Einstein’s and Freud’s correspondence on war and peace

Albert Einstein and Sigmund Freud are without a doubt some of the greatest geniuses of mankind. These two icons of physics and psychology are of course known for their outstanding achievements in their fields, but few know that they exchanged interesting letters. In 1932 – just a few months before Hitler came to power – two of the greatest thinkers of the 20th century were discussing the question “Why war?”

  1. Manifesto against conscription
  2. Einstein – the militant pacifist
  3. What drives people to war?
  4. Einstein on the question: Why war?
  5. Freud to Einstein: drives and violence
  6. The human urge to destroy
  7. Conclusion: what can we do now?
  1. What does the term ›militant pacifist‹ mean?
  2. What causes Einstein recognizes for wars?
  3. How does Einstein anticipate part of Freudian psychology? And which one is it?
  4. How does Freud respond to Einstein’s letter?
  5. In Freud’s view, what are we left with?

Manifesto against conscription 

Einstein and Freud were pacifists. Both signed the so-called  Manifesto against Conscription and Youth Military Training  of 1930, along with many other great personalities, including Gandhi, Bertrand Russell and Rabindranath Tagore. [1]

In addition to their convictions, what they both had in common was that the National Socialists’ seizure of power forced them to leave Germany. Particularly noteworthy in this context is one of Einstein’s statements in an interview with George Sylvester Viererck, for which he achieved great fame outside of physics [2]:

There would be enough money, enough work, enough to eat if we distributed the riches of the world properly, instead of slaving to rigid economic doctrines or traditions. Above all, however, we must not allow our thoughts and efforts to be prevented from constructive work and misused in preparation for a new war. I agree with the great American Benjamin Franklin, who said there was never a good war and never a bad peace. [3]

Einstein – the militant pacifist

I’m not just a pacifist, I’m a militant pacifist, I want to fight for peace. Nothing will abolish wars if the people themselves do not refuse to serve in the war. An aggressive minority initially fights for great ideals. Isn’t it better to die for a thing you believe in, such as peace, than to suffer for a thing you don’t believe in, such as war? Every war adds another link to the chain of evil that prevents human progress. [3]

What kind of world could we build if we used the forces unleashed by war to build it? A tenth of the energy consumed by the warring nations in the world war, a fraction of the money they wasted on hand grenades and poison gases, would be entirely sufficient to help people of all countries to lead a decent life and to bring about the catastrophe of unemployment in the world to prevent. [3]

What drives people to war?

In his letter to Sigmund Freud, Einstein begins with the familiar words that he has a great interest in discussing that question which, given the current state of affairs, appears to him to be the most important of civilization:

Is there a way to free people from the doom of war? The insight that advances in technology have made this question an existential question for civilized mankind has become fairly general, and yet the hot efforts to find a solution have so far failed terribly [3].

In the later course of the letter, Einstein himself came up with some possible causes which, in his opinion, promote the war conditions of mankind. It is frightening how these assessments will be almost identical to the conditions in the Third Reich:

Einstein on the question: Why war?

At the beginning of his letter, he identified two aspects that contribute to the war of the people, namely indoctrination or control of thought and a general perverse striving for power. In this way he anticipates parts of psychology:

  1. The minority of those in power has the school, the press and mostly also the religious organizations in their hands. Through these means she controls and guides the feelings of the great masses and makes them her willless tools. [3]
  2. The rulers’ need for political power is often nourished from a material-economic striving for power of another class. I am thinking[…] of this group of people for whom war, arms manufacture and trade are nothing but an opportunity to gain personal advantage, to expand their personal sphere of influence. [3]

However, these two factors do not seem to say everything. It seems implausible that people can cause such atrocities, and that solely due to indoctrination and the pursuit of power – at least that is how it affects Einstein. With a third aspect for the cause of the wars he then anticipates a piece of Freud’s psychology:

The answer can only be: There is always a need to hate and destroy in people . This disposition is latent in ordinary times, and then only appears in abnormal times; but it can also be easily awakened and increased to a mass psychosis.

Ultimately, Einstein comes to the conclusion that there can only be one way to peace of his time, namely this: The way to international security leads through states unconditionally renouncing part of their freedom of action or sovereignty, and it is unquestionable that there is there is no other way to achieve this security. [3]

Freud to Einstein: drives and violence

Freud sees things similarly. The influence of those thoughts which he expresses in his paper from 1930 with the title The Uneasiness in Culture cannot be misunderstood. He refers to them and provides a very brief account of his theory, which he begins as follows:

You start with the relationship between law and power. That is certainly the right starting point for our investigation. Can I replace the word ‘power’ with the brighter, harder word ‘violence’? Right and violence are opposites for us today. It is easy to show that one evolved from the other, and if we go back to the primeval beginnings and see how that happened first, the solution to the problem will easily come to us. [3]

Following this paragraph, Freud begins by explaining that violence has always existed in human history, but that in the course of time this has been more and more inhibited by the achievements of culture and civilization. For example, he describes it in the following way:

Violence is broken through unification, the power of these united now represents the law in contrast to the violence of the individual. We see that the law is the power of a community. There is still violence, ready to turn against anyone who opposes it, works by the same means, pursues the same ends; the difference really only lies in the fact that it is no longer the violence of an individual that prevails, but that of the community. [3]

“With that, I think everything essential is already given,” says Freud:

… overcoming violence by transferring power to a larger unit held together by the emotional ties of its members. Everything else is [nothing but] explanations and repetitions. [3]

What is remarkable at this point is the link to mass psychology , which Freud, as is well known, amply developed through the influence of Gustave LeBon. Einstein called this the influence of the colonels through schools, church and press. Freud expands this with the concept of emotional attachment – what will later become primarily patriotism.

The human urge to destroy

As already mentioned, Einstein remarks that humans must have something inherently destructive in them, since it seems implausible to him to dismiss war and destruction as a matter of education. With this he hits a point that Freud knew very well about:

I can now proceed to gloss over another of your sentences. They wonder why it is so easy to get people excited about war, and suspect that something is at work in them, an instinct to hate and destroy, which accommodates such hatred. Once again, I can only wholeheartedly agree with you. [3]

Of course, this is known in the Freudian school as the death instinct (Thanatos) alongside the life instinct (Eros) and I already mentioned it in an article about fascism and the willingness to be cruel in the Third Reich. Freud sums it up differently in his letter:

The death instinct becomes the destructive instinct in that it is turned outwards, against the objects, with the help of special organs. The living being preserves its own life, so to speak, by destroying what is foreign. [3]

The psychologist Arno Gruen takes up exactly this idea again in a vivid way. He relates it to Hitler and his officers, in whom death became the mainspring of their only bitter form of vitality:

There is a kind of men whose central impulse is always around death. We usually overlook the fact that Hitler and his henchmen murdered and murdered themselves, but were far from realizing that they represented a person who only feels alive through death and destruction. [4]

Conclusion: what can we do now?

Freud ends his answer to Einstein, so to speak, with a complaint. It can also be interpreted as a reproach to mankind, which he sees justified in the fact that after centuries it has still not been understood how senseless every war ultimately leads into the void. We keep cheating ourselves with cheap motives like patriotism, greed for power and stupid retribution.

How long do we have to wait until the others also become pacifists? It cannot be said, but perhaps it is not at all a utopian hope that the influence of these two moments, the cultural attitude and the justified fear of the effects of a war in the future will put an end to warfare in the foreseeable future. In which ways or detours we cannot guess


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