Correspondence | Published:

Debye's wooden response undercut Nazi orders

Naturevolume 441page690 (2006) | Download Citation



I read with chagrin your News in Brief story “Dutch universities ditch reported Nazi collaborator” (Nature 440, 139; 2006), stating that two Dutch universities have rescinded the recognition previously accorded to Peter Debye. I was a junior member of his chemistry department at Cornell University and I remember two stories in particular that make it hard to believe Debye had Nazi links.

Debye told us about one of the buildings at the Kaiser Wilhelm Institute for Physics, where he was director, that had the name of the previous director, Max Planck, chiselled in stone above the entrance. When ordered to erase the dedication to Planck (who had tried to help Jewish colleagues), Debye had workmen cover it with a large wooden board. That way, when visitors asked about the unseemly aberration, he would feel obliged to answer.

He also described how he was finally convinced to flee Germany when a direct order came from Hitler to put all the institute's resources into the development of the atomic bomb. Carrying only their suitcases, Debye and his wife travelled to the Netherlands, ostensibly for a lecture tour, but they never returned. Instead they went on to London and eventually to America.

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  1. Department of Chemistry, Loyola University Chicago, 1068 West Sheridan Road, Chicago, 60626, Illinois, USA

    • Harvey Posvic


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