Einstein’s Moral Compass Through the Darkest Ages of Our History

Two world wars, the rise of Nazi rule, racial segregation and the invention of the Atom bomb

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Photo by Rahul Bhogal on Unsplash

When I had a chance to travel into the history of Einstein’s time, I gained a new perspective of him by knowing his moral stands when some of the darkest events were at play. I interpret him as a genius in his confrontation, not only for his scientific theories but also for his stubborn stand against the racial discriminations, social hierarchies and hatred that prevailed at his time.

Albert Einstein was a scientist who broke all conventions and paradigms. He had an outlook on life that was unique and his mere instincts had the impetus to question the very fabric of physics and formulate groundbreaking theories. But in the canonization as an icon, much of his politics and passionate views he held of life, equality and race have been forgotten.

Beneath all that scientific glamour, Einstein was a humble man. He boldly indulged in political discourse throughout his life to condemn any form of racism, hate or injustice.

On a letter to his cousin Richard Einstein in October 1947, he wrote,

“I am very smart. But not as strong-hearted as all the workers on earth for he toils endlessly and does it all to feed his family while I do it merely for solving an impossible puzzle.”

— Einstein (October 1947)

He advocated against wars and tried to prevent science from being used for death and destruction at every critical junction in the history — including the birth of the infamous Atom bomb which emerged from his iconic E=mc² equation.

“Had I known that the Germans would not succeed in producing an atomic bomb, I would not have lifted a finger. “

— Einstein (March 1947)

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Photo by Albuu — Design de Álbuns on Unsplash

Einstein grew up in Germany in a Jewish family. He found his natural calling for mathematics and science very early on in his life and went to publish some of the most revolutionizing discoveries that changed modern science forever. His timeline, however, put him through the darkest times of our history that were savaged by not one, but two world wars, genocide, racial segregation and hatred.

The solar eclipse of 1914 (Beginning of WW I)

It was 1905, the year that would later go on to become one of the most turning points in the history of physics; Albert Einstein published, not one but four groundbreaking theories that rattled the scientific world. One of those four was famous the ‘Special Theory of Relativity’. Following that, Einstein quickly rose to prominence and caught the wider attention of the scientific community.

The theory, however, could only be validated by observing stars during a rare total solar eclipse.

In 1914 came one such occasion; A young German astronomer Erwin Finlay-Freundlich set out to present-day Ukraine to photograph the eclipse.

Einstein helped him with some of his own money to fund the expedition and wished him luck.

Freundlich loaded tons of equipment onto the train and departed boldly. But unknown to him was that on June 28, 1914, Austrian Archduke Franz Ferdinand was assassinated in Sarajevo, Bosnia, and this had triggered the war. The news of the war, however, did not arrive in time for Einstein to deter the expedition and it was all too late. The Russians captured the young astronomer, confiscated tons of apparatus and held him captive because he was German.

Upon hearing the unfortunate turn of events, Einstein quickly used his influence to free Freundlich from the Russians in trade for prisoners of war.

The expedition, however, failed and the war killed communication between scientists and halted development for years to come.

Witnessing the wrath of the war and its madness, Einstein petitioned against war, but no one supported his cause. He was mostly alienated and left to work in isolation as he advanced his theory.

During the same year, Max Planck who admired his works persuaded Einstein to join him at the Prussian Academy of Science in Berlin.

Einstein would then go on to wait for 5 more years for the next eclipse in 1919 that would finally confirm his General Theory of Relativity.

Rise of Nazi Rule and WW II

The Prussian Academy of Science was a prestigious institution that saw the likes of many elite scientists who were pioneers in mathematics and physics.

But with the rise of German nationalism from WWI and the Nazi party under Adolf Hitler, the academy went through a massive transformation — “Nazification”. During this time, many Jews were displaced and lost their jobs, including elite scientists and teachers.

An influential member of the Prussian Academy and a noble award-winning physicist, Phillip Lenard, relentlessly discredited Einstein’s theories, calling it “Jewish Physics”. He was an anti-semite and a strong proponent of Hitler’s ideologies who quickly rose to become the “Chief of Aryan Physics” under the Nazi regime and further diminished the works of Jewish scientists. In his book, “Great Men in Science” published in 1933, he completely omitted works of Einstein, Rontgen, and other notable scientists like Marie Curie.

Even when the much-awaited Nobel prize was finally awarded to Einstein in 1921, it was only for his discovery of the law of photoelectric effect and not for his iconic General Theory of Relativity. One could tell that the ugly game of politics was at play as the photoelectric effect relied on key results furnished by Phillip Lenard’s Cathode Ray experiment.

During WWII, a Nazi petition was floated around the academy asking for scientists to support the war by any means. Most scientists considered this an act of patriotism, but Einstein was among the few who refused to sign it and advocated anti-war sentiments.

