A brief background: This
correspondance between Einstein and Freud occured just
before the Nazi Party rose to power in Germany in January
1933. Einstein was about to leave Germany to be a guest
professor at Princeton University. He thought that the
position would be temporary, but In 1933, the Nazis
passed "The Law of the Restoration of the Civil
Service," which forced all Jewish university professors
out of their jobs. His work was considered "Jewish
Physics (in contrast to German or Aryan Phisics) and
a campaign was mounted by the Nazis to blacklist any
teachers who taught Einstein's work.
Sigmund Freud is commonly referred
to as "the father of psychoanalysis" and his
work has been tremendously influential in the popular
imagination — popularizing such notions as the
unconscious, defense mechanisms, and dream symbolism
— while also making a long-lasting impact on fields
as diverse as literature, film, Marxist and feminist
theories, literary criticism, philosophy and psychology.
War? (Warum Krieg?) In 1932 Albert Einstein
was contacted by the League of Nations, the international
body that was the precursor of the UN. He was asked
to invite someone -- he could choose anyone -- to reflect
with him in a series of public letters on a pressing
problem or question. The question Einstein selected
was this: "Is there any way of delivering humankind
from the menace of war?" He was asking the question
that many of us are asking today: "How can we promote
He chose his interlocutor carefully. The
physicist with unprecedented understanding of the structure
and workings of the universe selected a thinker with
unprecedented insight into the structure and workings
of the human mind: Sigmund Freud. Freud readily agreed
to participate in this conversation. He had just published
Civilization and its Discontents, in which
he had offered a complex analysis of the psychological
difficulties of living together in community. Yet his
response to Einstein's question about peace was surprisingly
Here is a summary of their dialogue:
Summary of Einstein's Letter, dated 30th July 1932 (my
own comments are in gray)
Einstein expresses how happy he is through
the initiative of the League of Nations to correspond
with a person of his choice, and that the opportunity
offers a unique chance to discuss what he considers
the most important question currently facing civilisation
with Freud. He then goes straight to the question: "Is
there a way to free people from the spectre of war?".
He says, it has become apparent that through
the advances of technology it is now possible to
wipe out humankind. Despite this fact all attempts
at a solution have failed frighteningly.
He has come to the conclusion that people
who are involved in avoiding war in practise, through
their professions (e.g. diplomats, politicians, peace
organizations) have reached a point, partly out of a
feeling of helplessness, where they would welcome the
input of people who have gained a certain amount of
distance to all life questions due to their scientific
Einstein says his thinking gives him little
insight into the depths of human feelings and desires.
Therefore, all he can do is to pose the questions and
give answers he hopes Freud can expand on, due to his
"deep insight into human urges and desires". Further,
Einstein hopes Freud will be able to point to unpolitical
ways of education that could remove psychological barriers
that a normal person does not see.
The only possible solution - A supreme
court of all nations
The only possible solution Einstein sees,
is for the nations of the world to create a legislative
and legal body that will be called upon in all matters
of conflict that may arise between them. A sort of Supreme
Court of all nations. All nations would agree to call
upon this court when conflict arises and to follow the
decisions and directives of this court.
He is quick to point out that the first
problem with any court is, that it is an institution
created by people. Such a court will be all the more
prone to influences from outside the court if its own
power is insufficient to enforce its decisions in practice.
It is a fact of life that power and the law are intertwined.
The decisions of a court will be closest to the ideas
of justice within the society for which it acts, the
more power this society can invest in enforcing respect
for those ideas.
We are far from creating an organisation
with sufficient power to enforce the laws it decrees,
Einstein says. His first conclusion is, that it will
be necessary for nations to give up a certain amount
of their sovereignty. It is without doubt the only way
So far, all attempts in this direction
during the last decades have failed. Obviously strong
psychological mechanisms with the human psyche are working
against these attempts. Some of these mechanisms can
be identified. The minority in power, within any given
society, will resist any infringements upon its power.
This striving for power is driven by materialistic and
economic wishes. Einstein refers to the minority
within any society which will stop at nothing to gain
advantages for itself and will not stop at war or weapons
deals in order to increase its own power and influence.
