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Action at a Distance: Einstein as Activist

By Jessica Heckman
Class of 2005

Man is at one and the same time, a solitary being and a social being. …Only the existence of these varied, frequently conflicting strivings account for the special character of a man, and their specific combination determines the extent to which an individual can contribute to the well-being of society.
     Einstein in “Why Socialism?”1

Albert Einstein’s iconic status does not merely derive from his renown as a scientist who shattered long-held theories in the field of physics. He endeared himself early on to the general public by using his fame to aid political and social causes. This essay examines his involvement in three of the most significant causes to which he committed himself: pacifism, Zionism, and the plight of German-Jewish refugees. Einstein’s activism has been viewed in different and indeed contradictory ways. Some have portrayed him as a leader in social justice;2 some as a peripherally involved sympathizer;3 and some as a naïve genius coerced into supporting political movements.4 Though each of these views has a grain of truth, they overlook the complexity of his activist stance. As the letters in the Morris and Adele Bergreen Albert Einstein Collection in Vassar College’s Archives and Special Collections help show, Einstein was a deeply committed social activist, but one who cultivated a certain distance from the causes in which he was involved. In part, this was an idealistic distance, stemming from the difference between his absolute convictions and the realities of negotiation and compromise. In part, it was a skeptical distance, resulting from his insistence on questioning doctrine (be it scientific or political). And in part, it was a pragmatic distance, manifesting his preference for delegating administrative matters to others so as not to compromise his principle commitment to science.

Aside from the theory of relativity, Einstein is most famous as an eminent pacifist. In the 1920s he explained, “My attitude is not derived from an intellectual theory but is based on my deepest antipathy to every kind of cruelty and hatred... I am an absolute pacifist.”5 This moral absolutism marked his first declaration of political protest. In 1914, at the outset of the First World War, ninety-three academics signed a petition expressing support for Germany’s acts of belligerence. Einstein, together with three colleagues, signed a counter-petition directed against the war. Though he received much criticism for his stance, his pacifist ideals never diminished. However, he increasingly recognized and struggled to reconcile the division between his idealism and the attainability of his pacifist goals.

His absolute pacifism led him to support, but at the same time distance himself from, two organizations committed to realistic steps toward the goal of peace: the League of Nations and the United Nations. Einstein joined the League of Nations’ Committee on Intellectual Cooperation in 1922, whose purpose was to abet world peace through academic collaboration.6 Despite his support of the League, he maintained a strained and critical relationship with it. Members were paired with one another to discuss matters of peace and courses of action to ensure it. In this framework, Einstein corresponded with Sigmund Freud on the topic of the attainability of world peace.7 As a 1934 letter from Freud to Einstein in the Bergreen Collection shows, their correspondence would last over a decade, even after they had discontinued their Committee collaboration. Einstein had soon become disillusioned with the League’s lack of responsiveness to their suggestions, and was upset by the absence of progress toward lasting peace. He wrote to the League of his conviction that it “has neither the strength nor the sincere desire it needs to achieve its aims. As a convinced pacifist, I request that you strike my name from the list of members.”8 Einstein’s inability to cope with League of Nations’ slow-paced strategy of negotiation and bargaining caused him to break with the organization three times between 1922 and 1932. That he twice allowed himself to be persuaded back into cooperation with the League attests to the sincerity of his attempts to bridge his pacifist idealism with the reality of institutional procedure. At the same time, these breaks highlight the extent of the gap between his inherent idealism and his low regard for committee deliberations. His absolute pacifist convictions placed him at a critical distance from an organization that, though it had the best intentions, seemed helpless in the face of power politics.

