Héctor D. Abruña 
Emile M. Chamot Professor and Chair 
Department of Chemistry and Chemical Biology 
Baker Laboratory
Cornell University
Ithaca, New York 14853-1301
Telephone: 607 255-4175
Facsimile: 607 255-8100
e-mail: hda1@cornell.edu

Was Peter J. W. Debye a Nazi sympathizer and/or collaborator? Did he hold anti-Semitic views? Was he willing to accommodate the views of the Nazi regime? These are some of the questions being raised by Sybe Rispens' recently published book, Einstein in Nederland (available only in Dutch, Ambo|Amsterdam, 2006). These questions entered the public arena in January of this year (2006) after the pre-publication of excerpts from Rispens’ book in the newspaper Vrij Nederland. Subsequently, several other Dutch newspapers, television and radio stations also covered/picked-up the story. This media coverage generated a furor in the Netherlands, a country that, because of the Nazi occupation, has a very high degree of sensitivity to anything resembling Nazi collaboration. 

On February 16th the Universities of Utrecht and Maastricht announced that they had removed Debye's name from their universities. At the University of Utrecht, they stripped the Debye name from the Debye Institute of Physics & Chemistry of Nanomaterials & Interfaces. The Univ. of Maastricht (Debye’s hometown) stopped awarding a Debye scientific award because in their view, Debye could no longer serve as a role model for young scientists. A spokesman from the University of Utrecht stated, "Maybe he was forced to do it [purge Jews from the DPG; (the German Physical Society)], but he did it anyway," "He did not act fiercely enough to defend academic freedom," said a spokeswoman from the University of Maastricht. 

Given the close relationship that Debye had with our Department, and his extraordinary contributions to the science of chemistry, we felt that it was our duty and responsibility to investigate and respond to this situation. However, at the same time, we did not feel that a rush to judgment was in anyone’s interest, especially when our Department did not know what the facts were, what the situation was at the time and all of the ethical complexities involved.

We have looked closely at the available historical record during Debye’s time as director of the Kaiser Wilhelm Institute of Physics (KWIP) and as president of the German Physical Society as well as after his departure from Germany to the United States and during and after the war years. This was done with the help of Mark Walker; a science historian from Union College, who coauthored with Dieter Hoffmann an article in the Dec. 2004 issue of Physics Today (pp 52-58) titled The German Physical Society Under National Socialism in which Debye’s presidency of the German Physical Society was discussed and analyzed.

Based on the information to-date, we have not found evidence supporting the accusations that Debye was a Nazi sympathizer or collaborator or that he held anti-Semitic views. It is important that this be stated clearly since these are the most serious allegations.

On the other hand, the charge that he might have been willing to accommodate to the views of the Nazi regime presents a more difficult and nuanced case. One can ask why Debye sought positions of influence, both as director of the KWIP and as president of the DPG when he must have known that he would have to enforce the Nuremberg Laws. Why did he wait so long before leaving Germany?
Was it so that he could help the few remaining non-Aryans in the German Physical Society or the KWIP? Was his departure simply a matter of seizing opportunities to further his scientific interests? One could also ask why he never provided an explanation or rationalization for his actions at the time.

While Debye did not leave an explicit written record addressing these points, his actions in support of the U.S. war effort are well documented. For example in his 1986 book The Making of the Atom Bomb Richard Rhodes writes (pp 331-332): 

He (=Szilard) traveled again to Princeton to see Einstein, They worked up another letter and sent it under Einstein’s signature to Sachs (= their contact with Roosevelt). It emphasized the secret German Uranium research at the Kaiser Wilhelm Institute, about which they had learned from the physical chemist Peter Debye, the 1936 Nobel laureate in chemistry and the director of the physics institute in Dahlem, who had been expelled recently to the United States, ostensibly on leave of absence, when he refused to give up Dutch citizenship and join the Nazi Reich.

It is worth remembering that it was this (second) letter from Einstein (to Roosevelt) that served as the catalyst for the Manhattan Project.

In addition, Debye’s work on polymers used in dielectrics for radar and on synthetic rubber, which was key in the U.S. war effort, and which he undertook very soon after entering this country, is well documented. (See: for example: The Robert A. Welch Foundation Conferences on Chemical Research, 20 (1977) pp 154-200.)

It is difficult to reconcile these actions (and numerous others) with someone purported to be a Nazi sympathizer, collaborator or someone with anti-Semitic views. While Debye was late to leave Germany, he nevertheless, did leave causing considerable difficulties for his family and once in the U.S., he made significant contributions to the war effort.

Clearly, we would like to have a written record by Debye detailing the rationale for his actions prior to leaving Germany. However, to suggest that the lack of such evidence is in and of itself, incriminating is, in our view, not a defensible position. However, should additional evidence be found in the future, we will be ready to evaluate it in a reasoned manner. Nevertheless, we firmly believe that our decisions must be based on the evidence as we know it today.

Thus, based on the information, evidence and historical record known to date, we believe that any action that dissociates Debye's name from the Department of Chemistry and Chemical Biology at Cornell University is unwarranted.  

We acknowledge that this subject is one that will continue to be analyzed through the lens of history, and we will remain active participants in such a debate.


Héctor D. Abruña
Émile M. Chamot Professor and Chair
Department of Chemistry and Chemical Biology
Baker Laboratory, Cornell University
Ithaca, New York 14853-1301