Two Great Minds on World Peace

The year was 1932.  At the invitation of the League of Nations, the predecessor of today's United Nations, two world-famous scientists exchanged open letters addressing the issue of putting an end to all warfare. 

Both men were Jews -- one German, the other Austrian.  Both had lived through the Great War of 1914-1918, in the aftermath of which the League of Nations had been formed to ensure that nothing like it would ever happen again.  But now, with the storm clouds of Nazism gathering with frightening speed, both men knew that another war was likely -- and that the League of Nations would be powerless to prevent it.

"Is there any way of delivering mankind from the menace of war?" wrote the German to his Austrian counterpart.  In his letter, he proposed "[t]he setting up, by international consent, of a legislative and judicial body to settle every conflict arising between nations."  Ideally, every nation involved in a dispute would unquestioningly accept, and abide by, the authority of this international judiciary.  But, he admitted, "The quest for international security involves the unconditional surrender by every nation, in a certain measure, of its liberty of action."

The German couldn't see how any nation would ever accept such a loss of sovereignty, given the long historical record of the use of violent force to preserve and advance national agenda.  Is it possible, he asked his Austrian colleague, to extinguish mankind's desire to wage war by eliminating violence and other pathological aspects of human nature?

Barely two months later, the Austrian sent his long and detailed reply.

He argued that violence itself is not to blame. After all, establishing and enforcing the rule of law, whether among people or nations, amounts to using violence (or the threat of it) to suppress violence.  And while human nature may well be changing, through cultural evolution away from warmongering and toward a group identification of all people with the entire human species, the eradication of warfare by this means is at best a distant hope.

The Austrian affirmed that this left the German's first proposal as the only realistic solution, writing, "There is but one sure way of ending war and that is the establishment, by common consent, of a central control which shall have the last word in every conflict of interests. For this, two things are needed: first, the creation of such a supreme court of judicature; secondly, its investment with adequate executive force[.] ... Obviously the League of Nations fulfills the first condition; it does not fulfill the second."

The heart of the problem was clear: without a means of enforcement, which would have to come from the entire world community, no global authority could effectively carry out its mission as peacemaker and peacekeeper.

Shortly after this correspondence, in 1933, intolerable conditions at home drove the German to the United States.  He would live to see revealed the full horror of the Holocaust.  He would also see the postwar formation of the United Nations, only to witness its pathetic inability to stop war and genocide numerous times before his death in 1955.

The Austrian stayed in his homeland until the Nazis engulfed it in 1938, then fled to England; he would die of cancer a year later.  With its naïve attempts at appeasing Hitler an abject failure and no other cards left to play, the League of Nations also effectively died that same year, on the eve of the second global conflict of the century.

The Austrian was Sigmund Freud.

The German was Albert Einstein.

Unfortunately but not surprisingly, the Nazi regime squelched the distribution of their published open letters, denying them the widespread readership they deserved.  But the real tragedy is that many decades and many wars later, the United Nations has degenerated into a corrupt, self-serving cabal that has proven as impotent as its predecessor in dealing with conflicts between (or within) nations.  Perhaps inevitably, and despite the often bitter misgivings of its own people and the resentment of others, the task of global law enforcement long ago defaulted to the world's only superpower without expansionist ambitions -- the United States -- which continues in this thankless role today.

Both Freud and Einstein, born in the 19th century and destined to attain greatness in the 20th, would no doubt be dismayed that their plan for world peace still remains an unrealized ideal in the 21st -- although, given what they had lived through in their own time, neither would probably be surprised.  All the same, both were lifelong believers in the supreme power of human reason.  We can only hope that the future will prove them right.

Dr. Zoran Pazameta is associate professor of astronomy and physics, Eastern Connecticut State University.

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