‘When we realise the significance of the world’s interdependence, we will be able to gather the energy and goodwill needed to create an organisation that will make war impossible.’ The organisation that seemed to offer that hope was the League of Nations (predecessor of the UN), founded in 1920.
Einstein, together with other famous intellectuals (including Marie Curie, discoverer of radium), was invited to become a member of the League’s Committee on Intellectual Co-operation, aiming to mobilise international intelligentsia to work for peace. Believing ‘that science is and always will be international,’ Einstein was happy to join.
But when the League was unable to deal with the French re-occupation of the Ruhr, he resigned from the Committee: ‘I have become convinced that the League has neither the strength nor the sincere desire it needs to achieve its aims. As a convinced pacifist, I request that you strike my name from the list of members.’ He explained: ‘By its silence and its actions, the League functions as a tool of those nations which, at this point of history, happen to be the dominant powers’.
But he did not renounce the principles of the League. A year later, he said, with characteristic honesty, ‘I’ve come to feel that I was influenced more by a mood of disillusionment than by clear thinking,’ and re-joined the Committee. Its members grew very fond of him. ‘He was a delightful colleague. The only points on which we had differences were due to his special kindliness. He was unwilling to condemn anyone.’ Committee members were invited to give a lecture to the students of Geneva University; when it was Einstein’s turn, he charmed them by playing his violin instead.
He attended meetings regularly until 1930, but then withdrew: the committee lacked ‘the determination needed to make real progress towards better international relations’, and, essentially a man who worked alone, he doubted his own suitability for committees. On the League of Nations’ 10th anniversary in 1930 he said, ‘I am rarely enthusiastic about what the League has accomplished, or not accomplished, but I am always thankful that it exists’.
Einstein and war resistance
An international movement for individual resistance to war had grown steadily since 1914. In 1928 Einstein began to make public his own support for ‘absolute refusal of military service’. With other international pacifists, he signed a manifesto against military conscription.
He was elected to the board running the pacifist German League for Human Rights, and wrote a special statement for their journal commemorating the 10th anniversary of the Armistice. In it he said, ‘The political apathy of people in time of peace indicates that they will readily let themselves be led to slaughter later. Because today they lack even the courage to sign their names in support of disarmament, they will be compelled to shed their blood tomorrow.’
In 1929 he made another statement (which would be quoted many times), this time in an independent Czech journal called ‘The Truth’. Asked what he would do if another war broke out, Einstein said, ‘I would unconditionally refuse all war service, direct or indirect, and would seek to persuade my friends to take up the same stance, regardless of how I felt about the causes of any particular war’. The publication was suppressed, but Einstein’s statement found its way into international newspapers.
At the end of 1930 Einstein sailed to the USA. (‘The excessive and pretentious attention makes me uncomfortable…. I feel odd about my own unpolished manners.’) It was on this visit that he made his famous ‘2%’ speech. ‘In countries where conscription exists, the true pacifist must refuse military duty. In countries where compulsory military service does not exist, true pacifists must publicly declare that they will not take up arms in any circumstances…. The timid may say, “What’s the use? We’ll be sent to prison.” To them I say: even if only two per cent announced their refusal to fight, governments would be powerless – they would not dare send such a huge number to prison.’ Badges marked ‘2%’ soon began to appear on young Americans’ jacket lapels.
In America Einstein made speeches; attended press conferences, meetings and ceremonies; met politicians, musicians, scientists and other intellectuals; and received honours, including the keys of New York City. He was dogged by photographers and autograph-hunters.
His main purpose, however, was scientific: a visit to the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena, not far from the leading centre for astrophysical research at Mount Wilson Observatory. Einstein told several hundred Caltech students: ‘Why does applied science bring us so little happiness? The simple answer is that we have not yet learned to make proper use of it. In time of war it has given men the means to poison and mutilate one another. In time of peace it has made our lives hurried and uncertain. It has enslaved us to machines. The chief objective of all technological effort must be concern for mankind. Never forget this when you are pondering over your diagrams and equations!’
Einstein wrote an article about his trip, which was published in the USA after he had left. It makes disconcerting reading now. Einstein saw that ‘the United States is today the most powerful among the technologically advanced countries of the world. Its potential influence on international politics is incalculable. But America’s people so far have not taken much interest in the great international problems, chief among which is disarmament. The people of the USA must realise that they have responsibility for the political development in the world. The role of idle spectator is unworthy of America. In the long run it would be disastrous for all of us.’
Einstein and disarmament
Einstein carried on his scientific work with dedication, but his international work for peace continued as long as he could do most of it from his desk.
He wrote letters of pleading to people such as the Finnish minister of defence, law court chiefs in Bulgaria and Poland where people were on trial for anti-war activities, and the High Commissioner for Palestine. (Though a committed Zionist, Einstein was also concerned about the rights of Palestine’s Arabs.)
He supported active opposition to the militia system in Switzerland, and wrote comfortingly to a war resister there. ‘Let me express my respect for your courage and integrity. A man like yourself acts as a grain of sand in a machine: by such grains the war machine will be destroyed.’
He sent a message to over 100,000 Belgians on an annual peace pilgrimage: ‘Any pacifist movement that doesn’t actively struggle for disarmament is bound to be powerless’. He gave money to the war resistance movement in Denmark, and helped raise funds for War Resisters International.
To the WRI meeting in Lyons in 1931, Einstein’s message was: ‘You may become the most effective group of men and women involved in the greatest of human endeavours. The people of 56 countries whom you represent have a potential power far mightier than the sword. All the nations of the world are talking about disarmament. You must teach them to do more than just talk. The people must take it out of the hands of statesmen and diplomats. Only they themselves can bring disarmament into this world.’ His words made a deep impression.
There was indeed a lot of talk about disarmament in the early 1930s; there was even a special conference about it in Geneva in 1932. (‘Ought one to laugh, weep, or hope when one thinks about it?’ wondered Einstein.) As the whole event looked like collapsing for lack of agreement, Einstein paid it a brief visit and held a press conference. ‘If the implications weren’t so tragic, the Conference’s methods could only be called absurd. One doesn’t make wars less likely to happen by formulating rules of warfare…. The solution to the peace problem can’t be left in the hands of governments…. I think the conference is heading for a bad compromise. Whatever agreement is made about the “types of arms permissible in war” would be broken as soon as war began. War can’t be humanised. It can only be abolished.’
1932 was a difficult year in Einstein’s struggle for peace. First there was the failure of the Disarmament Conference. Then a proposal for an International Peace Centre at The Hague lost its way when several main international pacifist organisations backed off. An anti-war congress in Amsterdam was politically hi-jacked by the USSR. Einstein himself was accused of communism and repudiated for his pacifism – in America, where he was on January 30 1933, the day Hitler became Chancellor of Germany. ‘I’m not going home,’ Einstein told an interviewer.