You would have never expected this out of a genius who revolutionized the world of physics, but sadly it is true. The man we know and admire today was actually very racist. Newly published private travel diaries have revealed Albert Einstein’s racist and xenophobic views. Written between October 1922 and March 1923, the diaries track his experiences in Asia and the Middle East. In them, he makes sweeping and negative generalizations, for example calling the Chinese “industrious, filthy, obtuse people”. Einstein would later in life advocate for civil rights in the US, calling racism “a disease of white people”.
This is the first time the diaries have been published as a standalone volume in English. Published by Princeton University Press, The Travel Diaries of Albert Einstein: The Far East, Palestine, and Spain, 1922-1923 was edited by Ze’ev Rosenkranz, assistant director of the California Institute of Technology’s Einstein Papers Project. Einstein travelled from Spain to the Middle East and via Sri Lanka, then called Ceylon, on to China and Japan. The physicist describes arriving in Port Said in Egypt and facing “Levantines of every shade… as if spewed from hell” who come aboard their ship to sell their goods.
Einstein’s comments on people from India and Sri Lanka were similarly demeaning, while he jotted down less-nasty but nonetheless racist and borderline eugenic thoughts about those from Japan.
“Pure souls as nowhere else among people. One has to love and admire this country,” he wrote of Japan, but later added, “Intellectual needs of this nation seem to be weaker than their artistic ones — natural disposition?”
He also describes his time in Colombo in Ceylon, writing of the people: “They live in great filth and considerable stench down on the ground, do little, and need little.”
But the famous physicist reserves his most cutting comments for Chinese people.
According to a piece in the Guardian about the diaries, he describes Chinese children as “spiritless and obtuse”, and calls it “a pity if these Chinese supplant all other races”.
In other entries he calls China “a peculiar herd-like nation,” and “more like automatons than people”, before claiming there is “little difference” between Chinese men and women, and questioning how the men are “incapable of defending themselves” from female “fatal attraction”.
Noted for both his scientific brilliance and his humanitarianism, Albert Einstein emigrated to the US in 1933 after the rise of Adolf Hitler and the Nazi party. The Jewish scientist described racism as “a disease of white people” in a 1946 speech at Lincoln University in Pennsylvania.
Einstein’s theory of relativity changed how people thought about space and time but these diaries demonstrate how his own personal views about race seem to have altered over the years.
The writings may have been intended as private thoughts but their publication will upset some in America, where campaigners still celebrate Albert Einstein as one of the voices that helped shine a light on segregation.
When he moved to the US in 1933 he was taken aback by the separate schools and cinemas for blacks and whites and Einstein subsequently joined the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People. He is said to have told people that he saw similarities in the way Jews were being hounded in Germany and how African-Americans were being treated in his new homeland.
He chose Lincoln University in Pennsylvania, a historically black college, to give one of his most damning speeches just a year after the end of World War Two. His diaries are full of gut reactions and private insights. In the context of the 21st Century they may tarnish the reputation of a man who is revered almost as much as a humanitarian as a scientist. But the words were written before he saw what racism could lead to in America and Germany – a country he had effectively fled.
So what is to be made of Einstein’s early, private writings in which the greatest mind of the 20th century expressed such ugly views?
Rosenkrantz, who is senior editor and assistant director of the Einstein Papers Project at the California Institute of Technology, said that “It would be easy to say, yes, he became more enlightened,” but that it’s possible that Einstein continued to harbor racist or xenophobic opinions in private.
What’s clear is that Einstein was a complex human being with faults as well as tremendous gifts.
“One should emphasize the different elements and contradictory elements in the statements that he made and in his personality,” said Rosenkranz. “On one hand, he was very generous and very favorable. … But there’s also these statements that one should not ignore.”