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Einstein's Deeply Held Political Beliefs

Part of the Einstein exhibition.

Einstein was uncomfortable with his fame.

He told one biographer, "In the past it never occurred to me that every casual remark of mine would be snatched up and recorded. Otherwise I would have crept further into my shell." But Einstein recognized that his fame made it possible for him to serve as a powerful advocate for his deeply held political beliefs. A passionate humanitarian, he emerged from his shell to argue for the protection of human rights around the world.

Many of Einstein's political ideas seemed simple: prevent war through cooperation among nations, treat everyone equally. But he knew that "the problem is to get people to act" on these ideas. He supported the creation of a Jewish homeland in the Middle East but stressed the need for cooperation between Jews and Arabs. He worried that the United Nations did not have the authority to prevent war. He emphasized the need to safeguard civil rights and freedom of expression.

Einstein's views on other issues, including socialism, McCarthyism, and racism, were controversial—so controversial, in fact, that the U.S. government considered him a possible Communist spy. Yet Einstein never backed down from his commitment to the principles of freedom and justice. "We have to do the best we can," he remarked. "This is our sacred responsibility."

World Government: Erasing National Boundaries

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  The Hebrew University of Jerusalem
Photo: Albert Einstein Archive

Einstein's passionate commitment to the cause of global peace led him to support the creation of a single, unified world government. Einstein thought that patriotic zeal often became an excuse for violence: "As a citizen of Germany," he wrote in 1947, "I saw how excessive nationalism can spread like a disease, bringing tragedy to millions." To combat this "disease," Einstein wanted to eliminate nationalistic sentiments—first by erasing the political borders between countries and then by instituting an international government with sovereignty over individual states. During World War I, Einstein supported the formation of the "United States of Europe." He later endorsed the League of Nations and its successor, the United Nations. But Einstein worried that the United Nations did not have enough authority to ensure world peace.

Einstein himself seemed to have little regard for national boundaries. His true allegiance was simply to the human race: "I am by heritage a Jew, by citizenship a Swiss, and by makeup a human being, and only a human being, without any special attachment to any state or national entity whatsoever."

World traveler

Einstein considered himself a citizen of the world. He lived in several European countries before moving to the United States, and he also traveled extensively, visiting countries including Palestine, Argentina, Brazil, and Uruguay. In 1922, Einstein and his wife Elsa boarded the S.S. Kitano Maru bound for Japan. The trip also took them to other ports including Singapore, Hong Kong, and Shanghai.

Albert Einstein is sworn in as an American citizen in Trenton, New Jersey in 1940.
Einstein, his step-daughter Margot (right), and his secretary Helen Dukas (left) were sworn in as American citizens on October 1, 1940, in Trenton, New Jersey.
Photo: courtesy AIP, Emilio Segrè Archives

Einstein moved to the United States in 1933, after fleeing Nazi Germany. At the time he commented, "As long as I have any choice in the matter, I will live only in a country where civil liberty, tolerance, and equality of all citizens before the law are the rule." He became an American citizen seven years later.

Uniting Nations

The devastating world wars of the 20th century prompted leaders of many Western countries to agree to increased international cooperation as a way to prevent future hostilities. In 1919, right after World War I, the organization known as the League of Nations, was established. Throughout the 1920s, the League succeeded in settling minor disputes, but by the 1930s, it had lost much of its authority and it eventually dissolved.

The United Nations emerged in 1945 as a successor to the League of Nations. Today, the United Nations continues to promote international cooperation on such issues as global security, disarmament, human rights, and environmental protection.

Einstein saw world government as the only way to ensure lasting world peace. But he was skeptical that an organization like the United Nations—which answered to the national governments of its member states—could prevent future wars. In Einstein's view, world peace would be guaranteed only when the leaders of individual nations answered to a single, supranational government.

The McCarthy Era

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Einstein in 1952
Photo: courtesy AIP, Emilio Segrè Archives

Einstein supported a number of political causes that branded him a radical in the eyes of many in the U.S. government. He wrote of his support for socialism, for example, and described capitalism as "economic anarchy." Such statements, combined with his advocacy of nuclear disarmament and civil rights, made Einstein a highly controversial figure in the 1950s, when the House Committee on Un-American Activities and Senator Joseph McCarthy were accusing many of being Communists. Indeed, the Federal Bureau of Investigation amassed a file with almost 1,500 pages of information on Einstein's allegedly subversive political activities.

Einstein never backed down from his beliefs, however—and always emphasized the importance of intellectual freedom. "I have never been a Communist," he said. "But if I were, I would not be ashamed of it." Einstein despaired over the effects of McCarthyism: "The current investigations are an incomparably greater danger to our society than those few Communists in our country ever could be. These investigations have already undermined to a considerable extent the democratic character of our society."

