Europe at War

Part of the Einstein exhibition.

When hostilities broke out in Europe in August 1914, people across the continent responded with patriotic celebrations. Each of the major warring countries—Germany, France, England, and Russia—was certain it would enjoy a quick and decisive victory. But by war's end in 1918, more than 20 million soldiers and civilians had died and world leaders spoke earnestly of finding ways to prevent all future wars.

Having left Germany at age 16, Einstein returned to his homeland when he accepted a university position in 1914, just months before World War I began. He lived in Berlin during the war and the turbulent years that followed. While the rest of Europe recovered, Germany did not. Food shortages and riots plagued the country long after the end of hostilities. Upset by the devastation of World War I—both during and after the fighting—Einstein became more vocal about his pacifism in the 1920s.

The Makings of a Pacifist

Einstein left Germany at age 16, disgusted by his country's requirement that all young men serve in the military. After accepting a position at the University of Berlin, he returned to his homeland in 1914—only to be confronted once again with German militarism during World War I. The strain of living in Berlin during the wartime blockade and the riots and food shortages that followed the end of fighting in 1918 solidified Einstein's pacifist views.

In 1914, Einstein made his first openly political statement by condemning German aggression in World War I; he was one of only a handful of German scholars to do so. After Einstein catapulted to international fame in 1919, he used his celebrity status to promote his pacifist beliefs. By 1930, Einstein was a leading figure in the global pacifist movement, frequently writing and speaking out against compulsory military service and the use of force. A 1932 exchange with Sigmund Freud, for example, described the "great goal of the...liberation of man from the evils of war."

Einstein and Freud

Sigmund Freud, known primarily as the father of psychoanalysis, was also a prominent figure in the anti-war movement of the early 20th century. He and Einstein corresponded about their shared interest in pacifism.

A Manifesto Against War

In October 1914, Einstein signed the Manifesto to Europeans to protest Germany's militarism and aggression in World War I. Some scholars consider this act to be Einstein's first public political statement. Einstein was one of only four people to sign the manifesto; most of his academic colleagues supported the war.

Life in Berlin

Between 1914 and 1932, Einstein was a professor at the University of Berlin. Life in Germany was difficult even after the war. Einstein described post-war Berlin:
There is terrible misery and hunger in the city. The infant mortality is horrendous....The government has become totally powerless, while the true powers fight each other: the Army, money, and groups of socialist extremists.

Einstein and Gandhi

In 1925, Einstein joined Mahatma Gandhi and other prominent pacifists in signing a statement opposing mandatory military service. The statement read, in part,
It is our belief that conscript armies, with their large corps of professional officers, are a grave menace to peace.... Barrack life, military drill...and deliberate training for slaughter undermine respect for the individual, for democracy, and human life.

December 10, 1932
 Einstein and his wife Elsa leave Germany forever.


Photo: courtesy AIP, Emilio Segrè; Archives

Einstein and Elsa

Einstein and his wife Elsa set off for California from the port of Bremerhaven, Germany, on December 10, 1932. Although they intended to return to Germany after their visit to the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena, Einstein was apprehensive. The Nazis were gaining power in Germany and Jews were beginning to flee. As they left their home, Einstein said to Elsa, "Turn around. You will never see it again." The Einsteins never returned to Germany.