A journal kept by Albert Einstein throughout his travels in the Far East, recently published by Princeton University Press, reveals xenophobic and racist attitudes that stand in stark contrast to the physicist’s legacy as a humanitarian and outspoken proponent of civil rights.
This is the first time that the diary, written from late 1922 to early 1923 and not intended for publication, has been published in English. In the journal, Einstein records his observations about politics, philosophy, science and art.
But he also remarks on the people he meets, often using derogatory language to do so. His travel logs are particularly harsh on the Chinese. He says their children "are spiritless and look obtuse.”
“It would be a pity if these Chinese supplant all other races,” he continues. “For the likes of us the mere thought is unspeakably dreary.”
These revelations are particularly shocking coming from the man who once described racism as "a disease of white people." While Einstein is most widely known for his achievements in science, historians have also noted his active engagement with civil rights politics in the United States. Additionally, he spoke out against Nazi fascism in his native Germany while advocating for his fellow European Jews.
Ze’ev Rosenkranz, senior editor and assistant director of the Einstein Papers Project at the California Institute of Technology, edited and translated “The Travel Diaries of Albert Einstein.” He told NBC News on Wednesday that bringing this research to light can contextualize several other instances in Einstein’s life that could be considered to exist within the same thread of intolerance and intellectual elitism.
As an example, Rosenkranz cited a letter that Einstein wrote to a biology student whom Einstein attempted to dissuade from joining the front lines in World War I. In a letter to the student, Einstein 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?"
“For me, that was kind of an indication of what kind of lives he found valuable, and which he didn’t,” Rosenkranz said.
Rosenkranz also cited a letter in which Einstein told a friend whose son had Down syndrome that he agreed with the friend's decision to institutionalize him rather than care for his son himself, because "valuable people should not be sacrificed for causes without any prospects, not even in this case," he wrote.
Einstein also wrote about his own sickly son, contemplating whether to follow an ancient Spartan tradition and leave him to die in the wilderness, which he ultimately decided against, instead seeking specialized care.
But Rosenkranz made it clear that Einstein was a complex figure, having described the Chinese more positively in earlier writings. Einstein also “expresses a kind of disgust with Europeans in the journals as well, especially in regards to their treatment of colonized people,” Rosenkranz said.
“I would hope that people have a more authentic view and contextualized view of his personality and see him more as a three-dimensional person, who like all of us had prejudices, who could be offensive,” Rosenkranz said. “It’s a multifaceted issue. Right now we’re focusing on racism, and I think we should focus on it as well, but it’s a part of a whole context.”