Einstein’s travel diary reveals racist attitudes

Einstein’s travel diary reveals racist attitudes

In newly published papers, scientist calls Chinese 'industrious, filthy, obtuse,' and in Egypt describes seeing 'Levantines of every shade... as if spewed from hell'

Albert Einstein, during a lecture in Vienna in 1921. (Wikipedia/public domain)
Albert Einstein, during a lecture in Vienna in 1921. (Wikipedia/public domain)

A recently published English translation of Albert Einstein’s travel diaries shows a deep-seated racist and xenophobic attitude that contrasts with the scientist’s later vocal stand against racism in the US.

In excerpts released Wednesday, Einstein described the Chinese as “industrious, filthy, obtuse people.” He wrote of them that “it would be a pity if these Chinese supplant all other races. For the likes of us the mere thought is unspeakably dreary.”

He went on to describe the Chinese as “a peculiar herd-like nation,” and “more like automatons than people.”

The book’s editor, Ze’ev Rosenkranz, assistant director of the California Institute of Technology’s Einstein Papers Project, told the Guardian that many readers would be shocked by Einstein’s attitudes.

“Here, Einstein perceives a foreign ‘race’ as a threat, which… is one of the characteristics of a racist ideology,” he said. “Yet the remark that must strike the modern reader as most offensive is his feigning not to understand how Chinese men can find their women sufficiently attractive to have offspring with them. In light of these instances, we must conclude that Einstein did make quite a few racist and dehumanizing comments in the diary, some of which were extremely unpleasant.”

Rosenkranz said the attitudes in the diary fly in the face of the public image of the great humanitarian icon. “I think it’s quite a shock to read those and contrast them with his more public statements,” he said. “They’re more off guard, he didn’t intend them for publication.”

Ze’ev Rosenkranz, assistant director of the California Institute of Technology’s Einstein Papers Project. (Screen capture: YouTube)

Einstein toured the Far East, the Middle East and Spain between October 1922 and March 1923, and kept note of his thoughts on science, philosophy and art, as well as his impressions of the places he visited.

Describing Ceylon (modern-day Sri Lanka), he wrote that the people there “live in great filth and considerable stench at ground level.”

He was more positive about the Japanese people, though felt that they were intellectually inferior.

Japanese are “unostentatious, decent, altogether very appealing,” he wrote. “Pure souls as nowhere else among people. One has to love and admire this country.”

However, he also noted that the “intellectual needs of this nation seem to be weaker than their artistic ones – natural disposition?”

In Egypt, Einstein described arriving in Port Said and facing “Levantines of every shade… as if spewed from hell.”

Einstein emigrated to the US as a refugee from Nazi Germany in 1933 after the rise of Adolf Hitler. He became an advocate for civil rights, describing racism as a “disease of white people” in a 1946 speech at Pennsylvania’s Lincoln University — the first university to award degrees to African-Americans.

“The separation of the races [segregation] is not a disease of colored people, but a disease of white people,” he said, adding: “I do not intend to be quiet about it.”

“The Travel Diaries of Albert Einstein: The Far East, Palestine, and Spain, 1922 – 1923” by Albert Einstein, is edited by Ze’ev Rosenkranz and published by Princeton University Press.

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