LONDON – In 1922, the same year he received the Nobel Prize in physics, Albert Einstein set out with his wife Elsa on a 5½-month odyssey of discovery of a new world: the Far East and Middle East.
He was feted by a Japanese empress and had an audience with the king of Spain. He also kept a travel diary, noting in stark, often racist terms his impressions of the people he encountered in Hong Kong and Singapore, China, Japan, India and Palestine.
The personal writings not only reveal the musings of a man grappling with a jolt to his view of the world. According to Princeton University Press, which has published the first full English-language edition, they also expose “Einstein’s stereotyping of members of various nations and raise questions about his attitudes on race.”
The first volume of the trove — previously available in German — complicates the portrait of a man often described as the most brilliant physicist of the modern era.
Einstein was a German-born Jewish scientist who was targeted by the Nazis and became known as an advocate for human rights. He once said, “Being a Jew myself, perhaps I can understand and empathize with how black people feel as victims of discrimination.”
But in his private writings on that journey from October 1922 to March 1923, “other peoples are portrayed as being biologically inferior, a clear hallmark of racism,” said Ze’ev Rosenkranz, assistant director of the Einstein Papers Project at the California Institute of Technology and the editor of the book. “I think a lot of comments strike us as pretty unpleasant. They’re kind of in contrast to the public image of the great humanitarian icon.”
When Einstein set out, he was in his 40s, already renowned for his work on the photoelectric effect and on relativity, and developing a second reputation as a progressive public figure. The diaries, however, lay bare a different side.
Around mainland China, he writes of observing “industrious, filthy, obtuse people. … It would be a pity if these Chinese supplant all other races.”
In Japan, he called its citizens, “Pure souls as nowhere else among people. One has to love and admire this country.” But he then adds, “Intellectual needs of this nation seem to be weaker than their artistic ones — natural disposition?”
Visiting Ceylon, the British colony that became Sri Lanka, Einstein writes that residents “do little, and need little.”
While many may say the entries reflect the era, Rosenkranz said, the xenophobia and prejudice they revealed had been far from universal. He said, “There were other views out there, more tolerant views.”
Einstein’s shifting views may be most powerfully illustrated by the way he put his fame at the service of the U.S. civil rights movement. According to Smithsonian Magazine, in 1931 he joined a committee to protest the injustice of the Scottsboro Boys trial in Alabama, in which nine black youths were falsely accused of raping two white women.
And in a 1946 commencement speech at Lincoln University in Pennsylvania, he declared: “There is separation of colored people from white people in the United States. It is a disease of white people. I do not intend to be quiet about it.”