Albert Einstein was widely known during his lifetime for his work with the theory of relativity and physics in general. His political opinions were of public interest through the middle of the 20th century due to his fame and involvement in political, humanitarian and academic projects around the world. He was often called upon to give judgments and opinions on matters often unrelated to theoretical physics or mathematics. Einstein's visible position in society allowed him to speak and write frankly, even provocatively, at a time when many people were silenced due to the rise of the Nazi movement.
Einstein participated in the 1927 congress of the League against Imperialism in Brussels. Einstein also met with many humanists and humanitarian luminaries including Rabindranath Tagore with whom he had extensive conversations in 1930 prior to leaving Germany.
Einstein and Germany
Born in Ulm, Einstein was a German citizen from birth. As he grew older, Einstein's pacifism often clashed with the German Empire's militant views at the time. At the age of 17, Einstein renounced his German citizenship and moved to Switzerland to attend college. The loss of Einstein's citizenship allowed him to avoid service in the military, which suited his pacifist views. In response to a Manifesto of the Ninety-Three signed by 93 leading German intellectuals including Max Planck in support of the German war effort, Einstein and three others wrote a counter-manifesto. Einstein accepted a position at the University of Berlin in 1914, returning to Germany where he spent his time during the rest of World War I. Einstein also reacquired his German citizenship. In the years after the war, Einstein was very vocal in his support for Germany. In 1918, Einstein was one of the founding members of the German Democratic Party. In 1921, Einstein refused to attend the third Solvay Congress in Belgium, as his German compatriots were excluded. In 1922, Einstein joined a committee sponsored by the League of Nations, but quickly left when the League refused to act on France's occupation of the Ruhr in 1923. As a member of the German League of Human Rights, Einstein worked hard to repair relations between Germany and France.
Einstein moved to the United States in December 1932, where he worked at the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena, California, and lectured at Abraham Flexner's newly founded Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton, New Jersey. Einstein renounced his German citizenship in 1933 due to the rise of Adolf Hitler and the Nazi Party.
During the 1930s and into World War II, Einstein wrote affidavits recommending United States visas for European Jews who were trying to flee persecution and lobbied for looser immigration rules. He raised money for Zionist organizations and was, in part, responsible for the 1933 formation of the International Rescue Committee,
In Germany, Deutsche Physik activists published pamphlets and even textbooks denigrating Einstein. Nobel laureates Philipp Lenard and Johannes Stark led a campaign to eliminate Einstein's work from the German lexicon as unacceptable "Jewish physics" (Jüdische Physik). Instructors who taught his theories were blacklisted, including Nobel laureate Werner Heisenberg, who had debated quantum probability with Bohr and Einstein. Philipp Lenard claimed that the mass–energy equivalence formula needed to be credited to Friedrich Hasenöhrl to make it an Aryan creation. A man convicted of inciting others to kill Einstein was fined a mere six dollars.
After World War II ended, and the Nazis were removed from power, Einstein refused to associate with Germany. Einstein refused several honors bestowed upon him by Germany, as he could not forgive the Germans for the Holocaust, where 6 million of his fellow Jews were killed.
Einstein was a prominent supporter of both Labor Zionism and supported efforts to encourage Jewish-Arab cooperation. He supported the creation of a Jewish national homeland in the British mandate of Palestine but was opposed until 1948 to the idea of a Jewish state "with borders, an army, and a measure of temporal power." According to Marc Elis, Einstein declared himself a human being, a Jew, an opponent of nationalism and as a Zionist.; he supported the idea of a Jewish homeland in Palestine but until summer 1947 conceived of this as a bi-national state with "continuously functioning, mixed, administrative, economic, and social organizations."
His speeches and lectures about Zionism were published in 1931 by The Macmillan Company and eleven of these essays were collected in a 1933 book entitled Mein Weltbild and translated into English as The World as I See It; Einstein's foreword dedicates the collection "to the Jews of Germany". In the face of Germany's rising militarism, Einstein wrote and spoke for peace.