(War itself has become a huge
industry today, with companies like Halliburton influencing
Whitehouse policy based on the tremendous financial
benefit of war. For more on this, i recommend a movie
We Fight" which documents the Military Industrial
Complex - the collusion between corporations and the
military that formed after WWII.)
spoke of Macht und Recht, power and right,
or violence and law. He called for a world in which
Recht would supersede Macht -- law would supersede violence.
The next question arising from this is,
why does the majority allow itself to be used by
the minority in power? The minority stands to gain
and the majority stands to suffer and to lose. (Einstein
includes also soldiers in the majority, since they have
joined the military in the hope to defend their country).
His answer is that the minority in
power rules over the schools and the press, and also
has influence over the religious organisations. The
minority in power uses these institutions to manipulate
and channel the feelings of the masses in order to use
people for their own gain. (Interesting
that in 2007 the "News" itself is part of
a for-profit public company that must increase earnings.
This means that, if NBC runs a mini series on Global
Warming that is critical of the Auto Industry, Companies
like GMC and Ford will no longer advertise on their
This however, he claims, cannot be the
only reason that the majority lets itself be used in
these ways, and will indeed let itself be driven to
the extent of frenzy and self-sacrifice. Einstein concludes
that there must be a force within humans, a wish to
hate and destroy. A force which during normal times
is dormant, only showing itself in the abnormal. It
can however, easily be awakened, and increased to the
extent of mass-psychosis.
This seems to be the most tragic issue
involved in the emergence of war. At this point Einstein
refers to Freud's knowledge of human desires and urges,
hoping Freud may shed more light on the subject.
Freud said, we are torn between a drive
for Eros or connection, and a drive toward
Death, Thanatos, or Aggression. And indeed,
the eagerness to engage in war is an effect of the drive
toward Aggression, which itself is always embedded in
political, social, and economic contexts. But, he argued,
one can bring Eros into play against Aggression: whatever
leads us to share important concerns produces a sense
of community. "Anything that encourages the
growth of emotional ties will operate against war."
(this is why social programs
like Social Security and Medicare are under attack today-
Because they encourage emotional ties and strengthen
the population. - They are programs that infer that
you should care about others.)
Then Einstein poses one last question,
asking Freud whether it would be possible to influence
the development of humans in a way which could make
them more resistant to what Einstein calls the psychoses
of hate and destruction. (Note: Freud, in his reply,
points out that aggression is the opposite pole to love,
and thus, is a necessary emotional force which is required
for survival. He does not refer to aggression as a psychotic
Einstein then notes that he does not have
the so-called "uneducated" people in mind. In his experience
it is more the so-called "intelligentsia" which is open
to ideologies, being the kinds of people who learnt
about life from paper, rather than from experiencing
real life situations. Finally, Einstein comments on
the fact that he has only talked about war and there
are other types of human conflict. He says the reason
for concentrating on war, is that it is the most extreme
and destructive, and is therefore the best way to demonstrate
how to prevent conflicts.
In closing, Einstein refers to the fact
that Freud has written about most of the issues involved
with the problem of war either directly or indirectly,
however, Einstein would like to know Freud's opinion
on bringing peace to the world, based on his
latest insights, since these could be useful.
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1This text was borrowed
from Freud, Einstein, and Upaya: Contemporary
Reflections on the Question "Why War?"
here for the Full English translation of the correspondence
between Freud and Einstein
*The translation of the letters between
Einstein and Freud were made available in 2002 after
international copyrights had expired. (the original
correspondence was in German) This chapter in history,
and the correspondence of these two great minds is strangely
not widely known.
Note: In 1939 Einstein sent a letter to
President Franklin Delano Roosevelt urging the study
of nuclear fission for military purposes, under fears
that the Nazi government would be first to develop nuclear
weapons. Roosevelt started an investigation into the
matter which eventually became the Manhattan Project.
Einstein did not work on the bomb project, and, according
to some, he later regretted ever having signed this
Other related quotes from Albert Einstein:
"Unthinking respect for authority
is the greatest enemy of truth."
"It is my conviction that killing
under the cloak of war is nothing but an act of murder."
"The release of atomic energy
has not created a new problem. It has merely made more
urgent the necessity of solving an existing one."
"Force always attracts men of
"Peace cannot be kept by force.
It can only be achieved by understanding."
"The world is a dangerous place,
not because of those who do evil, but because of those
who look on and do nothing."
"Nothing will end war unless
the people themselves refuse to go to war."