Albert Einstein is known not only as one of history’s greatest scientists and thinkers, but also as a proponent of human rights. He famously spoke out against segregation in the United States and, in 1946, called segregationist policies “a disease of white people.” But as Alison Flood reports for the Guardian, the recent publication of Einstein’s travel diaries have complicated this perception of him as a staunch humanitarian. During his travels abroad, the iconic physicist often described the people he encountered in starkly racist terms.
In October of 1922, Einstein and his wife, Elsa Einstein, set out on a five-and-a-half-month tour of the Far East and Middle East. They visited Hong Kong, Singapore, China, Japan and Palestine, before heading to Spain. At the time of the journey, Einstein was arguably the world’s most famous scientist; his theory of relativity had been confirmed in 1919, and in 1921, he was awarded the Nobel Prize for his contributions to theoretical physics.
The diaries that Einstein kept during his travels have previously been published in German, with “small supplementary translations into English,” Flood explains. But a new edition by Princeton University Press, titled The Travel Diaries of Albert Einstein, marks the first time that these writings have been published as a standalone volume in English. A number of passages from the diaries, which many people will now be able to read for the first time, are deeply troubling.
In Hong Kong, Einstein wrote, “even those reduced to working like horses never give the impression of conscious suffering. A peculiar herd-like nation [ … ] often more like automatons than people.”
“I noticed how little difference there is between men and women,” he added. “I don’t 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.”
Upon his travels in mainland China, Einstein opined that people there were “industrious, filthy, obtuse.” He expressed disdain for the way the “Chinese don’t sit on benches while eating but squat like Europeans do when they relieve themselves out in the leafy woods.”
“It would be a pity if these Chinese supplant all other races,” Einstein remarked. “For the likes of us, the mere thought is unspeakably dreary.”
Einstein was more generous about the Japanese. As Jerry Adler reported in a Smithsonian Magazine piece about the translated travel diaries, Einstein had "a strong affinity" for Japan long before arriving in the country. He described the people he encountered there as “unostentatious, decent, altogether very appealing.” He does express the view, however, that the “[i]ntellectual needs of this nation seem to be weaker than their artistic ones.”
According to Judith Vonberg of CNN, the scientist referred to the people he saw in at Port Said in Egypt as “screaming and gesticulating Levantines of every shade, who lunge at our ship. As if spewed from hell.” The natives of Colombo in Ceylon (a country now known as Sri Lanka) he described as “intrusive” and “primitive.”
In these writings, “other peoples are portrayed as being biologically inferior, a clear hallmark of racism,” Ze’ev Rosenkranz, assistant director of the Einstein Papers Project at the California Institute of Technology and the editor of the book, writes in the new volume, according to Yonette Jospeh and Tiffany May of the New York Times.
Some might argue that Einstein’s views simply reflect the common prejudices of a bygone era. “I don’t like that explanation,” Rosenkranz tells CNN’s Vonberg. “There were other views prevalent at the time that were more tolerant.”
Perhaps we must accept that Einstein’s views on race were complicated—and problematic. “I'm in favor of a much more complex perception of him as a human being,” Rosenkranz tells Vonberg. “The public image is often very two-dimensional, very black and white.”