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Thursday, January 5th, 2006 | ISSN 1556-5696

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In this week’s eSkeptic, William C. Waterhouse investigates a statement, attributed to Albert Einstein, ostensibly praising the Church.

William C. Waterhouse received a Ph.D. in mathematics at Harvard University. He has written more than 150 professional publications and has been a professor of mathematics at Penn State for 30 years. For a decade he has been an active participant in the alt.quotations Internet newsgroup.


Did Einstein Praise the Church?
A statement attributed to Einstein
isn’t what it claims to be.

by William C. Waterhouse

In 2005 we celebrate the centennial of Einstein’s greatest work, not just relativity but also his analysis of Brownian motion and the quantum explanation of the photoelectric effect. So it seems like a good time to settle another question about him: Did he lavishly praise the Church for its opposition to Nazism?

There is a widely reproduced statement, attributed to Einstein, in which he enthusiastically praises the Church. As far as I have been able to find, the first appearance of this statement was in Time Magazine, December 23, 1940 (page 38).1 “The best tribute to the spirit of Germany’s Christians comes from a Jew and an agnostic (Time, Sept. 23) — the world’s most famous scientist, Albert Einstein,” the article says. Einstein is then quoted as saying:

Being a lover of freedom, when the revolution came in Germany, I looked to the universities to defend it, knowing that they had always boasted of their devotion to the cause of truth; but, no, the universities immediately were silenced. Then I looked to the great editors of the newspapers whose flaming editorials in days gone by had proclaimed their love of freedom; but they, like the universities, were silenced in a few short weeks… Only the Church stood squarely across the path of Hitler’s campaign for suppressing truth. I never had any special interest in the Church before, but now I feel a great affection and admiration because the Church alone has had the courage and persistence to stand for intellectual truth and moral freedom. I am forced thus to confess that what I once despised I now praise unreservedly.

Time does not give any source or any indication that their reporter heard him say it. In January 1943, this exact same text was read aloud in a nationwide broadcast by Fulton J. Sheen (then a monsignor in the Catholic Church, later a bishop).2 Many copies of the same text can now be found in print and on the Internet.

Different writers, of course, have had different ideas of its meaning. Some (including Walter Niemöller) take it to refer to the “Confessing Church,” those German Protestant ministers who objected to Nazi supervision.3 Supporters of Pope Pius XII have used it to rebut attacks on his relation to the Holocaust, often modifying the language to say that Einstein specifically mentioned the Catholic Church.4 As early as 1943 one writer treated it as an anti-secular statement,5 and others, including the well-known theologian Thomas Torrance (former moderator of the Church of Scotland’s General Assembly), think it refers to Christianity in general.6

More strikingly, it seemed to me that there are serious reasons to doubt that Einstein ever said it. First, if (as the Catholics think) it refers to Pius XII, it would have to have been written after 1938. But the text certainly sounds as though it refers to a time shortly after the Nazis came to power.

Second, the language (“great editors,” “flaming editorials,” etc.) is much more flamboyant than Einstein’s usual style. Here, for comparison, is something he undoubtedly did write in 1933:

I hope that healthy conditions will soon supervene in Germany and that in future her great men like Kant and Goethe will not merely be commemorated from time to time but that the principles which they taught will also prevail in public life and in the general consciousness.7

As this shows, he (like most German Jews) hoped for support not from Christianity as such, but from the German Enlightenment tradition.

Third, it is hard to suppose that Einstein would deliberately publish a statement praising those who opposed “suppression of truth” without any mention of the vastly more important question of attacks on Jews.

And fourth, at least to another scientist like me, it seems unlikely that Einstein would have been guilty of saying that he had “despised” something immediately after saying that he “never had any special interest” in it.

