[OPE] Famous friends: The Albert Einstein collection at the International Institute of Social History

From: Jurriaan Bendien <adsl675281@telfort.nl>
Date: Tue Apr 07 2009 - 07:13:58 EDT

How did all of this 'Einsteiniana' end up here without the IISH never having
deliberately set out to collect it? The reason is simple. Even before the
start of his stormy scientific career, Einstein did not hide his views on
social issues. He never aligned himself with a political party, since he was
scared of losing his independence. However, the positions he took certainly
put him on the left-hand side of the political spectrum. From the start of
the First World War he declared himself to be a pacifist in principle - to
the great displeasure of his fellow Academy members - and in Mein Weltbild
(1934) he frankly asserted: "I consider social class distinctions to be
unjustified and of late based on violence".

The IISH's collection of Einsteiniana spans the period of circa 1919 to
1947. A letter from an admirer, Minna Cauer, dated 19 November 1920,
includes the following nice and laconic self-observation: "I am aware that
as a person and a spirit I fall considerably short of the image that you
project of me. But what difference does it make? Some people are destined to
embody the illusions of others, and strangely enough I have become one of
them. As long as one acknowledges this situation, no harm is done." That he
was actually capable of this is clear from his capacity to admire others.
For example, on 19th February 1925, he wrote the following to the famous
social democrat Eduard Bernstein: "so few have consistently been faithful to
the common good, even when it was bitter and thankless. Still fewer have
taken it for granted and done so with such modesty as you", followed on 7
November 1926 by: "It would take a powerful Diogenes lantern to find a
second person who is as good".

The most substantial part of the Einsteiniana found at the IISH is probably
the account of a lecture with discussion about the concept of 'causality',
which the famous scholar gave to the Marxistische Arbeiter Schule
(M.A.S./MASCH) in Berlin on 14 November 1930. In his disgust for the
strongly emerging national socialism, he sympathised with the communists who
had established this school in the early 1930s. It is true that one of those
present, Karl Korsch, had already left the KPD in 1923, but these kind of
lectures could be attended by a far broader public. In 15 typed pages, he
gives an account of the lecture, which was continually interrupted by
questions that Einstein apparently answered co-operatively.

In the lion's den, he explained in response to one of the questions:
"Marxists [...] attribute excessive significance to external causes. For
example, Marxists like to say that the invention of machines is a
consequence of external circumstances, such as a country's sparse
population, labour shortages, etc. But the opposite is equally true." Later
in the lecture, "a leading member of the M.A.S." returns to that theme by
stating "that legitimacy in the rise of human civilization tends to reflect
a statistical pattern, and that accordingly the more recent developments in
physics are no cause for questioning causality as the foundation of
communist policy."

Although Einstein says that he agrees with this, he cannot help adding the
following: "These subtleties [i.e. the current KPD policy] are in no way
indicative of the legal necessity of human history. This is entirely
independent of whether the latest laws of nature are statistical or strictly
causal." Korsch fails to note whether all of those present were satisfied
with this response.

In the framework of the history of social movements, Einstein is, of course,
mainly known for his efforts on behalf of the peace movement. It is curious
that the protocol to establish a radical pacifistic International Peace
House, which he signed together with the Dutch clergyman J.B. Th. Hugenholtz
(1888-1973), never got off the ground due to Einstein's flight from the
Nazis to Belgium and later to America.

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Received on Tue Apr 7 07:16:16 2009

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