Einstein and the Construction of World Peace

Lucio Levi
Member of UEF Federal Committee, Former President of UEF Italy

C. G. Anta
Albert Einstein. The Road to Pacifism Oxford, Peter Lang, 2017

Einstein’s dominant passion was the exploration of the mysteries of the universe and the attempt to discover the laws of nature. But another cause occupied his mind over the whole course of his lifetime: the abolition of war and the construction of world peace. The fascination of his figure goes beyond his extraordinary contribution to the advancement of scientific research. His cosmopolitan ideas, his commitment to peace, his aversion to violence, his contempt for nationalism have provided the contemporary man with a reference point and a real teacher of life. His commitment to peace was not an occasional passion, but an enduring objective he sought to achieve throughout his life.

His reflection on war and peace is rich of teachings for the future of humankind. For this reason, Claudio Giulio Anta’s book devoted entirely to Einstein’s thinking and active commitment to peace is to be welcomed. Anta has given important contributions to the studies on federalist thought and European unification. His previous books were devoted to Jacques Delors, the Founding Fathers of Europe, Winston Churchill, the review Coenobium and Lord Lothian.

Einstein’s active commitment to peace began after the outbreak of WWI, when a Manifesto to the Civilized World, signed by 93 German intellectuals, was published supporting Germany’s entry into the war and endorsing the alliance between German culture and German militarism. Einstein tried to organize a reaction to that initiative. He drafted with Friedrich Georg Nicolai, professor of physiology at the University of Berlin, a Manifesto to Europeans, an appeal against nationalism and irrationalism. But the climate of public opinion was not in favour of pacifism. Only two other intellectuals signed it.

At the end of 1914, Einstein was among the founders of the New Fatherland League whose mission was the establishment of a supranational organization in Europe to prevent future armed conflicts. The first pamphlet published by the League was entitled The Creation of the United States of Europe that showed the clear federalist inspiration of the organization. In 1915 Einstein contributed to a collection of writings of scientists on the war, promoted by the Berlin Goethe League, with a short article, titled My Opinion of the War. His vision of peace and war combined a traditional form of pacifism with a clear idea of the role of political institutions in the construction of peace. What is extremely significant is the fact that, while he adhered to the principles of pacifism – he declared that he was seeking “the citizenship of a country that will in all likelihood not force me to take part in a war”–, at the same time he asserted, in keeping with federalist theory, his conviction that “a supranational organization in Europe that prevents European wars, just as now war between Bavaria and Württemberg is impossible in the German Reich”, was not only necessary, but also possible. At the time, the institutional framework of his design was still rather vague, since the only supranational institution he advocated was a court of arbitration, an institution that will be embodied within the League of Nations. This idea remained a predominant theme of his political commitment for the rest of his life.

After an initial endorsement of the League of Nations, Einstein became convinced that it had “neither the energy nor the good intention to fulfil its great cause.” Shortly after having accepted the invitation of the League of Nations to become member of the Committee on Intellectual Co-operation, Einstein decided to resign. He realized that the League’s Court, without a police force capable to enforce its rulings, was ineffective. The League of Nations was not a supranational organization, as it was subordinate to the member states. His opinion on the League of Nations was influenced by the changing succession of the cycles of international politics. The last time his hopes for a lasting peace were kindled was on the occasion of the agreement between Stresemann and Briand based on the FrancoGerman reconciliation, the prospect of the admission of Germany into the League of Nations and the plan for a European union. But after the Stresemann’s assassination in 1929 these hopes quickly faded away.

It is important to recall the exchange of letters occurred in 1932 between Einstein and Freud on the theme “Why War?”. They agreed on one point: that it is impossible to extirpate the aggressive and destructive compulsions inborn in human nature. But while Einstein confirmed his idea that war is rooted in the division of the world into sovereign states and that the peace can only be ensured by a legislative and judicial supranational power, Freud expressed his skepticism on this idea and placed his trust in the improvement of human nature and its capacity to keep in check the aggressive compulsions. It is worth mentioning that, when Einstein was asked to define his political position on war and peace, he described himself as an internationalist, not a federalist. He clarified his viewpoint in an interview to the New York Evening Post: “Internationalism, as I conceive the term, implies a rational relationship between countries, a sane union and understanding between nations, mutual co-operation for mutual advancement without interference with the particular customs of any nation”.

The word internationalism is derived from Latin and refers to the interaction “between nations”. According to this approach, the primary sense of belonging and dominant collective identity are connected to national governments. The internationalist viewpoint does not perceive the organization of the world into nation-states as an obstacle to the achievement of world peace. On the contrary, it is the utopia of peaceful relations between sovereign states. It is a variation of the theory of spontaneous harmony of interests applied to international relations and conceives international cooperation as the vehicle of peace. Therefore, unlike federalism, it does not question the state-centric vision of politics, international anarchy and the legitimacy of the organization of the world into nation-states. The coming to power of Hitler represents a real watershed in his conception of peace.