Having a long-standing interest in verifying quotations, I turned to The Expanded Quotable Einstein,8 but it does not include this statement. So I wrote to its editor, Alice Calaprice. She was unsure about the statement but kindly referred me to Barbara Wolff at the Einstein Archives in Jerusalem. Ms. Wolff was able to answer my question: It turns out that the Einstein Archives contain an unpublished letter mentioning this topic specifically. Writing to Count Montgelas on March 28, 1947, Einstein explained that early in the Hitler years he had casually mentioned to some journalist that hardly any German intellectuals except a few churchmen were supporting individual rights and intellectual freedom. He added that this statement had subsequently been drastically exaggerated beyond anything that he could recognize as his own.9

As Ms. Wolf wrote to me, the supposed statement “is definitely better suited to serve the purpose of revealing how Einstein was (ab)used, than to present Einstein’s point of view.”10

References & Notes
  1. Versions of such a statement were apparently circulating a bit earlier; see Mackay, J. A. 1939. “The Titanic Twofold Challenge,” New York Times Magazine, May 7, p. 3. But later citations seem to come from the Time article.
  2. Ms. Barbara Wolff, of the Einstein Archives, has told me that they have a transcript of this talk.
  3. Niemöller, W. 1948. Kampf und Zeugnis der bekennenden Kirche. Bielefeld, p. 526; Rieger, J. 1944. The Silent Church. London, p. 90.
  4. Lapide, P. 1967. Three Popes and the Jews. New York, p. 251; Dalin, D. G. 2001. Weekly Standard, Feb. 26, p. 31.
  5. Herbert, H. L. 1944. “The Great Secularist Experiment,” Hibbert Journal, 42-43, pp. 107-115.
  6. Cochrane, A. C. 1962. The Church’s Confession under Hitler. Philadelphia, p. 40; Torrance, Thomas, 1998. “Einstein and God,” Reflections (Center of Theological Inquiry) 1, pp. 2-25. http: //www.ctinquiry.org/publications/reflections_volume_1/torrance.htm
  7. Einstein, A. 1954. Ideas and Opinions. New York, p. 205.
  8. Calaprice, A. (ed.). 2000. The Expanded Quotable Einstein. Princeton.
  9. Unpublished letter, Einstein Archives, item number 58-548.
  10. Email sent on 13 October, 2004.
9 Comments »

9 Comments

  1. Joao Campos says:

    But there hare others to wich Einstein as wrote and confirm the sentence [http://www.skepticforum.com/viewtopic.php?f=65&t=10308#p135848: my father wrote Einstein and he wrote back, saying, yes, he did say that the Christian Church was standing up to Hitler and Nazism]

  2. Steve says:

    This doesn’t seem skeptical to me: it is reaching, and ignores other evidence. Sort of a statement of faith.

  3. Pamela says:

    http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/roadshow/archive/200706A19.html

    But I get the feeling this ‘skeptic’ is so anti-Catholic, so despises the Church, as Einstein admits to once doing, that he won’t accept even Einstein’s confirmation. Whatever…

  4. Matt Weber says:

    New Einstein Letter Credits Church
    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Sk_-0UiiauU

    A recent Antiques Roadshow episode uncovered a letter from Einstein that affirms the authenticity of a quote attributed to Einstein. The quote appeared in Time Magazine in 1940. The letter was appraised in August 2007. Einstein was quoted as saying:

    “Being a lover of freedom, when the revolution came in Germany, I looked to the universities to defend it, knowing that they had always boasted of their devotion to the cause of truth; but, no, the universities immediately were silenced. Then I looked to the great editors of the newspapers whose flaming editorials in days gone by had proclaimed their love of freedom; but they, like the universities, were silenced in a few short weeks… Only the Church stood squarely across the path of Hitler’s campaign for suppressing truth. I never had any special interest in the Church before, but now I feel a great affection and admiration because the Church alone has had the courage and persistence to stand for intellectual truth and moral freedom. I am forced thus to confess that what I once despised I now praise unreservedly.”

