Albert Einstein's racist travel diaries

Originally published at: https://boingboing.net/2018/06/14/albert-einsteins-racist-trav.html

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I guess he saw how the road to hell is paved with microaggressions.

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Yes, it’s almost as if people born in the 19th century had different views on race than modern people.

I’ve often wondered about peoples’ traditional views on race with respect to World War 2. Antisemitism was something of a common attitude in the West, as was the idea that people in far-off lands were all filthy swarthy barbarians. If WW2 hadn’t happened, would that sort of racism and bigotry be more commonly accepted today, or like Einstein (and Ghandi, look up some of his early opinions as a South African lawyer) did we need something utterly shocking like Nazi Germany to smarten us up?

(edit: “to the World War 2”? I shouldn’t type before coffee…)

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How many racist trolls are going to come here and say “see, even Einstein was a bigot” before reading through to the twist ending?

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Could be as simple as he decided to actively review his outlook on life after WW2 broke out. He was a very smart man, but even smart people fall victim to the assumed stereotypes of their parents and peers if they don’t actively give it thought. I know I don’t have the same outlook on things that I had in my twenties now that I’m approaching middle age.

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Yeah, I’d say the weird thing that happened is what hopefully happens to us all. He grew up and past his upbringing. It wasn’t considered so at the time or at least I wasn’t aware of it, but my upbringing was subtly racist.
Thankfully I’ve outgrown the biases I was raised with, or at least most of them. There’re probably still ideas and generalizations that I’m holding to that will be considered backwards in time. We’re human and the best most of us can do is to evolve.

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Something about the rise of fascism in his homeland may have had something to do with it. In 1933 he lived in Germany, but was traveling in the US when The Moustache came to power. He never returned from that visit, becoming a US citizen instead.

As a Jew, holding racist judgements against other people probably didn’t sit so well when his own ethnicity was being set up for genocide.

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Well I say we must reject the general theory of relativity. Down with the piezoeletric effect!

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I have no doubt that when he saw the exact same rhetoric of 19th century casual racism evident in his personal diary deployed and weaponised on an industrial scale against people like him he changed his views quickly.

What he never did was try to excuse his private pre-war bigotry using beards like “I’m defending free speech against [insert leftist bogeyman here]”, “it’s about ethics in gaming science journalism”, or “I was just defending those brave colonial soldiers whose monuments are being pulled down.”

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One thing that this article (or the BBC one) doesn’t mention was Einstein was quite a fan of the Japanese in these diaries, although I suppose you could say that was pretty typical of the West pre-WWII as they were “model Asians” who were rapidly Westernizing.

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We must purify ourselves of all racist science! /s

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Including in terms of imperialist militarism, with the idea that the Japanese were melding an ancient “warrior culture”* with European technology. In addition there was the Western casual racist’s sense at the time that the Japanese were more racially “pure” due to their long period of isolationism.

[* Bushido was a late 19th century concept, and a vague one at that, that quickly fascinated Westerners while it went in and out of style in Japan itself]

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Sure, but it’s also probably worthwhile to look at those views to consider them in their contexts and think about what may have changed (or not!) since then, isn’t it? I also find it valuable to see the actual thoughts of the towering figures of history like Einstein because it’s too easy to view them as an icon just dispensing Wisdom for the ages and not as a human being.

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how significant or useful these revelations are is questionable. Einstein’s public statements and activism with respect to racism seem contrary to these thoughts. Perhaps the act of recording these private impressions combined with later review contributed to his change in outlook. Also worth noting these are translations, the tone may have altered from the original. If these statements accurately reflect the mind of a forty year old Einstein and his later public statements and actions reflect real change, then good on him. Einstein certainly was aware that his publicly expressed views on racism and many other topics ran counter to the milieu.

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Removed several out-of-context replies in this topic as the original poster deleted their message, making them all orphans.

And we always need to think of the orphans.

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“They live in great filth and considerable stench down on the ground, do little, and need little.”

I suppose I should go read the context of this one, but it could be interpreted as a disgust with the poverty of their world, and not necessarily an indictment of a race.

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I grew up in the 80’s and 90’s and our school curriculum, while somehow apparently much better than current public school curricula, still portrayed the US as basically the only safe and free place in the world. Not really much in the way of specifics, just basically “America is the best place to live, full stop.”

At the time I didn’t think anybody would seriously buy into that, but as an adult I’ve had to accept that, yeah, some did and still do. “Socialist hellholes” and like like.

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And after he moved to America he completely changed his views and taught Black students at historically Black colleges. He became an outspoken activist against racism stating that he understood it having been on the receiving end in Germany.

So yeah, he started off with the attitudes of his culture and grew far beyond them.

Fuck “Call-Out Culture” and Presentism.

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As a historian, I have to disagree. It gives a more full picture of who an important historical figure actually was, how he changed over time, and possibly the role that the war itself played in that change. It gives us a better picture of the social impact of the second world war, among other things.

For the record, the fact that he said racist things as a younger person from a European country doesn’t either diminish his contributions to science, nor does it diminish his later work as an activist.

Pretending like einstein was born the enlightened person instead of made himself into one is the real problem, not this revelation. It tells us more about how human beings change over the course of their lives, and reminds us that someone who is as lionized/mythologized can be made into a real, living human being once again. That’s good history, right there.

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I wonder how much racism was getting destroyed just by picking up entire armies and navies and depositing them in places like the Pacific Ocean and Southeast Asia, where the brown guys didn’t like the Axis, and fought them guerrilla-style.

Edit to add pic:

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