Anta writes that “With the establishment of the Third Reich, Einstein was forced to gradually realize that absolute pacifism would not work”. Therefore, he became aware that “dictators could only be stopped by force of arms”. The first decision he made was to migrate to the United States, where he was invited to teach theoretical physics at the Princeton Institute of Advanced Studies

Einstein’s commitment against military service and his radical rejection of violence, witnessed by his signature in 1926 of the Manifesto against Conscription and the Military System, should be classified within the category of pacifism. But this position assumes a different meaning if framed within the context of a larger idea: the federalist design. In fact, when he addressed the problem in 1934 after the victory of nazism, he clearly stated: “I stand firmly by the principle that the real solution of the problem of pacifism can be achieved only by the organization of a supranational court of arbitration, which, differing from the present League of Nations, would have at its disposal the means of enforcing its decisions”. At the same time, he added: “Starting from this basic conviction, I favor any measure I consider likely to bring mankind closer to the goal of a supranational organization”. However, in the countries governed by fascist regimes, “refusal of military service means martyrdom and death”. And concluded: “In the present circumstances, I do not believe that passive resistance … is a constructive policy”. In a letter to a Belgian conscientious objector he wrote: “Were I a Belgian, I should not, in the present circumstances, refuse military service”. Definitely, Einstein was convinced that fascist governments could only be defeated by force. In the course of time his institutional design has become more precise and more closely in keeping with federalist theory. A decisive influence was exercised by the political and cultural environment of the United States, especially his friendship with Emery Reves, the author of The Anatomy of Peace, the federalist book that had the largest circulation in the 20th century, and his familiarity with the federalist institutional model encapsulated in the US Constitution and illustrated by the Federalist Papers.

In 1939 Einstein expressed to President Roosevelt his fear that Germany might be working to build nuclear weapons. This warning boosted the US nuclear programme. For this reason, Einstein was accused to be the father of the atomic bomb. But the fact is that he remained out of the Manhattan Project. He argued: “Had I known that the Germans would not succeed in producing an atomic bomb, I never would have lifted a finger”.

The epoch of world wars ended with the nuclear explosions on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. That event marked the beginning of a new era in which humankind has acquired the power to extinguish its own species and interrupt the continuation of life on earth. Einstein, early in the Nuclear Age, grasped the novelty of the change occurred. He famously said, “The unleashed power of the atom has changed everything save our modes of thinking and we thus drift toward unparalleled catastrophe.” Nuclear weapons are a different type of armament. They are not weapons in the traditional sense of the word. In an article published in 1945 he argued: “The release of atomic energy has not created a new problem … As long as there are sovereign nations possessing great power, war is inevitable … What has changed is the destructiveness of war”.

One World or None is the title of a book published in the United States in 1946 collecting contributions by several intellectuals and scientists, including Einstein, whose purpose was to illustrate the dramatic alternative looming on mankind’s future. In spite of the efforts by many distinguished scientists – first of all Einstein – to raise awareness of nuclear danger, no progress has been made regarding the plan to abolish nuclear arsenals, except the plan concocted by Gorbachev. It was only partially achieved, but when the latter was removed from power, his plan to eliminate all nuclear weapons by the year 2000 was stopped. However, in spite of the circularity of the nuclear deterrence doctrine, – threatening the extinction of humankind in order to avoid the extinction – so far, no nuclear power has dared launch the first strike.

Einstein was aware of the limits of the UN, which he compared to the Confederation of the United States, the first form of union between the 13 original republics established after the War of Independence. In an Open Letter to the General Assembly he defined the UN as an extremely important institution, provided that it is understood as “a transitional system toward the final goal, which is the establishment of a supra-national authority vested with sufficient legislative and executive powers to keep peace”. He actively advocated a world federal government as an organization capable of preventing an atomic war and ensuring peace. More specifically, he advocated the democratization of the UN: “The moral authority of the UN would be considerably enhanced if the delegates were elected directly by the people”. Moreover, he claimed the subordination of the Security Council, – “especially while that body is paralyzed by the shortcomings of the veto provisions”– to the General Assembly. Taking into account that the Soviet Union was opposed to the idea of world government, Einstein proposed that the other countries should create “a partial world government comprising at least two-thirds of the main industrial and economic areas of the world”. He recommended to leave the organization “wide open to any nonmember – particularly Russia – and prevent it to act as an alliance against the rest of the world”. The core of this organization would have been an Atlantic Union, a project promoted before WWII by Clarence Streit in his book Union Now. This plan was sharply criticized by Philip Morrison and Robert R. Wilson, who remarked that instead of “one world” it promoted “half a world”, i.e. the acceptance of a divided world. The hard reality produced by the bipolar world order and Cold War was the UN paralysis, brought about by the cross-vetoes of the superpowers. Only when the bipolar world order began to decline at the end of the last century, the entente Gorbachev-Reagan opened the prospect of stopping the armaments race and reducing the mass-destruction weapons. It is a prospect that Gorbachev dared link to the federalist design to be achieved both at the regional and global levels. But it vanished soon after the collapse of the communist bloc, when George Bush Jr. decided to pursue the megalomaniac dream of transforming the US into a world empire with the disastrous wars against Afghanistan and Iraq.

Einstein perceived as a personal drama the fact that his scientific discoveries were used not for the improvement of human condition but for strengthening the destructive potential of war. This is why he multiplied his efforts to disseminate the new thinking to face the risks of the atomic era and to promote initiatives for building a world without war. In 1946, he became chair of the Emergency Committee of the Atomic Scientists, but the start of the Cold War postponed the prospect of world government to a distant future. The scientist’s movement collapsed and the international control of the atomic energy still remains a task for the future. A similar crisis underwent the movement for world federal government, that was actively endorsed by Einstein. The last document he signed just one week before his death in 1955 is the so-called Russell-Einstein Manifesto, that described the terrific power of the H-bomb, tested by the US in 1952 and the USSR in 1953; it invited the superpowers to stop the armaments race and called for a world government.

In conclusion, it is worth quoting this sentence, which summarizes the meaning of his political commitment: “the greatest of all causes – good will among men and peace on earth”.

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