uthor and editor Ze’ev Rosenkranz published his work,The Travel Diaries of Albert Einstein: The Far East, Palestine, and Spain, 1922-23,last month, giving the world a glimpse into the mind of humanity’s most iconic genius. The translated personal diary contains Einstein’s inner thoughts and musing about his experiences in Asia, revealing his shockingly racist views on different races, particularly the Chinese.
The diary covers Einstein’s five-and-a-half-month journey through Spain, the Middle East, and Asia in 1922. Einstein visited China, specifically Shanghai, twice. The first time, he was only there for a day, making his way to Japan after being notified that he had won the Nobel Prize in Physics for his discovery of the law of the photoelectric effect. Einstein would return to the city a month and a half later to give a speech on the theory of relativity. During his time here, he stayed at the famous Astor House Hotel. If you ever stay in Room 304 you can claim that you slept in the same room as Einstein.
Einstein’s diary entries share with us his experiences on ships, reflections on physics, encounters with royalty, and even hand drawings of things that caught his eye. His thoughts on his travels are a delight and yet there are portions of his journal that show he held close-minded and xenophobic attitudes towards different races, calling the Chinese “industrious, filthy, obtuse people.”
These words come as a shock because Einstein has been known not only as perhaps the most intelligent man who has ever lived, but also as a humanitarian. In 1933, he fled his home country of Germany to escape the rising wave of anti-semitism and growing power of Nazi ideology. While living as a refugee in the United States, Einstein used his own fame to ask foreign government leaders to help bring more Jewish scientists out of Germany. Einstein also empathized heavily with African Americans, even joining the NAACP in the 1940s to work against the discrimination and racism that plagued American society. He famously called racism America’s “worst disease.”
And yet, in his diary, Einstein appears to have been aflicted with this disease. “Chinese don’t sit on benches while eating but squat like Europeans do when they relieve themselves out in the leafy woods,” he observes. “All this occurs quietly and demurely. Even the children are spiritless and look obtuse.”
“It would be a pity if these Chinese supplant all other races. For the likes of us, the mere thought is unspeakably dreary,” he writes in another passage.
Elsewhere in the diary, Einstein crudely compares Chinese people to farm animals and machines. “Even those reduced to working like horses never give the impression of conscious suffering,” he writes. “A peculiar herd-like nation [ … ] often more like automatons than people.”
Several passages later, Einstein takes a misogynistic view on Chinese women:
I noticed how little difference there is between men and women; I don’t understand what kind of fatal attraction Chinese women possess which enthralls the corresponding men to such an extent that they are incapable of defending themselves against the formidable blessing of offspring.
While Einstein’s harshest words are reserved for the Chinese, he also makes racist observations about other groups. His initial assessment of the Japanese is much kinder, describing them as being “unostentatious, decent, altogether very appealing,” adding: “Pure souls as nowhere else among people. One has to love and admire this country.” However, he later goes on to blatantly call the Japanese inferior in terms of intelligence. “Intellectual needs of this nation seem to be weaker than their artistic ones – natural disposition?” he ponders after visiting the country for only a month and a half.
In the book’s first chapter, Einstein’s voyage stops in Colombo, the capital of modern-day Sri Lanka, where he witnesses poor beggars flood the streets upon his party’s arrival. While he describes them as “refined people,” he rules their individual lives as unimportant, writing:
For all their fineness, they give the impression that the climate prevents them from thinking backward or forward by more than a quarter of an hour. They live in great filth and considerable stench down on the ground, do little and need little. Simple economic cycle of life. Far too penned up to allow any distinct existence for the individual.
Although Einstein never intended his diary to be seen by the public eye, its pages further add to our understanding of him, casting him as a superhuman genius, but one who still shared many of the prejudices of his era. He was a flawed person just like anyone else.
[Images via Hebrew University of Jerusalem]