay alive?” And in 1922, Einstein told his close friend, the physicist Paul Ehrenfest, whose 4-year-old son had recently been diagnosed with Down syndrome, that he agreed with his decision to institutionalize his son rather than care for him himself, because “valuable people should not be sacrificed for causes without any prospects, not even in this case.”

All these instances make it clear to me that there were definite limits to Einstein’s humanism, at least at this stage of his life.

The common thread in these statements is Einstein’s clear (and extreme) intellectual elitism. In every case in which he found the intelligence of his fellow human beings to be lacking, his humanism and compassion come to an abrupt and disquieting end. In the harsh comments in his 1922 travel diary, that same elitism comes into play, this time through an ethnic lens. When he sees “obtuseness” in the Chinese people with whom he is unfamiliar, when he makes claims about the alleged intellectual inferiority of the Japanese and the Sinhalese, when he perceives the ultra-orthodox Jews praying at the Western Wall in Jerusalem as “dull-witted,” his lack of empathy with his fellow human beings is revealed.

But should we explain away Einstein’s comments as being merely a product of the zeitgeist of the times in which he lived? At the time Einstein was recording his impressions from his trip to the Far East, in the early 1920s, so-called “scientific” theories on the biological differences between the members of various “races” were quite widespread. And the now-discredited ideas of eugenics, an ideology that espoused the “improvement of genetic stock,” were pervasive among European and American intellectuals of various political persuasions.

Merely a decade after the composition of Einstein’s travel diary, European Jews would be subjected to deadly racism under the Nazis, who adhered to the worst logical extension of these untenable ideas. But, though historians of German Jewry maintain that Jewish intellectuals “never explicitly embraced the doctrine of racial superiority,” as historian Donald L. Niewyk has phrased it, even they were not immune to biological views on racial affairs and eugenics during this period. Especially at a time when religious definitions of Jewish identity were waning, both fervent Zionists and Jewish assimilationists, looking for new ways to define the Jewish people as well as other groups, adhered to ideas that are now seen to fall under the umbrella of “scientific racism.” As shown in the diary, Einstein was not unsusceptible to such opinions. In Hong Kong, on the very same day he decries the possibility of the Chinese supplanting all other races, he praises the “fact” that the Jewish people have maintained their “racial purity” throughout the millennia. We see in his unguarded comments that he did indeed believe in a hierarchy of the biological and (of uppermost importance to him) intellectual capabilities among the members of various peoples and ethnicities.

But I don’t think we should dismiss Einstein’s disobliging remarks as merely being a product of the prevailing zeitgeist and for multiple reasons. As a humanist icon, we hold Einstein to a higher standard, whether this is fair or not. If we are going to hold him up as an example of something, we should understand his full, complex views on the subject. Furthermore, as I attempt to show in my historical analysis of the diary, there were contemporary attitudes out there that were far more tolerant than those expressed by Einstein in his offhand private comments in his travel diary. There were those who did not adhere to such a hierarchical view of the intellectual capabilities of the members of various ethnic groupings, such as the prominent German-American sociologist Franz Boas and the preeminent African American civil rights activist W.E.B. Du Bois, who both adamantly and vociferously opposed alleged “scientific racism” at exactly the same time Einstein was espousing racial and eugenic theories.

At the same time, I don’t believe we have the right to be condemnatory of the great scientist’s private prejudices and stereotypes without sincerely and honestly examining our own darker sides — our own predilection to pass hasty and unkind judgments on the members of foreign nations and ethnicities, and our secret desires to exclude them and their plights from our comfortable lives. The fact that not even the subsequent humanist icon Einstein did a brilliant job of seeing the Other in himself a decade before he himself became a refugee from the racist policies of the Nazis provides us with a golden opportunity to acknowledge the more disquieting aspects of our own personalities. In today’s increasingly less tolerant and hate-filled world, Einstein’s travel diary to the Far East challenges us all to recognize ourselves in the Other and the Other’s otherness in ourselves.

Ze’ev Rosenkranz is editor of The Travel Diaries of Albert Einstein — The Far East, Palestine, and Spain, 1922 – 1923, available now. He is the senior editor and assistant director of the Einstein Papers Project at the California Institute of Technology.

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