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Peter Debye:

"A Typical Scientist in an Untypical Time"

from Dieter Hoffmann
MPI for History of Science Berlin/Germany

Mark Walker
Union College, Schenectady/USA


As directors of the research project "The German Physical Society during the Third Reich" (the results of this project will soon be published as Physiker zwischen Autonomie und Anpassung, Weinheim 2006), we would like to make the following contribution to the current discussion of Peter Debye's role during the Third Reich.

Unfortunately we do not read Dutch, so we have been limited to second-hand accounts. However, we are concerned about some of the arguments used and especially about the consequences they have had, because they disregard the historical context.

Thus Debye has been criticized for signing letters with "Heil Hitler!" By the mid-1930s, German civil servants were required to use "Heil Hitler!" in certain forms of official correspondence with Nazi officials. As far as we know, Debye used this phrase, either because he was a Professor at the University of Leipzig, or director of the Kaiser-Wilhelm Institute for Physics, or from 1937 to 1939 president of the German Physical Society (DPG). For example, one can also find letters signed with "Heil Hitler!" by the physicist Max von Laue, one of the (few) scholars who repeatedly demonstrated civil courage vis-à-vis the Nazis and, according to Einstein, someone who had remained decent under National Socialism.

Debye has also been criticized because, even after moving to the USA, he kept in contact with Germany and the authorities there. It was common for scientists leaving Germany - for whatever reason - to try not to burn their bridges with their former home. There are many possible reasons for this, including family and future pension or compensation claims.

The central point of the recent criticism of Debye is the purge of "Jewish members from the German Reich" from the German Physical Society in December, 1938. The DPG was one of the last scientific societies to take this step. Before this was done, the Reich Ministry of Science had repeated ordered the DPG to conform its statutes to NS policy and in particular take care of the problem of its remaining "non-Aryan" members. In December 1938, a few weeks after the pogrom of Reichskristallnacht, the DPG finally bowed to pressure from the state and sent the following letter to all its members living in Germany.

    Because of circumstances beyond our control the membership of German Jews as defined by the Nuremberg Laws in the German Physical Society can no longer be maintained.
    With the agreement of the executive board I therefore call upon all members who are affected by these measures to communicate their resignation from the society to me.

    Heil Hitler!

    P. Debye

With this circular the DPG formally implemented the ministerial directive--without taking any public position or making any individual expression of enthusiasm. This reserve is nothing for the DPG to be proud of, but at the time was also nothing to be taken for granted, as the corresponding circulars and activities of other societies and institutions document.

Moreover, this reserve was noticed by a group of Nazi-activists in the DPG, who therefore brought the "non-Aryan question" up at the subsequent executive committee meeting of December 14th. There was an exchange between Debye and a representative of this group. According to the protocol, the latter noted that:

    the first sentence in the letter was formulated so that it could be misunderstood. Debye asked that this sentence be understood as it was intended and accepted the responsibility for the formulation chosen.

The correspondence between the representatives of this group was more explicit and denunciatory:

    However, the handling of the Jewish Question by the DPG demonstrates that Debye lacks the necessary understanding for political questions, which is what we should have expected. At that time I tried and failed to get a clear position from the Chairman and thereby come to a definitive solution of the problem.

The information service of the leadership of the Reich University Teachers League, a National Socialist organization, also commented sarcastically:

    Obviously the German Physical Society is still very backward and still clings tightly to their dear Jews. It is in fact remarkable that only "because of circumstances beyond our control" the membership of Jews can no longer be maintained.

Placed into their contemporary context, these events are shameful, but do not make Debye into a Nazi-activist or collaborator. Debye's conduct was not very different from other scholars or contemporaries who lived in and accommodated themselves to National Socialist Germany and loyally served the Third Reich. Moreover this service was rarely due to enthusiasm about the regime, or even out of political motives, rather reveals the technocratic self-conception of the elites of that time.

Debye did this as a professor at the University of Leipzig, where he was called in 1927 from Zurich, and in 1937 in the prestigious position of a director of the Kaiser-Wilhelm Institute for Physics in Berlin-Dahlem. He was in no way the successor to Albert Einstein, for by 1937 this institute only shared the name with the "paper" institute that Einstein had directed during his years in Berlin. In practice it was a new institute and the new building ceremonially opened in 1937 in Dahlem was even financed with American money from the Rockefeller Foundation.

When Debye accepted the offer of a guest professorship at Cornell University, he did this more because he felt that his scientific authority and autonomy had been damaged, than out of political opposition to the Nazi regime. In the autumn of 1939 his institute was placed under military control in order to investigate the military potential of nuclear fission (however, Debye did not know what sort of research was planned). The National Socialist officials would only allow him to remain as director of the institute if he traded his Dutch citizenship for German. He rejected this and instead used the offer from Cornell in Ithaca, NY to take an official leave of absence and in January of 1940 to go to the USA. This was an alternative which Debye enjoyed as a Dutch citizen and internationally-recognized scientist, but which few scientists in Germany would have had. Debye was exceptional, both because he was Dutch and a Nobel laureate, but his actions were not exceptional for the majority of scientists during this terrible time.

For more on this subject, please see:

    D. Hoffmann, M. Walker:
    The German Physical Society under National Socialism
    Physics Today 2004, Nr. 12, S. 52-58.
    D. Hoffmann:
    Between Autonomy and Accomodation: The German Physical Society during the Third Reich
    Physics in Perspective 7(2005) 293-329
    D. Hoffmann:
    Zwischen Autonomie und Anpassung. Die Deutsche Physikalische Gesellschaft im Dritten Reich
    Physik Journal 5(2006) 53-58.
    D. Hoffmann, M. Walker (eds.):
    Physiker zwischen Autonomie und Anpassung
    Verlag Wiley-VCH Weinheim 2006 (forthcoming: ISBN 3-527-40585-2)
    H. Kant. Peter Debye und die Deutsche Physikalische Gesellschaft, in:
    D. Hoffmann et al (Edts): The Emergence of Modern Physics. Pavia 1996, S. 507-520

Berlin/Schenectady, March, 2006

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