    The exact wording of Einstein’s response when questioned about the quote, as it appears in his letter in this video is:
    “It’s true that I made a statement which corresponds approximately with the text you quoted. I made this statement during the first years of the Nazi regime– much earlier than 1940– and my expressions were a little more moderate.”

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Sk_-0UiiauU

  5. August Pieta says:

    You don’t have to be an Einstein to confrim that what Einstein (or anyone else) says here is true. Anyone who read the most important works of the most important Nazi’s Hitler, Rosenberg, etc.; and also read the continuesly responses to those rascist and anti-semitic works by the church and by pope Pius XI and pope Pius XII, comes to the same conclusion.

    But the real complot thinker, is able to deny anything: some don’t believe we’ve reached the moon; some deny the Holocaust; some deny Hitler was responsable for the Holocaust; some deny that Pius XII helped the jews.
    Listen for instance tot a mister William Harwood (on internet): “Pope Pius XII, who was Hitler’s full partner in the Final Solution”; but for most reasonable people he illustrates his way of thinking by adressing, in the same sentence “Mother Theresa, a lying, thieving hypocrite who raised millions of dollars by pretending that it would be used to feed the hungry”. That’s clarifying, for most people. Other’s have probably found a new devil: Mother Theresa.

  6. Dharma Thandrayen says:

    Very simple if Einstein hadn’t said it, then why when it was being spread around since 1940, did Einstein not do anything to stop it, he was still well and alive until 1955, he could have said something, if he didn’t it either means he allowed a lie to spread, or he actually did say it, and the skeptics want to find anything, that also cant be proved “reasons to doubt” proves the evidence is NOT 100%, therefore reasons to believe is still viable. Reasons to doubt, is typical skeptic style, they doubt like others believe! They go investigate with the intention to disprove….. Einstein was well aware of what was said, and he allowed it to go on, ask yourselves why? Perhaps because he said it? Food for thought! Before 1940 in that same famous saying, he states he was so his 1933 words, are still consistent with the favorable phrases attributed to him.

    • Dharma Thandrayen says:

      The 1933 words I was referring to, “I hope that healthy conditions will soon supervene in Germany and that in future her great men like Kant and Goethe will not merely be commemorated from time to time but that the principles which they taught will also prevail in public life and in the general consciousness.”

      Einstein as he mentioned, was not interested in the Church before, yes as most Jews, he distrusted the Church, understandable from the way Jews have been treated by that same Church, but thats why he mentions specifically in those now “doubted” phrases, and I quote : “Up till then I had not been interested in the Church, but today I feel a great admiration for the Church”

      My two cents anyway.

  7. Lindsay says:

    Below are two links. One to a video segment from a recent Antique Road Show and the second a transcript in which a woman shows letters from her minister father, Time Magazine and Albert Einstein on this exact issue. Einstein himself responds:

    “It’s true that I made a statement which corresponds approximately with the text you quoted. I made this statement during the first years of the Nazi regime– much earlier than 1940– and my expressions were a little more moderate.”

    The last remark is a vague qualification and one would have wished he had clarified it further.

    After getting the authenticity of the quote wrong will you now interpret the last clause to make yourself right nonetheless? May I feel you brilliant and righteous brain?

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Sk_-0UiiauU

    http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/roadshow/archive/200706A19.html

  8. RS says:

    See

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Myth_of_Hitler%27s_Pope

    In a 1950 letter Einstein said that his quoted remarks from the Time article were “not my own”, that they had been “elaborated and exaggerated nearly beyond recognition” and that he was “predominantly critical” of the clergy.[5] In a 1943 interview Einstein was extremely critical of the Catholic Church’s behavior under the Nazis, and also singled out Pope Pius XII for criticism because of his Concordat with Hitler, saying “Since when can one make a pact with Christ and Satan at the same time?”

    Also see

    http://books.google.com/books?id=T5R7JsRRtoIC&pg=PA94#v=onepage&q&f=false

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