'Filthy and Obtuse': Einstein's Diary Exposes Unknown Racist Side

Researchers say they were shocked by the discovery as the famous physicist was known for his humanitarianism

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Haaretz
German born scientist Albert Einstein resting in the garden of his villa on the Bay of Luebeck, on Sept. 24, 1928
German born scientist Albert Einstein resting in the garden of his villa on the Bay of Luebeck, on Sept. 24, 1928Credit: AP
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Haaretz

Albert Einstein’s private diaries from a five-and-a-half month trip he took to Asia and the Middle East from October 1922 to March 1923 have revealed his previously unknown racist side.

The world’s most famous physicist noted down personal thoughts that show xenophobic attitudes toward many of the people he met on his journey, particularly the Chinese. Einstein called the Chinese “industrious, filthy, obtuse people” and compared them to robots, reported the Guardian’s book section on Tuesday.

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Researchers said they were shocked by the discoveries especially as Einstein was known later for his humanitarianism and support of the civil rights struggle in the United States. In 1946, Einstein gave a speech in which he called racism “a disease of white people,” and said: “I do not intend to be quiet about it.”

In the early 1920s Einstein took his wife at the time, Elsa Einstein, on a lengthy itinerary consisting of stops in Hong Kong and Singapore, two brief stays in China, a six-week whirlwind lecture tour of Japan, as well as a three-week visit to Spain. The two also spent a 12-day stint on a tour of then British Mandate Palestine.

“The Travel Diaries of Albert Einstein: The Far East, Palestine, and Spain, 1922-1923,” was just published by the Princeton University Press. The diaries were translated into English from the original German and edited by Ze’ev Rosenkranz, senior editor and assistant director of the California Institute of Technology's Einstein Papers Project.

“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,” Rosenkranz told the Guardian. “They’re more off guard, he didn’t intend them for publication.” Rosenkranz was previously the curator of the Albert Einstein Archives at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem.

After saying that even Chinese children are “spiritless and look obtuse,” Einstein writes: “It would be a pity if these Chinese supplant all other races. For the likes of us the mere thought is unspeakably dreary,” reports the Guardian.

But his attitude to other Asians was different: He was much more impressed by the Japanese, calling them “unostentatious, decent, altogether very appealing.”

Rosenkranz told the Guardian that although views like Einstein’s were prevalent at the time, they were not universal: “It seems that even Einstein sometimes had a very hard time recognizing himself in the face of the other.”

But in his favor, it can be said that Einstein wrote these telegraphic-style comments long before he saw what racism could lead to in Nazi Germany, and well before his experiences with racism against African Americans in the United States after he moved there in 1933.

About thirty years after the trip to Asia with his wife recorded in the diaries, Einstein famously turned down an offer to become Israel's president.

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