His idealism similarly occasioned both his sympathy with and criticism of the newly created United Nations during the 1940s. In a letter to his friend Otto Nathan in the Bergreen Collection, written eighteen days after the founding of the UN on October 24, 1945, he anticipates the reasons for his reservations toward this organization that he would later explicitly articulate. “Barring a miracle,” he writes, one can only expect bad things from the future. By holding onto their sovereignty, the great states make the weapons race unavoidable and this will in turn make future wars unavoidable. The fear of these wars’ frightfulness leads in two directions, working as a deterrent, but also compelling a preventive war... The physicists are well-behaved; they are all against secret armament, and they are in favor of preventing wars on an international basis. But they are afraid of drawing the final consequence—a world government that alone has military power. In this matter there is an either-or, without any possibility of compromise. But all the lazy minds wish to believe and make others believe that there are some clever compromises that are easier to realize.9

Though this letter does not openly criticize the United Nations, Einstein does explicitly doubt that any association of sovereign countries will be successful in achieving and maintaining peace. In addition, he criticizes his fellow physicists who, though circulating petitions against the use of atomic weapons, were also apprehensive of a world government. He reprehends the idea of each nation sustaining its own military power and considers a single world government to be the one and only way (“either-or”) to perpetuate peace. Einstein later publicly reiterated this absolutist stance in an open letter to the United Nations in 1947. In this letter, he states that the UN “is merely a transitional system toward the final goal which is the establishment of a supranational authority vested with sufficient legislative and executive powers to keep the peace.”10 As a merely “transitional” entity, the UN, like the League of Nations, was powerless to stem military conflict arising between sovereign states. While agreeing with the UN’s ultimate objectives, his disagreement over the means to achieve those goals distanced him from the organization.

Though critical of most political organizations, Einstein was willing to associate himself with certain causes to solve current, mounting social crises. After World War I he first became involved with Zionism to counteract the rising anti-Semitism in Germany. In the 1870s, Zionism had emerged as an international movement espousing the creation of a Jewish state. Theodor Herzl, the father of political Zionism, believed this to be the only way Jews could gain acceptance from the world. Einstein’s friend Kurt Blumenfeld, a German Zionist leader,11 claimed credit for Einstein’s “conversion” to Zionism in 1920, and various biographers have taken Blumenfeld at his word.12“Conversion” is a loaded term, implying that Einstein was inspired by Blumenfeld to place unquestioning faith in the Zionist project. If we examine Einstein’s own words, however, this is clearly not the case. Rather, while affiliating himself with Zionism, he preserved a skeptical distance from it. In 1919 Einstein claimed, “I am as a human being an opponent of nationalism, but as a Jew I am from today a supporter of the Jewish Zionist efforts.”13 Einstein here pointedly refers to himself as a “supporter” of Zionism rather than a “Zionist” or “believer” in Zionism,14 thereby aligning himself with the project of founding a Jewish state and at the same time placing himself at one remove from this project. Furthermore, he counterbalances support for the Zionist cause with an abiding supranationalism. This balancing act opened up a space for skepticism that he preserved throughout his involvement with Zionism.

While Einstein never “converted” to Zionism, he did value Blumenfeld’s opinion and accepted his advice in 1921 to accompany Chaim Weizmann on a speaking tour through the United States.15 He initially declined the invitation to participate in the tour, whose purpose was to raise funds for the planned Hebrew University, but Blumenfeld reminded Einstein of his commitment to Zionism and the benefits his participation would have for the proposed university16. After having persuaded Einstein, Blumenfeld wrote to Weizmann, “As you know, Einstein is no Zionist ... I heard… that you expect Einstein to give speeches. Please be quite careful with that. Einstein… often says things out of naiveté which are unwelcome to us.”17 While Blumenfeld ultimately concluded correctly that Einstein was no believer in Zionism, his labeling Einstein naïve overlooks the thoughtfulness of Einstein’s skepticism. Rather than accept Einstein as a person who truly grasps the movement and does not entirely support it, Blumenfeld questions Einstein’s comprehension of Zionism, and thereby glosses over the divide Einstein placed between himself and Zionist doctrine.