Einstein publicly stated reservations about the proposal to partition the British mandate of Palestine into independent Arab and Jewish countries. In a 1938 speech, "Our Debt to Zionism", he said: "I should much rather see reasonable agreement with the Arabs on the basis of living together in peace than the creation of a Jewish state. My awareness of the essential nature of Judaism resists the idea of a Jewish state with borders, an army, and a measure of temporal power, no matter how modest. I am afraid of the inner damage Judaism will sustain—especially from the development of a narrow nationalism within our own ranks, against which we have already had to fight strongly, even without a Jewish state. ... If external necessity should after all compel us to assume this burden, let us bear it with tact and patience.". His attitudes were nuanced: In his testimony before the Anglo-American Committee of Inquiry in January 1946 he stated that he was not in favour of the creation of a Jewish state, while in a 1947 letter to Indian Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru intended to persuade India to support the establishment of a Jewish state, Einstein stated that the Balfour Declaration's proposal to establish a national home for Jews in Palestine "redresses the balance" of justice and history. Einstein remained strongly supportive of unlimited Jewish immigration to Palestine.
The United Nations ultimately recommended division the mandate and the establishment of a Jewish State, and the 1948 Arab-Israeli war broke out as the mandate ended. Einstein was one of the authors of an open letter to the New York Times in 1948 deeply criticizing Menachem Begin's Herut (Freedom) Party for the Deir Yassin massacre (Einstein et al. 1948) likening it to "the Nazi and Fascist parties" and stated "The Deir Yassin incident exemplifies the character and actions of the Freedom Party". This letter has led some to believe Einstein to be anti-Zionist, although Einstein's motivation was a concern for the future of Israel if the Freedom Party continued to gain power. When President Harry Truman recognized Israel in May 1948, Einstein declared it "the fulfillment of our (Jewish) dreams." Einstein also supported vice president Henry Wallace’s Progressive Party during 1948 Presidential election which also advocated a pro-Soviet and pro-Israel foreign policy.
Einstein served on the Board of Governors of The Hebrew University of Jerusalem. In his Will of 1950, Einstein bequeathed literary rights to his writings to The Hebrew University, where many of his original documents are held in the Albert Einstein Archives.
When President Chaim Weizmann died in 1952, Einstein was asked to be Israel's second president, but he declined, stating that he had "neither the natural ability nor the experience to deal with human beings." He wrote: "I am deeply moved by the offer from our State of Israel, and at once saddened and ashamed that I cannot accept it."
Einstein was a proponent of civil rights. When he arrived in America, he objected to the mistreatment of African Americans. Einstein, who had experienced heavy anti-Semitic discrimination in pre-World War II Germany worked with a number of leading civil rights activists and civil rights organizations (such as the Princeton chapter of the NAACP) to demand equality and denounce racism and segregation. Wherever he saw injustice, Einstein spoke out. When African-American singer and civil rights supporter Marian Anderson was denied rooms at hotels and forbidden to eat at public restaurants, Einstein invited her to his home. After a bloody racial riot in 1946 in which 500 state troopers with submachine guns attacked and destroyed virtually every black-owned business in a four-square-block area in Tennessee and arrested 25 black men for attempted murder, Einstein joined Eleanor Roosevelt, Langston Hughes, and Thurgood Marshall to fight for justice for the men. Later, 24 of the 25 defendants were acquitted.
In 1946, the Nobel Prize-winning physicist traveled to Lincoln University in Pennsylvania, the alma mater of Langston Hughes and Thurgood Marshall and the first school in America to grant college degrees to blacks. At Lincoln, Einstein received an honorary degree and gave a lecture on relativity to Lincoln students.
Also, when two black couples were murdered in Monroe, Georgia, and justice was not served, Einstein was so outraged, he lent his prominence to actor and activist Paul Robeson’s American Crusade to End Lynching and wrote a letter to President Truman calling for prosecution of lynchers and passage of a federal anti-lynching law. He became good friends with Robeson and when Robeson was blacklisted because of his activism against racism, again it was Einstein who opened his home to his long-time friend of 20 years.
