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Albert Einstein’s travel diaries show ‘shocking’ racism, xenophobia: editor

Physicist Albert Einstein (1879-1955) with his wife Elsa in Chicago.
Physicist Albert Einstein (1879-1955) with his wife Elsa in Chicago. George Rinhart/Corbis via Getty Images

Albert Einstein’s private travel diaries from the 1920s, which have been newly translated into English, reveal the physicist had a xenophobic and racist attitude to people he met while travelling in Asia — a  stark contrast to his legacy as a champion for civil rights.

The journals, published as The Travel Diaries of Albert Einstein, by Princeton University Press, reveal Einstein, known for his theory of general relativity, was biased toward certain populations.

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His travel logs were written between October 1922 and March 1923 when Einstein and his then-wife, Elsa, went on a five-month trip to Asia and the Middle East. During his travels, he wrote about science, art and politics, but he also revealed racism towards people he met.

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These revelations are contrary to his stance later in life when he said that racism was a “disease of white people.” Einstein also spoke out against Nazi fascism in his home country Germany and his anti-racist activism even placed him under FBI surveillance by J. Edgar Hoover.

German-born physicist Albert Einstein (1879-1955) standing beside a blackboard with chalk-marked mathematical calculations written across it.
German-born physicist Albert Einstein (1879-1955) standing beside a blackboard with chalk-marked mathematical calculations written across it. Hulton Archive/Getty Images

But the travel logs reveal another side of the scientist. In one entry, Einstein wrote that the “Chinese don’t sit on benches while eating but squat like Europeans do when they relieve themselves out in the leafy woods. 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,” he said. “For the likes of us the mere thought is unspeakably dreary.”

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The book’s editor, Ze’ev Rosenkranz, told the Guardian that Einstein’s views were not intended for public consumption and provide a shock to those who read them.

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“I think a lot of comments strike us as pretty unpleasant — what he says about the Chinese in particular,” Rosenkranz told The Guardian. “They’re kind of in contrast to 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. They’re more off guard, he didn’t intend them for publication.”

Einstein also wrote about, what Rosenkranz called, “a healthy dose of extreme misogyny.”

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“I noticed how little difference there is between men and women; I don’t understand what kind of fatal attraction Chinese women possess which enthrals the corresponding men to such an extent that they are incapable of defending themselves against the formidable blessing of offspring,” Einstein wrote.

Rosenkranz told the Guardian that although views like Einstein’s were frequent at the time, they were not universal.

“That’s usually the reaction I get – ‘We have to understand, he was of the zeitgeist, part of the time’ – but I think I tried here and there to give a broader context. There were other views out there, more tolerant views,” he said.

Rosenkranz added that Einstein was a complex figure, and “hopes people have a more authentic view and contextualized view of his personality and see him more as a three-dimensional person, who like all of us had prejudices, who could be offensive.”

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Einstein’s theory to happiness sells for $1.3M at auction