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Albert Einstein: A pacifist's anguish

Caught between euphoria and incredulity: How was the outbreak of World War I experienced? DW takes a look at what was going on in the hearts and minds of Europeans 100 years ago. This week: Albert Einstein.

"It is in such times that we see to what a miserable species of cattle we belong." These were the dramatic words Albert Einstein used in a letter from August 19, 1914 - just two weeks after Germany declared war on Russia and France - to lament the outbreak of war and the patriotic mood among many of his scientific colleagues.

As an intellectual and a pacifist, he felt himself to be very much alone. "I am dozing and ruminating quietly, and feel only a mixture of pity and revulsion," he wrote. Einstein was 35 years old and a member of the prestigious Prussian Academy of Sciences. That very same year he had transferred, not without a degree of unease, from Switzerland to Berlin. Now he found himself in the midst of the war.

Einstein's pacifism did not arise out of a particular political conviction; rather, it was an intuitive aversion to violence and to any form of militarization. He had already renounced his German citizenship at the age of 16 in order to avoid conscription. Now, as a professor in Berlin, he was forced to witness the intellectual mobilization of his colleagues. Many of them signed the "Appeal to the Civilized World" that was published in October 1914. This document endorses the violation of Belgian neutrality, postulates German moral and cultural superiority, and agitates against "Mongols and negroes" - who were accused of wanting to destroy Germany.

This was too much for Einstein. He decided to become involved politically. He and a colleague, the physician Georg Friedrich Nicolai, worked on an alternative document, the "Appeal to Europeans," that addresses in comparatively moderate terms all educated people of good will, and makes a pragmatic call for countries at least to agree to forgo annexations and commit to creating a permanent European model for lasting peace. However, the lack of resonance these suggestions created was sobering. Only two supporters responded to the appeal. Nicolai's academic career was ruined, but Einstein was forgiven for his involvement, since as a Swiss citizen he was seen as belonging to that neutral country - and was otherwise known for being a maverick.

Black and white photo of Albert Einstein with his stepdaughter Margot being sworn in as American citizens

Albert Einstein with his stepdaughter Margot being sworn in as American citizens

Einstein endured Berlin for the next four long years. Only when the war was finally over did he rejoice that "militarism here has been […] utterly eradicated." He could not know that he was just as utterly wrong.

And he certainly couldn't know that 19 years later a dictatorship would make it impossible for him to continue working in Germany. Albert Einstein was on a scientific visit to the United States when Hitler seized power in 1933. He never returned to Germany.

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