During most of his speeches Einstein remained well within the boundaries demarcated by Weizmann, but he was no mere puppet. Rather, he inserted his own opinions into speeches supporting the creation of the Jewish state. Most controversially, he asserted that peaceful coexistence between Arabs and Jews was possible and needed to be seen as a major Zionist goal. In 1929, he adamantly stated, “Should we be unable to find a way to honest cooperation and honest pacts with the Arabs, then we have learned absolutely nothing during our 2,000 years of suffering and deserve all that will come to us.”18 This position in favor of a pluralistic society was heavily criticized by Zionist groups on the one hand, and on the other, by Arabs who were against the idea of the creation of the state Israel.20 Einstein, however, was not swayed by public opinion; he remained an independent thinker. A letter in the Bergreen Collection dated May 31, 1938, shows his resolute autonomy. Einstein claims that he will not mix in party politics, after which he writes, “Recently a very sympathetic Arab came to me concerning a peaceful Palestinean demonstration.”19 Einstein’s capacity to empathize with both Arabs and his fellow Jews opened a skeptical divide between himself and Zionist ideology.

While the rising anti-Semitism in Germany did lead Einstein to support the Zionist cause as one solution, he did not limit his activism to his affiliation with Zionism. In an effort to facilitate Jewish intellectuals’ departure from Germany in the 1920s and 30s, he liberally wrote letters of recommendation without always inquiring into the qualifications of his Jewish colleagues.20 The letters in the Bergreen Collection illustrate Einstein’s deep and abiding commitment to securing the safe removal of Jewish scholars from Germany as well as their placement at institutions abroad. But they also illuminate a certain distance that Einstein placed between himself and this cause. In the case of his support for Jewish refugees, it is neither an idealist distance, nor a skeptical distance, but rather a pragmatic one, deriving from his desire to preserve science as his principle commitment. As Ronald W. Clark notes, whenever Einstein was “in danger of becoming too deeply involved” in relief work, “there was some new riddle of the universe that demanded attention.”5

The letters of the Bergreen Collection begin in 1934, just after Einstein announced his emigration from an antagonistic Germany and accepted a research position at Princeton’s Institute for Advanced Study. He felt increasingly pushed to aid his peers, for during this time period the German government removed one out of every five scientists from their civil positions, citing any connection to Judaism.21 Many of these jobless academics either chose to emigrate from their homeland or were forced into exile. These professors, doctors, and other academic civil servants composed a class of embattled intellectuals needing the help of their peers to escape Germany’s oppression. Numerous members of this distressed group wrote to Einstein for assistance. He read his colleagues’ letters with great interest and sympathy. In order to relieve the plight of persecuted German-Jewish scholars, he helped them emigrate, located employment opportunities for those in exile, and transferred funds to them. Yet despite his dedication to the cause of aiding refugee scholars, Einstein frequently placed himself at arm’s length from the daily affairs of relief work, thereby allowing science to abide as his consuming passion. In this context, Otto Nathan played a key role as Einstein’s intermediary.

Balancing scientific and social priorities, Einstein removed himself from the administrative tasks of relief work, delegating these to Nathan. Accordingly, in a letter in the Bergreen Collection dated January 30, 1936, Einstein informs his friend,

I received the sum of 2545 dollars from Herr Vladeck in a proverbs contest in the Jewish Daily Forward with which I want to provide for German emigrants. As I do not want to bear the responsibility of the appropriation alone, I propose to you… that we both regulate the money according an agreement. If you agree, we could open an account for this purpose at your bank. I hope to be able to send you the money as soon as I have an affirmative answer from you.22

Einstein’s use of his winnings to create a fund for German emigrants illustrates his personal devotion to the cause of assisting refugees. The letter also displays how he uses Nathan as a middleman between himself and refugees requesting his help. With Nathan’s cooperation, Einstein was assured that his scientific endeavors would always remain in the forefront of his life.

In a letter in the Bergreen Collection dated July 14, 1936, Einstein similarly asks Nathan to find assistance for a musician:

I know a young musician who would be suited for the purpose you previously mentioned. Boris Schwartz… I have forthwith procured, with great trouble, an entry-permit to America; he must, however, begin his journey at the end of this month, because the American consul in Berlin has not granted him an extension, and his passport (he is Russian) will be taken away… [I]n any case I can most readily recommend the young man both for his personality and as a musician.23

Once again Einstein shows his dedication for helping fellow Jews seeking to flee Germany by stating that he himself went to “great trouble” to obtain Schwartz’s entry permit. However, he now hands the case over to Nathan. His friend gladly agreed, as indicated in his response to Einstein in a letter dated July 21, 1936. After replying that he would do what he could to help Schwartz, he goes on to offer any further assistance that Einstein might need: “I am wondering whether there is anything else I could do for you in Europe. Is there anybody you want me to see or is there anything you would want me to find out?”24 Nathan here affirms his role as Einstein’s intermediary.