 

It's about time the American people got wise to Einstein... He ought to be prosecuted.
 —Rep. John Rankin, House Un-American Activities Committee

Einstein was never charged and never appeared before the House Un-American Activities Committee.

Communist Witch-Hunts

Although the United States and the Soviet Union were WWII allies against the Nazis, many in America were deeply suspicious of the Communist country. As the tensions of the Cold War deepened, fear of Communism reached its peak in the early 1950s. The U.S. Congress, led by Senator Joseph McCarthy and the House Committee on Un-American Activities, conducted witch-hunts in search of Communist sympathizers. The accused had two options. They could refuse to testify and risk losing their jobs and friends. Or they could cooperate and accuse friends and colleagues of being Communists. At the same time, the Federal Bureau of Investigation, led by J. Edgar Hoover, monitored citizens' activities, searching for "subversive" behavior.

Einstein and his leftist political convictions attracted the attention of the U.S. government as early as the 1930s. Denounced as a Communist spy and watched by the FBI, Einstein persisted in publicly criticizing McCarthyism as a dangerous threat to democracy and freedom of expression.

Defending Oppenheimer

The case shocked the scientific community: J. Robert Oppenheimer was the most prominent scientist to become a victim of McCarthyism. Einstein, a vocal critic of McCarthyism, joined 25 other scientists in defending Oppenheimer. Oppenheimer's security clearance was never reinstated.

The Civil Rights Era

Long before the historic civil rights reforms of the 1950s and 1960s, activists like W. E. B. DuBois and Paul Robeson were pressing for improved conditions for African Americans. During the first half of the 20th century, civil rights groups argued for an end to segregation and worked to gain voting rights for all citizens. But progress was slow.

Einstein, who had experienced anti-Semitic discrimination in pre-World War II Germany, noticed with dismay the problem of American racism on one of his first trips to the United States. After he settled in Princeton in 1933, he worked with a number of leading civil rights activists and spoke out often against racial and ethnic discrimination. Although Einstein is not usually remembered for his commitment to civil rights, he was devoted to the cause, commenting that "in the last analysis, everyone is a human being."

1946: Commencement Address at Lincoln University

Despite his ill health and a general dislike for giving commencement speeches, Einstein made an exception in May 1946. He spoke on the problem of racism during graduation ceremonies at Lincoln University, a historically black college in Pennsylvania.

 

There is, however, a somber point in the social outlook of Americans. Their sense of equality and human dignity is mainly limited to men of white skins.—Albert Einstein

 

Jewish Identity

Einstein's personal experience of anti-Semitism while in Germany, combined with the extreme brutality of the Holocaust, further cemented his ties to the Jewish people. Referring to the prejudices faced by Jews around the world, Einstein noted that "there are no German Jews, there are no Russian Jews, there are no American Jews....There are in fact only Jews." Near the end of his life, Einstein was offered the presidency of the State of Israel, but he declined, citing ill health and a lack of experience "dealing properly with people and…exercising official functions."

Hebrew University

When Einstein spoke of a Jewish homeland in the Middle East, he initially envisioned more of a spiritual and cultural center than a political state. One of the most important features of such a homeland, in Einstein's view, would be its excellent educational system. To this end, Einstein toured the United States in 1921 with Chaim Weizmann, then head of the World Zionist Organization and later the first president of Israel, to raise money for a new university in Jerusalem.

Hebrew University opened its doors in April 1925, and to mark the occasion, Einstein wrote "The Mission of Our University. In an interview with The New York Times that month, Einstein commented, "I know of no public event that has given me such pleasure as the proposal to establish a Hebrew University in Jerusalem. The traditional respect for knowledge that Jews have maintained intact through many centuries of severe hardship has made it particularly painful for us to see so many talented sons of the Jewish people cut off from higher education."

1923: Einstein in Palestine

Einstein visited Palestine only once, in February 1923. He and his wife stayed for 12 days, traveling to Tel Aviv, Jerusalem, and Haifa. While in Jerusalem, he delivered the first scientific lecture at Hebrew University, on the site where the school officially opened in 1925.

Einstein and God

Einstein was not religiously observant, but he was, in his words, "a deeply religious nonbeliever." He often spoke of a "cosmic religion" and a God seen in the harmony of the universe. Einstein rejected the idea of a "personal God" who rewards or punishes. Instead, Einstein said, "it is enough for me to contemplate the mystery of conscious life perpetuating itself through all eternity and to reflect upon the marvelous structure of the universe which we can dimly perceive..."

Although Einstein did not observe Jewish rituals, he strongly identified with Jewish tradition: "The pursuit of knowledge for its own sake, an almost fanatical love of justice, and the desire for personal independence—these are features of the Jewish tradition which make me thank my lucky stars that I belong to it." Einstein's strong support for Jewish welfare emerged when he faced anti-Semitism in Germany. Throughout his life, the man whose work the Nazis and German scientists dismissed as "Jewish physics" worked tirelessly against anti-Semitism.