In Brief

Einstein’s travel diaries reveal his racism

Physicist’s ‘shocking’ xenophobia threatens his reputation as a civil rights champion

A newly published private journal kept by Albert Einstein during his travels in the Far East contains a series of racist comments by the Nobel Prize winner - a revelation that threatens to overshadow his legacy as a proponent of civil rights.

The famous physicist describes the Chinese as “industrious, filthy, obtuse people”, adding: “It would be a pity if these Chinese supplant all other races. For the likes of us, the mere thought is unspeakably dreary.”

He also says that “the Chinese may well supplant every nation through their diligence, frugality, and abundance of offspring”.

Einstein wrote a number of xenophobic diary entries while touring Asia and the Middle East between October 1922 and March 1923.

In Colombo, in Ceylon (now Sri Lanka), Einstein describes how local people “live in great filth and considerable stench at ground level”, adding that they “do little, and need little. The simple economic cycle of life.”

His views on the Japanese are more flattering. The scientist calls them “unostentatious, decent, altogether very appealing”, adding: “Pure souls as nowhere else among people. One has to love and admire this country.”

The racist attitudes expressed in Eistein’s diary are all the more shocking given his reputation as an outspoken humanitarian.

“While Einstein is most widely known for his achievements in science, historians have also noted his active engagement with civil rights politics in the United States,” where he described racism as a “disease of white people”, says NBC News. “Additionally, he spoke out against Nazi fascism in his native Germany while advocating for his fellow European Jews.”

Ze’ev Rosenkranz, senior editor of the Einstein Papers Project at the California Institute of Technology, edited and translated The Travel Diaries of Albert Einstein. Rosenkranz said: “I think a lot of comments strike us as pretty unpleasant – what he says about the Chinese, in particular.

“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. They’re more off guard, he didn’t intend them for publication.”

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