Einstein not only relied on Nathan as a middleman between himself and Jewish refugees; he also resorted to Nathan as an avenue of communication with Jewish relief groups. Nathan had extensive connections with Jewish activist networks, and Einstein requested more than once that he advocate on the behalf of refugees to committees on which he sat. In a letter dated August 16, 1940, Einstein asks Nathan to rely on his connections to help Philippe Halsman, a Jewish man wrongly convicted of murdering his father in 1928. This notorious anti-Semitic trial became known as the Austrian Dreyfus Affair.25 As Einstein writes to Nathan, Halsman again faced persecution:

The wife and sister of Phillipp Halsmann, who was formerly incarcerated in Austria, have consulted me concerning Halsmann’s dangerous predicament. (You no doubt remember him from the Dreyfuss Affair.) He is in unoccupied France in the vicinity of Vichy. His predicament is caused by the fact that he took pictures critical of the Nazis that have now been acquired by the world press. On these grounds I am certain that his rescue from the German occupation is not only justified, but rather completely fits the criteria of the Roosevelt Rescue Action.26

I implore you, as do the two women who will report to you, to receive and to somehow present the matter to MacDonald.27

After receiving this letter, Nathan transferred funds provided by Einstein to benefit Halsman’s sister and mother. In this instance, as in many others, Nathan oversaw the detailed aspects of Einstein’s activism, exchanging several letters with a Miss Nike, and ultimately requesting that the money be returned when it was not used to aid Halsmann’s family.28 These letters in particular display the activist niche Einstein carved out for himself by privately aiding individuals and relying on others, principally Nathan, to supervise the administrative details his own social commitment. The pragmatic distance that Einstein created with the help of Nathan allowed him to devote himself to the cause of aiding refugees without simultaneously compromising his science.

In his theory of special relativity, Einstein was able to prove the physical impossibility of “action at a distance”,29 in other words, the impossibility of creating a physical reaction without direct contact. But the letters of the Bergreen Collection show that a social application of “action at a distance” is feasible. Einstein’s devotion to the objectives of world peace and helping Jews in need exemplifies his committed but distant activism. The distance he created takes several forms, deriving partially from idealism, partially from skepticism, and partially from the pragmatic need to secure space for his scientific research. This account of Einstein’s multifaceted action at a distance is intended neither to diminish Einstein’s activism, nor to exaggerate it, but rather as a step toward appreciating it in all its complexity.


