It was a wise decision. It wasn’t long before Nazi officials confiscated his property in Germany. He had made some preparations, but was still grateful to ‘my Dutch colleagues, who united to help me over initial financial difficulties’.
Though he had foreseen the Nazi party’s seizure of power, it still devastated him. He spent some months in Belgium sorting out what his response would be. As he put it, ‘a group of armed bandits has successfully silenced the responsible sections of the population and imposed a kind of revolution from below which will soon destroy or paralyse everything that is civilised.’
Einstein’s attitude to war resistance began to change. In the spring of 1933, he had believed that an efficient and wholesale economic blockade would be enough to bring down the Nazi regime. Now, in the summer, he pressed for an international peace force to prevent Nazi atrocities. Now, he supported the New Commonwealth Society’s call for ‘no disarmament without security, no security without an international court of arbitration and an international standing army’.
More than that: he told the King of Belgium that, in the present situation, Belgium’s army was a means of defence; if it came to it, conscientious objectors should be offered alternative war service. And he told an antimilitarist colleague; ‘If I were Belgian I would not, in the present situation, refuse military service. I would enter it in the belief that I was helping European civilisation’.
Pacifists everywhere were horrified; some were upset, others were angry. ‘You can be sure that every chauvinist, militarist and arms merchant will now delight in ridiculing our pacifist position,’ said one leading British activist.
Einstein replied, clearly: ‘I loathe all armies and any kind of violence; yet I’m firmly convinced that at present these hateful weapons offer the only effective protection.’ Should Nazi militarism prevail, ‘you can be sure that the last remnants of personal freedom in Europe will be destroyed’.
But Einstein never stopped supporting pacifist ideals. Perhaps we should remember that Einstein knew at first hand what the Nazis were capable of; he knew that Germany was now re-arming, fast; and he knew (from its victims) of ‘the war of annihilation against my defenceless fellow Jews’. More than that, as he saw it, civilisation and culture were under threat, and despite so much hard work for peace, the world had not yet been able to devise a non-military way of dealing with this kind of threat. (To understand is not to excuse; but it’s what pacifists try to do when talking with people who disagree.)
In September 1933 Einstein left Belgium for England. From there he wrote, ‘My present attitude towards military service was reached with the greatest reluctance and after a difficult inner struggle’. Despite rumours that plots to kidnap or assassinate him had followed him from Europe, he spoke at a mass meeting in the Royal Albert Hall. It was organised by refugee aid workers focused on assisting Jewish academics to escape from Nazi persecution (help which Einstein too offered personally to scores of colleagues). He told the audience of 10,000 that ‘freedom itself is at stake….one can only hope that the present crisis will lead to a better world’.
Einstein in exile
Einstein arrived in the USA on October 17 1933. He was 54 years old. The new Institute for Advanced Study at Princeton had offered him a post, and Princeton became his permanent home. He never returned to Europe. Shortly after Einstein arrived, a friend said ‘it was as if something had died in him. He did not laugh any more’.
Einstein’s cause now was the establishment of a truly international organisation that would ensure peace, and this was the theme of many of his messages (which he didn’t stop sending) to anti-war groups and meetings. ‘I am,’ he told a rabbi, ‘as ardent a pacifist as I ever was.’
He had told the Albert Hall audience that what as needed was ‘enlightenment and education’; this too, became a repeated call. ‘We must educate the people,’ he told an interviewer in 1935, ‘so that they choose to outlaw war’. He was certain war could be abolished, and it would be done, ‘not through fear’, but by invoking ‘what is best in human nature’. Something else was necessary, too: ‘we need to be made conscious of our prejudices and learn to correct them’.
When Hitler marched into Austria in 1938, the persecution of Jews in Europe grew even worse. Einstein tried to start an immediate appeal to non-Jews in Europe and America, for help in ‘averting the worst’. ‘No government has the right to conduct a systematic campaign of physical destruction of any segment of the population which resides within its borders. Germany has embarked on such a path in its inhuman persecution of German and Austrian Jews….Can there be anything more humiliating for our generation than to feel compelled to request that innocent people be not killed?’
In 1939 an essay of Einstein’s, called ‘The World as I see it’, had been published. Now, ten years later, it was reprinted. ‘What I wrote then still seems essentially as true as ever; yet it all seems curiously remote and strange. Has the world changed so profoundly? Or is it merely that I have grown older and my eyes see everything in a changed, dimmer light?…In these ten years confidence in the stability of civilised society has disappeared. One senses that a lower value is placed on what one would like to see protected at all costs…. Awareness of this overshadows every hour of my present existence.’ To his friend the Queen Mother of Belgium he wrote, ‘The moral decline we are compelled to witness, and the suffering it causes, are so oppressive one can’t ignore them for a moment. No matter how deeply one immerses oneself in work, a haunting feeling of inescapable tragedy persists.’