[The following is from Thomas Levenson’s Einstein in Berlin, 2003. I can’t recommend this book too highly. In addition to his main subject, Levenson provides very interesting background information on the First World War, the revenge of the right wing after the defeat, the hyperinflation during the Weimar Republic, and the decadence of Berlin in the twenties.]
But of all of Einstein’s attempts to move public opinion, the most ambitious came in a public exchange of letters with Sigmund Freud during the summer of 1932. There, he set down his basic internationalist credo: “The quest of international security involves the unconditional surrender by every nation, in a certain measure, of its liberty of action—its sovereignty, that is to say—and it is clear beyond all doubt that no other road can lead to such security.” He conceded that recent efforts to achieve such a surrender of national prerogatives had met with what he termed “ill success”—an understatement, especially in Germany in mid-1932. But why, he asked, should so many individual citizens within a nation succumb “to such wild enthusiasm” even at the cost of their own lives? Perhaps, he said, in a thought that hints at the influence of surrounding events, it is “because man has within him a lust for hatred and destruction.” Yet even that grim conclusion triggered one more question, the one he wanted Freud to answer: “Is it possible to control man’s mental evolution so as to make him proof against the psychosis of hate and destructiveness?” No one was immune. “I am thinking by no means only of the so-called uncultured masses,” he wrote, possibly alluding to the daily mayhem in the streets of Berlin. Einstein could count. By 1932, a majority of German university professors and an even higher percentage of students were either outright Nazis or persuadable supporters of the völkisch right. “Experience proves”—his experience, the accumulation of incidents witnessed and endured over eighteen years within Berlin’s academic community—“that it is rather the so-called ‘intelligentsia’ that is the most apt to yield to these disastrous collective suggestions.”
Freud’s response to Einstein was essentially gloomy. He produced a long and nuanced analysis of the multiple motives that could impel apparently civilized people to perform violent and destructive acts and concluded that he saw “no likelihood of our being able to suppress humanity’s aggressive tendencies.” At best, there might be some hope of channeling such aggression. Improving relations between man and man would help, Freud argued, though he recognized that the command to love one’s neighbour as oneself was “a pious injunction, easy to announce, but hard to carry out.” In the longer run, his real hope was that more and more people would turn away from war on rational grounds. They would turn to pacifism for two reasons: first, because fighting-age men would come to recognize that war “forces the individual into situations that shame his manhood, obliging him to murder fellow men against his will,” and second, because war had simply become too overwhelmingly ghastly to sustain. “Wars, as now conducted,” Freud wrote, “afford no scope for acts of heroism according to the old ideals, and given the high perfection of modern arms, war today would mean the sheer extermination of one of the combatants, if not of both.”
Einstein announced himself satisfied despite the fact that neither he nor Freud saw any hope that pacifism might spread swiftly enough to prevent wars soon. Who knew, he wrote back, what effect their exchange might have, “what may grow from such seed?” There was of course no harvest, nothing gained from their best efforts. The correspondence was published under the title Warum Krieg?—Why War?—in 1933, long after it could have been of any use in Germany. No more than two thousand copies were printed, monuments to good intentions. By the time they appeared, Einstein was gone from Berlin.
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