‘My pacifism is an instinctive feeling, a feeling that possesses me because the murder of men is abhorrent. My attitude is not derived from intellectual theory but is based on my deepest antipathy to every kind of cruelty and hatred.’
‘Science is a powerful instrument. How it is used, whether it is a blessing or a curse to mankind, depends on mankind and not on the instrument. A knife is useful, but it can also kill.’
Albert Einstein had two public passions. One was his work: he was a dedicated and ground-breaking scientist. The other was peace, to which he was committed all his life. Both passions involved journeys of discovery. When the two paths met, one of the great modern problems was exposed: how responsible are scientists for the consequences of their discoveries?
Albert Einstein was born in Germany on March 14 1879. His mother noticed that the back of her baby’s head was unusually large, and for a moment thought there was something wrong. With her encouragement Albert was taught to play the violin when still very young, and he became an excellent musician. (As an adult he would take his fiddle everywhere: he found that playing it relaxed him.) He learned to sail, too, which he loved. And he knew by the age of 12 what he wanted to spend his life studying: nothing less than the behaviour of the universe.
To a child like Albert, school could only be pedestrian, intimidating and alien. He loathed the ‘dull, mechanical method of teaching’; he didn’t fit in, he didn’t work, and was thought ‘precocious and insolent’; at 15 he took seriously the suggestion of an unfriendly tutor, and left. Somehow he got together the qualifications he needed to get into the renowned Polytechnic in the Swiss city of Zürich, where, at last, he could study physics as he wished (though even there one of his maths tutors called him a lazy dog).
By this time it was obvious that Albert Einstein was an unusual young man, whose greatest pleasure and satisfaction was in thinking about scientific theory, and who never wore socks (‘not even when he was invited to the White House!’ his secretary later revealed). In 1905, though working full-time as Technical Expert (Third Class) at the Swiss Patent Office in Berne, he published a series of remarkable scientific papers. They won him a Ph D – and also radically changed human understanding of the universe. He was only 26 years old.
Albert Einstein brought a new perspective to the relationships between light, time, space, matter and gravity. 1905 was also the year of his famous equation: E=mc2. This was a way of expressing his theory that matter could be converted into huge amounts of energy. It was Einstein who proved, through his ‘thought experiments’, that atoms really exist. His work helped to make quantum physics possible – without which much modern technology (including computers) might still be a closed book. It was for this work, not for his more famous theory of relativity, that he was awarded the Nobel Prize for Physics in 1921.
The years of his greatest discoveries were, he said, the happiest years of his life. He was not yet famous, so ‘nobody expected me to lay golden eggs’ of yet more new and surprising scientific insights; and the First World War had not yet begun.
Einstein and the First World War
Albert Einstein was born a German, took Swiss nationality in 1900 and German-Swiss nationality after the war, renounced German citizenship in 1933, and became an American citizen in 1940. Such real and symbolic frontier-crossing was appropriate in a man who hoped for a world in which there were no binding or fanatical nationalist allegiances to cause distrust, hostility and war.
In 1914 Einstein had just taken up a high-ranking science post in Berlin. When the war began, international criticism of Germany for attacking a neutral country (Belgium) was so great that a government-sponsored ‘Manifesto to the Civilised World’ was published. It defended German militarism and was signed by nearly 100 famous German intellectuals. A prominent German pacifist responded with a ‘Manifesto to Europeans’, which challenged militarism and ‘this barbarous war’ and called for peaceful European unity against it. ‘Educated people in all countries should use their influence to bring about a peace treaty that will not carry the seeds of future wars.’ Only three other people were brave enough to sign this peace manifesto; one of them was Einstein. It was the first of many public actions he took to promote pacifist ideals over the next 40 years.
Throughout the First World War Einstein supported anti-war movements in whatever ways he could, quietly campaigned for democratic government in Germany, wrote letters, asked awkward questions. When the war was over he was able to speak in public in favour of democracy; but nearly 25 years later he wrote to a friend: ‘Do you remember when we took a trolley-car to the Reichstag, convinced we could turn those fellows into honest democrats? How naïve we were, even at the age of 40! It makes me laugh to think of it.’
In 1919 observations made of an eclipse of the sun confirmed Einstein’s theory about the relation of time and space and the nature of gravity. It made headline news, and Einstein became an international celebrity.
But this didn’t stop him from being thoroughly unpopular in Germany, where he had found that ‘even men of high culture cannot rid themselves of narrow nationalism’. As well as enduring anti-Semitism and attacked, together with other scientists, for ‘world-bluffing Jewish physics’, Einstein faced contempt for his opinions. ‘There’s no doubt that people are very irritated by my pacifist orientation’. Communists disliked his unshakeable independence of mind; religious leaders feared that his new science would empty the churches. And as Nazism took hold, brown-shirted students hissed him at lectures; one openly threatened to ‘cut that Jew’s throat’.
Einstein’s view was straightforward, non-political and non-sectarian: what intellectuals could and should do was promote international reconciliation through their scientific work and artistic achievements: ‘creative work lifts people above personal and selfish national aims’. One among many of his sometimes unexpected practical suggestions was that students would do well to study in the countries their own country had been fighting. ‘First-hand experience of this kind provides the most powerful antidote to the catastrophic ideologies created by the World War.’
It wasn’t until 1922, when he was travelling through northern France, that Einstein saw for himself the still-ravaged battlefields of the First World War. He was horrified. ‘War is a terrible thing, and must be abolished at all costs,’ he said again and again. That summer, the German minister of foreign affairs (who, like Einstein, was a Jew who preached internationalism) was assassinated. Einstein ignored warnings from worried friends to keep his own head down, and appeared publicly at the annual rally of the ‘No More War’ movement in Berlin.
In the same year a German pacifist handbook was published. It contained an article by Einstein. ‘Whoever cherishes the values of culture cannot fail to be a pacifist….The natural scientist responds to pacifist aims because of the universal nature of his subject and his dependence on international co-operation. The development of technology has made the economies of the world interdependent, so every war has world-wide effects.’
In the spring of 1923 Einstein visited Japan, and fell in love with it. ‘The Japanese are a wonderful people in a beautiful land.’ But in Europe the news was bad. Nazism and its racist creeds were spreading. Mussolini was entrenching his fascist dictatorship in Italy. France had invaded part of Germany (the industrial area of the Ruhr valley) demanding reparation money for war damage. Einstein, asked by someone for his autograph, wrote: ‘Children do not listen to the wisdom of their elders. Nations do not listen to history. The bitter lessons of the past must ever be learned anew.’