E = MC2; or, Einstein’s Monumental Correspondence

September 23, 2020

I never expected Albert Einstein to figure into my scholarship. Like most people, I suspect, Einstein evoked two images for me. First, E = mc2, the mass-energy equivalence published within his Annus Mirabilis papers of 1905. Second, the iconic Arthur Sasse photo of him sticking out his tongue in 1951. But, much like the clouds that snake through the Maloja Pass in his (and my) beloved Rhaetian Alps, Albert Einstein quietly crept up on me and now occupies a considerable—and delightful— place in my work.

I joined the Einstein Papers Project at Caltech in June of 2019. The Collected Papers of Albert Einstein (CPAE) presents the first complete picture of Einstein’s considerable written legacy in printed and digital format, based on a collection of over 100,000 pages housed within the Albert Einstein Archives at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. To date, CPAE covers Einstein’s life from his early years until May 1927 in fifteen annotated volumes in the original German and in English translation. Princeton University Press will publish Volume 16 in March of 2021, extending the temporal scope to May 1929. And this monumental correspondence shows what we are already familiar with: Einstein’s humor and scientific brilliance. But his letters and writings also reveal a more complex picture of the physicist, activist, humanitarian, father, and husband and are a valuable resource to scholars not only in the sciences, but also the humanities and social sciences. The digital CPAE and online archive have the added advantage that they are publicly available and do not present the accessibility issues that so many of us have encountered during the pandemic. 

It would be easy to let terms like unified field theory, Riemannian geometry, and the advancing perihelion of Mercury deter you from delving into Einstein’s impressive correspondence. The growing comfort with which I write and speak them belies their lingering mystique, even after my attempts to gain some understanding of the scientific concepts I encounter daily. Yet, there are also words that are eminently tangible to those of us in the humanities and social sciences: refugees, Zionism, humanitarianism, and pacifism, among others. The best way for me to highlight what lies tucked within our non-scientific correspondence—and the continued relevance of Albert Einstein—is to give you examples from my own work.  

My first concrete encounter with Einstein’s “extracurriculars,” if you will, came while I was working at the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum. Tasked with identifying lists of names of Roma, gay, disabled, and Jehovah’s Witness victims of the Third Reich, Einstein’s anti-fascist views and activism on behalf of refugees and persecuted groups in Nazi Germany bubbled in the background. What has become clear to me since starting at the Einstein Papers Project is that he was not only active in advocating for the issues faced by these groups, but others including colonial subjects and women.

During World War I, Einstein began issuing public statements and privately offered his opinions on minority rights. One letter to an unknown recipient in 1920 summarized his views: “Heutzutage gibt es keinen Staat, der die Duldung und Schutz nationaler Minderheiten nicht offiziell zu seinen Pflichten zählte. Hoffentlich nimmt er [der Staat] es ernst mit dieser Pflicht!” Einstein’s efforts to champion both Jewish and minority rights deepened over time, particularly as fascism and authoritarianism descended on Europe, forcing his emigration to the United States. Our forthcoming Volume 16 contains Einstein’s response to gay rights activist Richard Linsert about proposed amendments to §175 of the German Criminal Code, noting that he hoped reason would prevail over “Prüderie und Stumpfsinn.” I am also currently annotating a statement Einstein gave to Magnus Hirschfeld advocating for gay men, sex education, and a woman’s right to obtain an abortion for Volume 17.   

But Einstein’s progressive opinions also contrast with less forward-thinking views, and CPAE is not a hagiography. Rather, we present Einstein as the complicated man he was, something evident in his personal life. Our most recently digitized volume, which covers June 1925 to May 1927, shines a light on Einstein’s views on the importance of “auf gute Rasse zu sehen.” Family letters reveal his concern about the “genetically damaged” woman his son Hans Albert intended to marry. Related correspondence further exposes Einstein’s feelings toward his first wife Mileva Marić, a Serbian national and fellow student at the ETH in Zurich. “Ich habe Kinder mit einer physisch und moralisch Minderwertigen gezeugt,” he wrote, before adding that his own family’s background “nicht allzu hoch bewertet werden darf.”

You can find such introspection throughout Einstein’s letters and the contradictory tensions are also evident in what one colleague has referred to as his “cavalier” views on women. For example, Einstein wrote his second wife Elsa that “so was passt nicht für Frauen” in response to his cousin Edith Einstein’s frustration at her dissertation in physics. Einstein nevertheless associated and collaborated with female colleagues including Marie Curie, Käthe Kollwitz, and members of the Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom. But even in cases such as his friend Paul Ehrenfest’s “ausserordentlich begabt” daughter Tatiana, he lamented, “wenn es ein Mann wäre, würde was Bedeutendes daraus werden.”

These quotes come from our printed and digital volumes, which end in May of 1927. Our forthcoming Volume 16 picks up where its predecessor left off. In the coming years, the CPAE will contain documents from key junctures in Einstein’s personal history and that of Germany, evident in an explosion of non-scientific writings and correspondence. You can search this material at the Einstein Archives Online, a publicly accessible database with digitized manuscripts. The breadth of his work for humanity is incredible, and something my own dissertation research foreshadowed. In 2012, I stumbled across a letter in the institutional archive of the International Tracing Service that at the time seemed anomalous: Einstein wrote its director to lobby for the protection of and universal accessibility to its contested files.

But, to steal from Arlette Farge, the allure our archive also lies beyond its research applicability. As I annotate documents and cull the archive for “Twitter nuggets,” my eyes open even wider not only to the richness of our material, but also what valuable resources the CPAE and online archive are for students. I have been designing a syllabus for a course called “Einstein’s Germany, 1900-1950” that will use documents from our collections as a springboard for weekly lectures and discussions. This format makes history tangible for students: they can easily access digital content, get to work with primary source documents and their annotations, and experience historical events through the eyes of someone who is both well-known and not often studied outside of the sciences. It is also important to note that we have documents on themes beyond Germany’s borders including: the peace, anti-war, and conscientious objection movements; interwar diplomatic, cultural, and intellectual reconciliation; Zionism, anti-Semitism, and the establishment of the Hebrew University; decolonization and rights of Southeast Asians; and the Guangzhou Uprisings. Einstein’s networks of family, friends, colleagues, acquaintances, and correspondents are also worth mentioning, and I often find myself saying, “Oh, Einstein knew [x]. I wonder how.” I welcome you to visit us virtually and let Einstein sneak up on you, too. You will discover what this longtime archive rat has: an incredibly rich (and underused) resource for research and teaching.

Jennifer Rodgers, Einstein Papers Project and Division of Humanities and Social Sciences, Caltech

Note from the editors: The German Studies Collaboratory includes a link to the Einstein Papers Project.