His Jewish ethnicity and stance against the war were used against him to question his loyalty to the country. Despite all the alienation, he never let down the high moral ethics he held, quite eloquently quoting:

“Peace cannot be kept by force; it can only be achieved by understanding”

— Einstein

He who joyfully marches to music rank and file, has already earned my contempt. He has been given a large brain by mistake, since for him the spinal cord would surely suffice. This disgrace to civilization should be done away with at once. Heroism at command, how violently I hate all this, how despicable and ignoble war is; I would rather be torn to shreds than be a part of so base an action. It is my conviction that killing under the cloak of war is nothing but an act of murder.

— Einstein (1931 essay, Mein Weltbild (or “The World As I See It”) )

Einstein believed that a scientist’s true purpose was to understand and unravel the mysteries of the universe, to make it a better place — to create, not destroy, rather, he witnessed the worst of mankind. He saw hate, death and destruction throughout his life and saw his own comrades give in to Hitler’s ideologies.

Einstein eventually immigrated to the USA escaping the Nazi regime.

Einstein in racially segregated America

In the US, Einstein only found himself living in the toxic atmosphere of American racism and segregation, which became the way of life back then.

As a Jew having lived in Germany, Einstein had endured oppression himself. He saw Black Americans get treated the same way in the US as Jews were in Germany.

Despite his gratitude for his new home as a refugee, he never stopped criticizing the ethical shortcomings in America.

A notable moment was in 1946 when he had received invitations from several universities for an honorary degree. He went on to reject them all but made an exception to accept one from ‘Lincoln College, Pennsylvania’, which was predominantly a black university at that time.

At Lincoln College, while giving a talk about relativity, he emphathized with the students and openly condemned racism calling it a “disease of white people” and added, “I do not intend to be quiet about it.”

With the end of the second world war, there was a spike in the lynching of black Americans and racial tensions as black soldiers returned home.

In February 1946, the segregated “Mink Slide” of Columbia, Tennessee, home to four blocks of black business was destroyed by white looters and law enforcement officials. Following the unfortunate event, Einstein co-chaired the National Committee for Justice in Columbia along with Eleanor Roosevelt.

Einstein also joined the American Crusade to End Lynching.

The Atom Bomb

In 1946, time magazine published a cover photo that shattered everything Einstein ever stood for his life. It was a picture of him next to an atom bomb explosion with his famous equation E=mc² written on it.

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Time Magazine Cover, July 1, 1946 | (Cover Credit: ERNEST HAMLIN BAKER) http://content.time.com/time/covers/0,16641,19460701,00.html

It all started in 1938 when German physicists Otto Hahn and Fritz Strassmann discovered nuclear fission that made Atomic bomb development a possibility. (The nuclear fission was a direct application of Einstein’s E=mc² equation)

On August 2, 1939, Hungarian-American physicist Szilárd, drafted a letter detailing the implications of a dangerous Atomic bomb being developed by the Germans. He had the letter signed by Einstein and presented it to President Roosevelt emphasizing the need for the US to develop nuclear weapons before the Germans. This gave birth to the Manhattan Project which built the world’s first atomic bomb.

Although Einstein did not take part in the development of the Atomic bomb directly, he was deeply disturbed and saddened when it was used against Japan.

“Had I known that the Germans would not succeed in producing an atomic bomb, I would not have lifted a finger. “

— Einstein (March 1947)

Following the tragic event of Hiroshima and Nagasaki bombing, Einstein worked with several groups and scientists in setting up anti-nuclear committees.

Just days before his death, Einstein signed the Russell-Einstein Manifesto calling scientists to act for the good of humanity. It still remains as one of the most powerful anti-nuclear and anti-war statements ever written.

Excerpts from the manifesto:

“In the tragic situation which confronts humanity, we feel that scientists should assemble in conference to appraise the perils that have arisen as a result of the development of weapons of mass destruction, and to discuss a resolution in the spirit of the appended draft.

Here, then, is the problem which we present to you, stark and dreadful and inescapable: Shall we put an end to the human race; or shall mankind renounce war? People will not face this alternative because it is so difficult to abolish war.”

Einstein’s purity, political views and morals are often dwarfed by his massive scientific achievements. With the canonization as an icon, much of his politics and passionate views he held of life, equality and race have been forgotten.

“There lies before us, if we choose, continual progress in happiness, knowledge, and wisdom. Shall we, instead, choose death, because we cannot forget our quarrels? We appeal as human beings to human beings:

Remember your humanity, and forget the rest.”

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Komal Venkatesh Ganesan

Written by

Engineer — Software / AI / Electronics / Technology. In pursuit of fundamental understanding of elemental physics/science | LinkedIn: https://bit.ly/2DN8rfP

Thoughts And Ideas

An attempt to bring all heart-touching and thought provoking writings under one roof to make an impact.

Komal Venkatesh Ganesan

Written by

Engineer — Software / AI / Electronics / Technology. In pursuit of fundamental understanding of elemental physics/science | LinkedIn: https://bit.ly/2DN8rfP

Thoughts And Ideas

An attempt to bring all heart-touching and thought provoking writings under one roof to make an impact.