  1. Albert Einstein, “Why Socialism?” 2002, Monthly Review, 22 July 2004.
  2. “History of the International Rescue Committee.” May 2003. 25 September 2004
  3. Ronald W. Clark, Einstein: The Life and Times (New York: World Pub. Co., 1971), p. 378.
  4. Leopold Infeld, Albert Einstein: His Work and its Influence on our World (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1950), p. 123.
  5. Clark, op. cit., p. 351.
  6. The League of Nations was founded in 1919 to promote international cooperation. The United Nations replaced it in 1945. “League of Nations.” Britannica Concise Encyclopedia. 2004.  Encyclopædia Britannica Premium Service. 19 October 2004.
  7. In a letter dated July 30, 1932, Einstein asks Freud, �Is there any way of delivering mankind from the menace of war?�I believe� that those whose duty it is it is to tackle the problem� are growing only too aware of their impotence to deal with it.� Albert Einstein, Why War?(France: Imprimerie Daratiere, 1933), p. 12
  8. Clark, op. cit., p. 357.
  9. Albert Einstein to Otto Nathan, 12 November 1945, Adele and Morris Bergreen Albert Einstein Collection, Vassar College Library. This and all subsequent translations from the Bergreen Collection are my own. I wish to thank the Vassar College Archives and Special Collections for permission to print this and subsequent passages from the letters in the Bergreen Collection.
  10. Albert Einstein, Out of My Later Years (New York: Philosophical Library, 1950), p. 156.
  11. Kurt Blumenfeld was secretary of the Zionist Federation of Germany as well as editor of Die Welt, a Zionist, weekly periodical. He radicalized the Zionist movement by claiming that every Jew should emigrate to Palestine. Judaic Treasures of the Library of Congress: Albert Einstein (1879-1955) 2004 27 October, 2004
  12. See Infeld, op. cit., p. 123, Clark, op. cit, p. 374, and Abraham Pais, “Subtle is the Lord…” The Science and Life of Albert Einstein, (New York: Oxford University Press, 1982), p. 315.
  13. Clark, op. cit., p. 378.
  14. This according to Rudolph Kayser (pen-name, Anton Reiser), Einstein’s step-son-in-law: “…Einstein, had devoted much thought to the Jewish problem. He had remained faithful to his religion and his race, but his attitude towards the Jewish problem was not Zionistic.” Anton Reiser, Albert Einstein: A Biographical Portrait (New York: A. & C. Boni, 1930), p. 142
  15. President of Israel Chaim Weizmann was an important figure of Zionism from the early 1900s onwards. His leadership abilities created a broad base of supporters of Zionism. After his death in 1952, Einstein was offered the presidency of Israel. “Chaim Weizmann.” 2 March 2003. 29 September 2004
  16. Clark describes Kurt Blumenfeld’s interaction with Einstein: “‘I was to stir up Einstein,’ he says, ‘go with him to America, and there join in the propaganda… When I appeared before Einstein with this telegram he at first said no… ‘It is irrelevant that we both know what is necessary for Zionism today,’ I said… if you take your conversion to Zionism seriously, then I have the right to ask you, in Dr. Weizmann’s name, to go with him to the United States and do what he at the moment this is necessary’” (Clark, op. cit, p. 348).
  17. Pais, op. cit., p. 315.
  18. Clark, op. cit., p. 402.
  19. According to Ronald W. Clark, “The practice continued so much so that refugee scientists, arriving in Oxford in 1933, and proudly showing a testimonial from Einstein were often advised to keep quiet about it.” Clark, op. cit, p. 317.
  20. Ibid., p. 311.
  21. Alan D. Beyerchen, Scientists Under Hitler: Politics and the Physics Community in the Third Reich (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1977), p. 40.
  22. Albert Einstein to Otto Nathan, 30 January 1936, Adele and Morris Bergreen Albert Einstein Collection, Vassar College Library.
  23. Albert Einstein to Otto Nathan, 14 July 1936, Adele and Morris Bergreen Albert Einstein Collection, Vassar College Library
  24. Otto Nathan to Albert Einstein, 21 July 1936, Adele and Morris Bergreen Albert Einstein Collection, Vassar College Library.
  25. In the Austrian Dreyfus Affair, Philippe Halsman, a Jew, was convicted of his father’s murder on little to no evidence. Through the intervention of the French government, Halsman was able to leave prison on the stipulation that he leave Austria immediately. “The Austrian Dreyfus Affair” 2000. 26 October 2004.
  26. “Roosevelt’chen Rettungs Aktion. “ Einstein may be referring here to the Emergency Rescue Committee, with which Eleanor Roosevelt was involved.
  27. Albert Einstein to Otto Nathan, 16 August 1940, Adele and Morris Bergreen Albert Einstein Collection, Vassar College Library. “MacDonald” is possibly a reference to former British prime minister Ramsay MacDonald.
  28. See Otto Nathan to Albert Einstein, 8 April 1938, Adele and Morris Bergreen Albert Einstein Collection, Vassar College Library. See also Otto Nathan to Albert Einstein, 6 November 1938, Adele and Morris Bergreen Albert Einstein Collection, Vassar College Library.
  29. “Action at a Distance (physics).” 2004. 26 October 2004