By Prarthana Mitra
Shocking details of racism and xenophobic generalisations emerge from Albert Einstein’s private travel journals, recently published by the Princeton University Press. Written between October 1922 and March 1923 as a first-person record of his experiences in Asia and the Middle East, the diaries are replete with sweeping and negative stereotypes about the east, from the life-long advocate of African-American civil rights who famously called racism “a disease of white people.”
It naturally comes as a nasty shock for researchers and fans who put the humanitarian icon on a pedestal.
Negotiating Einstein’s public humanism with his private prejudices
In 1922, the same year he received the Nobel Prize in Physics, Albert Einstein set out on a five-and-a-half-month odyssey with his wife, to discover a new world: the Far East and Middle East.
Over the course of being feted and felicitated at pit stops, including Hong Kong and Singapore, China, Japan, India, Sri Lanka and Palestine, the scientist also maintained a diary where he noted down his impressions of the people he met, in starkly racist terms.
'Filthy and obtuse': Einstein's diary from Asia trip exposes unknown racist side https://t.co/xBaS8x5XZG
— Haaretz.com (@haaretzcom) June 14, 2018
The physicist describes facing “Levantines of every shade… as if spewed from hell” while speaking of traders who came aboard their ship at a port in Egypt to sell their wares. Of the people in Colombo (Sri Lanka, then Ceylon) he writes, “They live in great filth and considerable stench down on the ground, do little, and need little.”
However, he reserves his most scathing judgements for the Chinese, calling them “industrious, filthy, obtuse people” and theirs a nation of “automatons than people.” Over the course of his tirade, he also says, “It would be a pity if these Chinese supplant all other races. For the likes of us, the mere thought is unspeakably dreary.”
The fact that the Jewish scientist emigrated to the US in 1933 after the rise of Adolf Hitler and the Nazi party, casts a confusing light on Einstein’s stereotyping of members of various nations, and raises “questions about his attitudes on race,” according to Princeton University Press, which has published the first full English-language edition of the original version in German.
So what does the man who edited the entries have to say?
According to Ze’ev Rosenkranz assistant director of the Einstein Papers Project at the California Institute of Technology and the editor of the book, portraying other races as biologically inferior is a clear hallmark of racism.
Besides attributing to the man “a healthy dose of extreme misogyny”, Rosenkranz writes in an email to the New York Times, about a xenophobia “confronts us with the limits of his humanism, his intellectual elitism.”
While many, including Chinese aficionados of the physicist, have dismissed the diary entries on grounds that they merely reflect the attitudes of the era, Rosenkranz told The Guardian that the xenophobia and prejudice they revealed were not exactly universal.
“Albert Einstein was racist” yeah no shit he was a white guy who lived a hundred years ago, I would honestly be more surprised if he wasn’t racist.
— Olivia Haiduck (@hitherehaidar) June 15, 2018
“That’s usually the reaction I get: ‘We have to understand, he was of the zeitgeist, part of the time,’” he said. “But I think I tried here and there to give a broader context. There were other views out there, more tolerant views.”
Einstein’s unsympathetic remarks on races that have been persecuted by the west for centuries complicate and contradict the portrait of a man often noted for his scientific brilliance as well as public humanitarianism. Of all the epithets that sum up Einstein’s legacy as the father of modern science, it is hard to think that “closeted anti-Oriental racist” could be one of them.
Prarthana Mitra is a staff writer at Qrius.
Stay updated with all the insights.
Navigate news, 1 email day.
Subscribe to Qrius