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Racist physicist sneers at Einstein and Jews in a 1927 anti-Semitic letter up for auction

Racist musings by Nobel Prize-winner Philipp Lenard are preserved in a letter the physicist penned in 1927.
Racist musings by Nobel Prize-winner Philipp Lenard are preserved in a letter the physicist penned in 1927.
(Image: © Courtesy of Nate D. Sanders Auctions)

In 1927, a Nobel Prize-winning physicist named Philipp Lenard penned a letter to a colleague complaining about recent achievements by Albert Einstein and musing that academia and the sciences were becoming dominated by Jews. 

Lenard, an early supporter of Germany's Nazi Party, remarked that a prestigious appointment for Einstein was undeserved; he then wondered if non-Jews would soon be wiped out entirely. 

The original letter, written in German, is up for auction at Nate D. Sanders Auctions in Los Angeles. Bidding for the item, which also includes an English translation, starts at $16,000 US, according to the auction listing.

Related: 8 ways you can see Einstein's theory of relativity in real life

In the letter — written to physicist Wilhelm Wien, another Nobel Prize Laureate — Lenard bemoaned the "Einstein action," referring to Einstein's recent acceptance into the Bavarian Academy of Sciences in Munich, the auction listing says. The "shallow intellectuality" of academia uplifting Einstein was an "unexpected testimony of its domination by Jews," Lenard wrote.

He went on to wonder how his letter might be viewed in the future, "provided any non-Jewish persons are still alive then," he said. 

But as Adolf Hitler gained power in Germany, it wasn't non-Jews who were threatened with imminent annihilation. From the start of World War II, the Nazis began systematically murdering Jews across Europe, according to the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum. By the war's end, an estimated 6 million Jews — more than two-thirds of European Jewry — had been killed. 

Lenard, who was born in Hungary in 1862, won the Nobel Prize in Physics in 1905 for his work on cathode rays, leading to the discovery of electrons and X-rays, according to The Nobel Foundation. His experiments also explored the photoelectric effect — the ejection of electrons when light shines on metal — and he "never forgave Einstein" for achieving greater recognition regarding this phenomenon, The Nobel Foundation notes in a biography

But Lenard's enmity toward Einstein also reflected deep-seated anti-Semitic convictions. Lenard was such a devoted member of Hitler’s National Socialist Party that Nazi officials named him Chief of Aryan Physics, according to the biography.

 

By 1927, Einstein was already well aware that dangerous anti-Semitic sentiments were overtaking common decency in Germany, alongside a rising tide of fanatical nationalism and fascism. Five years earlier, in 1922, Einstein penned a note to his sister Maja while in hiding; he had fled Berlin after right-wing extremists murdered his friend Walther Rathenau, a fellow Jew and the German foreign minister.

"I am doing quite well, in spite of all the anti-Semites among my German colleagues," Einstein wrote. "Here are brewing economically and politically dark times."

The auction for Lenard's letter ends today (Oct. 29) at 5 p.m. Pacific Time (8 p.m. ET).

Originally published on Live Science.