In ons aprilnummer publiceerden wij een artikel over de commotie rond Peter Debye, ontstaan na publicatie van het boek Einstein in Nederland van Sybe Rispens. Vanuit de VS ontvingen we onderstaand schrijven van de kleinzoon van Peter Debye, die zijn visie geeft.

It has been with keen interest that I have been following the “Debye Controversy” in the Netherlands from this other side of the Atlantic, including the recent article in Natuurwetenschap & Techniek.

I understand the nature and origin of the particular sensitivity in the Netherlands concerning the relationships between German and Dutch individuals and the German National Socialist State.
The 1930's brought about many daily moral dilemmas to moral people living under the National Socialist regime, dilemmas not faced by the people who were unjustly and cruelly forced to flee the country early on.
When a train appears to go out of control and one does not know the outcome, for how long does one stay on-board and when should one jump off? And is one a passenger on the train or does one have some ability to ameliorate the situation until the train is brought under control? The timing depends upon many things, including one's estimate of the chances that control of the train will be regained. Who is the most courageous, the person who jumps off first and lets the train (with its passengers) to its fate or the person who jumps off late only after making attempts to protect some passengers?

It is an age-old dilemma without a clear answer except in hindsight. Obviously, if the train wrecks, one should have jumped off. But if the train does not wreck, one should have stayed on. That hindsight is available now but was not in 1938. The outcome of the National Socialist State in Germany was not known at that time and many felt the State would yet collapse internally. World War II had not begun. The holocaust had not yet begun.
Sybe Rispen's accusations are superficial and are not supported by the documentation. As far as I can tell, Mr. Rispen jumped to his faulty conclusions concerning Peter Debye's relationship with the Nazis without doing the necessary research required of a competent science historian. This may not be malicious, as it is not unusual for a biographer to become so immersed in his subject that he unwittingly loses his objectivity and merely sees what he wants to see, particularly when it may well help in selling his book. That is why one writes a book, of course. Yet, a competent science historian must never succumb to this temptation..

The record on Peter Debye is crystal clear. He stayed on the train after the first passengers (and some crew) were forced to jump off, and tried to protect German physics from the encroaching tyranny of the Nazis. He hired, worked with, and helped Jewish scientist.s both in Germany and after he emigrated to the United States..He despised the Nazis; he was not an anti-semite.
He was so proud of his Dutch citizenship that he left Germany refusing to relinquish it and then, ironically, was criticized by some in the U.S. for retaining it too long on this side of the ocean after his escape from Berlin.
His record is well-documented and would have been easily accessible to Mr Rispen who never bothered to interview any of Peter Debye's family members who have an extensive collection of Peter Debye's personal papers from that time period. Nor, it seems, did Mr. Rispen take the time or even make the effort to examine extensive related documentation available in various archives in the United States before making his unfounded accusations.

The Netherlands can and should continue to be proud of their exceptional countryman, Peter J.W. Debye. His contributions to science were extensive and truly remarkable. Equally impressive, was the remarkable compassion and generosity he showed to all with whom he worked. He was devoted to his family and his religion.
His remarkable interpersonal skills, surely developed during his Limburg upbringing , were crucial components in his uncanny ability to gain access to the laboratories required for his relentless pursuit of science (to the envy of some of his colleagues). These very skills were also crucial in his defense of the German physics and the German Physical Society as the Nazis attempted to gain control of both, And during his successful efforts to protect his family left behind (in occupied Netherlands and in Berlin) for the duration of the war.
Although loyal to his new home in the U.S., Peter Debye remained a true Dutchman at heart. Nothing would make his eyes sparkle and his face light up more than a discussion about his beloved Maastricht. I know. I lived with him and his wife from 1951 until his untimely passing in 1966.


Nordulf Debye