From the Scottsboro Boys case to the numerous attempts to stop the execution of Willie McGee, a black Mississippi sharecropper accused of raping a white woman, and efforts to prevent New Jersey from extraditing Sam Buckhannon, a black Georgian who had escaped a chain gang after serving 18 years for stealing a pack of cigarettes, Einstein used his fame to condemn American racism.
Einstein was one of the thousands of signatories of Magnus Hirschfeld's petition against Paragraph 175 of the German penal code, which condemned homosexuality. The petition ran for more than thirty years in the intellectual circles thanks to the activity of Hirschfeld's Wissenschaftlich-humanitäres Komitee (Scientific-Humanitarian Committee), which collected many signatures from the Jewish intellectual elite.
Concerned scientists, many of them refugees in the U.S. from German anti-Semitism, recognized the danger of German scientists' developing an atomic bomb based on the newly discovered phenomena of nuclear fission. In 1939, the Hungarian émigré Leó Szilárd, having failed to arouse U.S. government interest on his own, worked with Einstein to write a letter to U.S. President Franklin Delano Roosevelt, which Einstein signed, urging U.S. development of such a weapon. On 11 October 1939 Alexander Sachs, an adviser to Roosevelt on economic affairs, delivered the Einstein–Szilárd letter and persuaded the president of its importance. "This requires action", Roosevelt told an aide, and authorized secret research into the harnessing of nuclear fission for military purposes.
By 1942 this effort had become the Manhattan Project, the largest secret scientific endeavor undertaken up to that time. By late 1945, the U.S., with support from the United Kingdom and Canada, had developed operational nuclear weapons, and used them on the Japanese cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Einstein himself did not play a role in the development of the atomic bomb other than signing the letter although he did help the United States Navy with some unrelated theoretical questions it was working on during the war.
According to Linus Pauling, Einstein later expressed regret about his letter to Roosevelt, adding that Einstein had originally justified his decision because of the greater danger that Nazi Germany would develop the bomb first. In 1947, Einstein told Newsweek magazine that "had I known that the Germans would not succeed in developing an atomic bomb, I would have done nothing." In that same year, he wrote an article for The Atlantic Monthly arguing that the United States should not try to pursue an atomic monopoly, and instead should equip the United Nations with nuclear weapons for the sole purpose of maintaining deterrence.
Cold War politics
When he was a visible figure working against the rise of Nazism, Einstein had sought help and developed working relationships in both the West and what was to become the Soviet bloc. After World War II, enmity between the former allies became a very serious issue for people with international résumés. To make things worse, during the first days of McCarthyism Einstein was writing about a single world government; it was at this time that he wrote, "I do not know how the third World War will be fought, but I can tell you what they will use in the Fourth — sticks and stones." In a 1949 Monthly Review article entitled "Why Socialism?" Albert Einstein described a chaotic capitalist society, a source of evil to be overcome, as the "predatory phase of human development" (Einstein 1949). With Albert Schweitzer and Bertrand Russell, Einstein lobbied to stop nuclear testing and future bombs. Days before his death, Einstein signed the Russell-Einstein Manifesto, which led to the Pugwash Conferences on Science and World Affairs.
Einstein was a member of several civil rights groups, including the Princeton chapter of the NAACP. When the aged W. E. B. Du Bois was accused of being a Communist spy, Einstein volunteered as a character witness, and the case was dismissed shortly afterward. Einstein's friendship with activist Paul Robeson, with whom he served as co-chair of the American Crusade to End Lynching, lasted twenty years.
In 1946, Einstein collaborated with Rabbi Israel Goldstein, Middlesex University heir C. Ruggles Smith, and activist attorney George Alpert on the Albert Einstein Foundation for Higher Learning, which was formed to create a Jewish-sponsored secular university, open to all students, on the grounds of the former Middlesex University in Waltham, Massachusetts. Middlesex was chosen in part because it was accessible from both Boston and New York City, Jewish cultural centers of the U.S. Their vision was a university "deeply conscious both of the Hebraic tradition of Torah looking upon culture as a birthright, and of the American ideal of an educated democracy." The collaboration was stormy, however. Finally, when Einstein wanted to appoint British economist Harold Laski as the university's president, George Alpert wrote that Laski was "a man utterly alien to American principles of democracy, tarred with the Communist brush." Einstein withdrew his support and barred the use of his name. The university opened in 1948 as Brandeis University. In 1953, Brandeis offered Einstein an honorary degree, but he declined.
