Einstein: My Opinion on the War (1915)

February 25, 2010

Einstein: My Opinion on the War (1915)

(October 23 — November 11, 1915)

The psychological roots of war are — in my opinion — biologically founded in the aggressive characteristics of the male creature. We "jewels of the creation" are not the only ones who can boast of this distinction; some animals outdo us on this point, e.g., the bull and the rooster. This aggressive tendency comes to the fore whenever individual males are placed side by side, and even more so when relatively close-knit societies have to deal with each other. Almost without fail they will end up in disputes that escalate into quarrels and murder unless special precautions are taken to prevent such occurrences. I will never forget what honest hatred the schoolmates of my age felt for years against the first-graders of a school in a neighboring street. Innumerable fistfights occurred, resulting in many a hole in the head of those little striplings. Who could doubt that vendetta and dueling spring from such feelings? I even believe that the honor [Ehre] that is so carefully groomed by us gains its major nourishment from such sources.

Understandably, the more modern organized states had to push these manifestations of primitive virile characteristics vigorously into the background. But wherever two nation states are next to each other and without a joint superpower above them, those feelings at times generate tensions in the moods [Gemüt] that lead to catastrophes of war. In saying so, I consider so-called aims and causes of war as rather meaningless, because they are always found when passion needs them.

The more subtle intellects of all times have agreed that war is one of the worst enemies of human development, and that everything must be done to prevent it. Notwithstanding the unspeakably sad conditions of the present times, I have the conviction that it is possible, in the near future, to form a statelike organization in Europe that makes European wars impossible, just as now war between Bavaria and Wurttemberg is impossible in the German Reich. No friend of spiritual evolution should fail to stand up for this most important political aim of our time.

One can ponder the question: Why does man in peacetime (when the social community suppresses almost every representation of rowdyism) not lose the capabilities and motivations that enable him to commit mass murder in war? The reasons seem to me as follows. When I look into the mind of the well-intentioned average citizen, I see a moderately illuminated cozy room. In one corner stands a well-tended shrine, the pride of the man of the house, and every visitor is loudly alerted to the presence of this shrine upon which is written in huge letters "patriotism." It is usually a taboo to open this shrine. Moreover, the master of the house barely knows, or does not know at all, that this shrine holds the moral requisites of bestial hatred and mass murder, which he dutifully takes out in case of war in order to use them. This type of shrine, dear reader, you will not find in my little room, and I would be happy if you would adopt the attitude that in that same corner of your little room a piano or a bookshelf would be a more fitting piece of furniture than the one you find only tolerable because you have been used to it since your early youth.

I have no intention of making secret of my international sentiments. How close I feel for a human being or a human organization depends only upon how I judge their intentions and capabilities. The state to which I belong as a citizen does not play any role in my feelings [Gemütsleben], because I see it more like a matter of business, such as the relations with a life insurance company. (From what I have said above, there should be no doubt that I must strive to be a citizen of a country that presumably does not force me to take part in a war.)

But how can a powerless individual creature contribute to reaching this goal? Should perhaps everybody devote a considerable portion of his time and resources to politics? I really believe that the intellectually more mature people of Europe have sinned when they neglected to care for general political questions; yet, I do not see in political commitment the most important effectiveness of an individual in this matter. I rather believe that everybody should act individually in a sense that those feelings, which I have elaborately discussed before, are steered on a course that can no longer become a curse for the general public.

Every man who knows that he acted to his best knowledge and ability should feel honorable, without regard to the words and deeds of others. Words and actions of others or other groups cannot violate one's personal honor or the honor of one's group. Power-hunger and greed shall, as in the past, be treated as despicable vices; the same applies to hatred quarrelsomeness. I do not suffer from an overestimation of the past, but in my opinion we have not made progress on this important point; we rather fell back. Every well-meaning person should work hard on himself and in his personal circle to improve in these respects. The heavy burdens which presently plague us in such a horrible way will then vanish too.

But why so many words when I can say it in one sentenced, and in a sentence very appropriate for a Jew: Honor your Master Jesus Christ not only in words and songs, but rather foremost by your deeds.

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is a theoretical physicist and Professor Emeritus at the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton. He has published many scientific papers and written many books, including Disturbing the Universe.

is a theoretical physicist and director of BEYOND: The Center for Fundamental Concepts in Science at Arizona State University. He has written widely about Einstein's understanding of time, including How to Build a Time Machine.

is a theoretical physicist and John S. Toll Professor of Physics at the University of Maryland. He's written widely on string theory, and has advanced unified field theories of the type first envisioned by Einstein.

is Associate Professor of Science Writing at MIT. He's produced "Einstein Revealed" for NOVA and has authored several books on science and technology, including Einstein in Berlin.