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  The Nobel Nazi?
Scientists Legacy gets Freedom-Fried
by Kit Smith

The Debye Institute of Utrecht University in the Netherlands is one of those places everyone has heard of. Like the Smithsonian, or the White House. It’s prestigious. Well, okay, it’s a place you’ve heard of if you’re chemist or physicist. The man after whom it’s named, Petrus (Peter) Debye, was a renowned physicist with a long list of accomplishments including a Nobel Prize in Chemistry. He derived the Planck radiation formula using a method which even Max Planck agreed was simpler than his own method. So it’s nice that they named stuff after him. But that’s about to change.

In this week’s Science magazine, it was reported that the Utrecht University plans to rename the Debye institute. Similarly, Maasricht University will cease to award the Peter Debye Prize for science unless the foundation which sponsors the award renames it. All of this is because of a recent book, Albert Einstein in the Netherlands, by historian Sybe Rispens.

Debye succeeded Einstein as director of the Kaiser Wilhelm Institute for Physics, and was seminal in this institution’s development into today’s world-renowned Max Planck Institute. In 1939 Debye was offered a position at Cornell University. Einstein attempted to prevent Debye from getting this job. Rispen’s book uses letters from Einstein to his colleagues as evidence that Debye displayed loyalty to the Nazi party and by Rispens’ claims “showed himself to be an extreme opportunist during the Nazi period.” Rispens fails to mention the longstanding professional rivalry between the two men.

The book cites a single memo written by Debye in December, 1938 to all the members of the Deutsche Physikalische Gesellschaft:

"In light of the current situation, membership by German Jews as stipulated by the Nuremberg laws, of the Deutsche Physikalische Gesellschaft cannot be continued. According to the wishes of the board, I ask of all members to whom these definitions apply to report to me their resignation. Heil Hitler."

Paul L. Houston of Cornell University reported to William G. Schultz for Chemical and Engineering News that he found the allegations to be “at odds with what I do know about Debye. There are stories here about his anti-Nazi stance--that it caused him to lose being head of the Berlin Institute and convinced him to stay at Cornell... unlike some of its Ivy League colleagues during that period, Cornell was ahead of the curve in making Jewish faculty appointments. Many of my older Jewish colleagues were... appointed by Debye when he became chair.”

Both Netherlands universities acknowledge the evidence about Debye’s pro-Nazi actions is inconclusive. “He did not act fiercely enough to defend academic freedom,” said Maastricht University spokeswoman Jeanine Hermans. “A university should be an example.”

And Utrecht University spokesman Ludo Koks told Associated Press, “Maybe he was forced to do it, but he did it anyway... We know Debye was an eminent scientist and scholar. But when an institute is named after someone, this person has to have the highest reputation.”

Lenny Bruce had a bit called “Thank You Masked Man.” The basic premise of it is that the hero never sticks around long enough for anybody to thank him, and that this is as it should be: You could never thank a hero enough, and attempting to do so would only prove embarrassing for all parties involved. But the sketch evolves, as Lenny Bruce’s works always do, into something more, and another point is made, the idea that not only can we not thank our heroes enough but that if they did stick around they would prove themselves human and we would despise them.

Maybe halfway through the bit (which has been animated by the way, and reminds the author very much of the old School House Rock cartoons) the Masked Man, (clearly a spoof on the Lone Ranger) asks if anyone has seen Tonto.

Townsman: “Tonto? What you want Tonto for?”
Masked Man: “To perform an Unnatural Act.”
Townsman: “Bleagh! BLEAGH! Masked Man’s a FAG MAN! You wearing mas-carry under that mask?”

For the entire remainder of the short, every time the Townsman is shown, he points at Masked Man and simply shouts: “FAAAAG! FAAAAG! FAAAAG!”

This is what these universities make me think of.

Just as The Masked Man had to eat and pee and perform unnatural acts with his sidekick, so the academic elite had to kowtow to political demands in order to function; in order to keep a job; sometimes in order to live. Debye was not killing Jews in his basement. Indeed, if Rispen’s only evidence is a single memo, it doesn’t seem that Debye was very seriously trying to get Jews out of the university, perhaps going through the requisite motions, like a don’t-ask-don’t-tell policy.

There is an unfairness in applying modern sensibilities to that extreme political climate. Will we, in another hundred years, look back on those journalists who signed loyalty oaths to our current administration in order to get into press conferences and consider them murderers of Iraqi children?

Rispens’ claims are acknowledged as uncertain. Yet both universities are kowtowing to modern political demands in removing Debye’s name. And thus two institutionalized learning facilities join the ranks of the irrational. Well, now they can serve Freedom Fries and Holy Roses of the Prophet Mohammad (The Pastries formerly known as Danish) in their cafeteria. For entertainment, Ludo Koks, Jeanine Hermans, and Sybe Rispens can stand in the corner shouting: “FAAAAG! FAAAAG! FAAAAG!”

 

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