Einstein was in favour of socialism and in opposition to capitalism, as illustrated by the following quote:
Einstein thought highly of Lenin, saying: "I honor Lenin as a man who completely sacrificed himself and devoted all his energy to the realization of social justice. I do not consider his methods practical, but one thing is certain: men of his type are the guardians and restorers of humanity."
Einstein held a form of socialism called Georgism (named after the political economist Henry George) in high regard, writing: "One cannot imagine a more beautiful combination of intellectual keenness, artistic form and fervent love of justice."
Given Einstein's links to Germany and Zionism, his socialist ideals, and his links to Communist figures, the U.S. Federal Bureau of Investigation kept a file on Einstein that grew to 1,427 pages.
Einstein considered Joseph McCarthy, a U.S. senator involved in the anti-communist Red Scare, a danger to intellectual freedom. William Frauenglass, a New York city school teacher who, having been called to testify, refused, and facing dismissal from his position, wrote to Einstein for support. In his reply, Einstein stated: "The reactionary politicians have managed to instill suspicion of all intellectual efforts into the public by dangling before their eyes a danger from without. Having succeeded so far they are now proceeding to suppress the freedom of teaching and to deprive of their positions all those who do not prove submissive, i.e. to starve them." His advice: "Every intellectual who is called before one of the committees ought to refuse to testify, i.e. he must be prepared for jail and economic ruin, in short, for the sacrifice of his personal welfare in the interest of the cultural welfare of his country."
Concluding, Einstein said, "If enough people are ready to take this grave step they will be successful. If not, then the intellectuals of this country deserve nothing better than the slavery which is intended for them."
Einstein was a lifelong pacifist and believed that wars stood in the way of human progress. He believed that wars were the result of natural aggressive tendencies found within all organisms and that the aims and causes of war were simply justification for these tendencies. He advocated the creation of a supranational organization would make war as impossible in Europe as it was impossible between the former kingdoms that comprised the German Empire. Einstein was horrified by the destruction caused by World War I and promoted what he referred to as the "two percent plan". According to the plan, nations would be unable to wage war if one in 50 men refused to serve in the military.
Despite these views, following the rise to power of Adolf Hitler, Einstein became a vocal advocate for preparedness, recognizing the dangers of Nazi Germany gaining an advantage over the Western Allies. Alarmed at Hitler’s territorial ambitions, Einstein actively encouraged Belgians to join the military to protect European civilization. He explained the change in his outlook in 1941:
In the twenties, when no dictatorships existed, I advocated that refusing to go to war would make war improper. But as soon as coercive conditions appeared in certain nations, I felt that it would weaken the less aggressive nations vis-à-vis the more aggressive ones.
Einstein justified his letter to President Roosevelt recommending that an atomic bomb be produced by writing:
...it seemed probable that the Germans might be working on the same problem with every prospect of success. I had no alternative but to act as I did, although I have always been a convinced pacifist. (emphasis in original)
When questioned about this position, Einstein wrote:
I did not say that I was an absolute pacifist, but rather that I has always been a convinced pacifist. While I am a convinced pacifist, there are circumstances in which I believe the use of force is appropriate – namely, in the face of an enemy unconditionally bent on destroying me and my people. ... I am a dedicated but not an absolute pacifist; this means that I am opposed to the use of force under any circumstances except when confronted by an enemy who pursues the destruction of life as an end in itself. (emphasis in original)
He further explained:
I have always been a pacifist, i.e. I have declined to recognize brute force as a means for the solution of international conflicts. Nevertheless, it is, in my opinion, not reasonable to cling to that principle unconditionally. An exception has necessarily to be made if a hostile power threatens wholesale destruction of one's own group.
Following the conclusion of World War II, Einstein once again became a constant and vocal activist for world peace.