Not every legacy can easily be distinguished as good or evil. The master chemist Fritz Haber’s inventions truly benefited humanity, helping billions of people, yet his inventions also caused terrible, agonising deaths and lifelong suffering for hundreds of thousands. It is a legacy seemingly caught between ethics and science; between idolisation and condemnation; and between home and exile. Yet Haber stayed true to his own credo: “In peace for mankind, in war for the fatherland!”
In 1920 an uproar sent shockwaves through the international scientific community.
The Nobel Prize Committee of the Swedish Royal Academy announced its honourees for the years of 1914-1919 – the war years. Five of those honoured were Germans, and among them was Fritz Haber, who was being awarded the 1918 Nobel Prize for Chemistry for his ground-breaking achievement of creating synthetic ammonia. Despite his incredible invention, there was a loud roar of outrage from French and British scientists who sent in notes of protest. Haber, they said, was the Father of Chemical Warfare – and that is exactly what he was.
Fritz Haber was born in Breslau, Prussia, in 1868. His father was a wealthy Jewish businessman who strongly supported his son’s interests in chemical experiments. Haber studied organic chemistry and physics at the university in Berlin, where he graduated cum laude in 1891, and achieved the title of full professor of physical chemistry in 1906. At that point, he was already making great strides with his intellect and drive, while boasting that he had never attended a single lecture on physical chemistry, except for his own, but he had yet to find his niche. From gas-phase chemistry to electrochemistry, his interests weren’t limited to a single field of research.
This would change when he was confronted with what was considered a classic problem: the Malthusian Trap. This theory stated that growth on our planet had a limit since people multiply exponentially and resources arithmetically, and that the earth’s soil could only feed and sustain a certain number of people. Chemistry and the production of potent fertilisers challenged the Malthusian Nightmare, but the question of how to artificially replenish agricultural soil with nitrogen, that in turn could be metabolised by plants, remained unsolved.
The Haber-Bosch process
For the ambitious Haber, this problem presented the perfect opportunity for him to leave his mark on the academic world. Scientists before him had provided theories that the fixation of hydrogen and nitrogen “out of the air” was indeed possible, yet no one had found the correct amount of pressure, heat and the right catalysts to do so. Without going into detail, it would be Fritz Haber who finally succeeded where others had failed. Through correct calculations and by adding an osmium catalyst, he achieved the desired gaseous reaction and brought about the equilibrium constant. Eureka! There was Ammonia!
In cooperation with Carl Bosch, who’d go on to replace the osmium with an iron catalyst, and the industrial capacities of BASF, synthetic ammonia would soon be in full production.
The Haber-Bosch process would change life on earth, as it made today’s population numbers possible, allowing billions of people to exist. Even at the time, his discovery elevated Haber to the top of the pops in Germany and beyond. And in 1911, as a group of prominent scientists from the Prussian Academy were thinking of creating an institute for the elite of Germany’s intellectuals, it was Haber who was proposed as one of its directors. As the head of the Kaiser Wilhelm Institute for Physical Chemistry and Electrochemistry, Haber would reach the first heyday of his career, and science in Germany thrived like it had never before.
The “chemist’s war”
Like all good things though, the era of scientific prosperity came to an end abruptly. The outbreak of the Great War not only put an end to nearly all research that was not vital to the war effort, but it also shattered the previously tight-knit international academic community. What was once for the sake of all of mankind, leading their research according to principles of the Republique des Lettres, was now stifled by the demands of warring nations. And scientists were drafted into the “chemist’s war”, to build the deadliest weapons of their time.
Fritz Haber’s research into ammonia was almost immediately of fundamental importance to the German war machine. The Kaiser and his Generals had planned for a very short war, and German explosives and the propellant industry relied on saltpeter nitrate imports from Chile, which were now blocked off. That problem was overcome by Haber, who was now hailed for creating “gunpowder from the air”, but this was only the beginning of his involvement in the war.
The advent of modern chemical warfare
In the early morning hours of April 22, 1915, a greenish-yellow fog, up to two metres high, crept towards the Allied lines.
It was driven by the wind and had a sweet chloric smell, which was irritating just like pepper. Those that inhaled it were soon seen coughing, spitting and retching. Caught in the fog, men clutched their throats, their eyes red with pain. Stumbling around in terror, many simply collapsed to the ground gasping for air. The Germans had unleashed 160 tons of Haber’s newest invention: chlorine gas. As a weapon, the gas attacked the mucous membranes and the wet tissues of lungs, eyes and throat. This was the advent of modern chemical warfare.
No one was aware of what kind of Pandora’s box had been opened. For Fritz Haber personally, the day was both triumph and tragedy. The German military called Haber a national hero and symbolically promoted him to Hauptmann. His marriage, however, was reaching its darkest point.
Like her husband, Clara Haber aspired to leave her mark on the scientific world. She was even the first woman to get a doctorate in chemistry at the University of Breslau, with her thesis on the solubility of heavy metal salts. Yet unlike her husband, this did not open the doors of the academic world to her. Although her colleagues were generally supportive, this was not a time when women often found employment in fields like physics and chemistry.
Clara worked as a freelancer but was frustrated over her expected role as a housewife, mother and hostess to the prominent guests of her husband. Tired and depressed by an unfulfilled life and a dysfunctional marriage, Clara took her own life. On the day Fritz Haber was hailed a hero by the press, she was found dead by their 13 year old son.
Haber’s thoughts about her death remain unknown, and contrary to a lot of public opinion, there is no evidence that Clara’s suicide was caused by her husband’s involvement in chemical warfare. Either way, Haber left for the Eastern Front the next day, to instruct German pioneers on how to deploy his new weapon.
Gas would become one of the most feared weapons of the whole Great War.
But although many of Haber’s colleagues spoke out against its introduction, calling it a perversion of science and fundamentally abhorrent, it was not universally condemned. In fact, far from it. The Entente was quick to retaliate of course, turning gas warfare against German soldiers as well. Haber argued that he wanted to primarily break the psychological willpower of Germany’s enemies, much like with the frightening effect of a flamethrower or a bayonet charge. Once the stalemate on the fronts was broken, it would save so many others from the machine guns and artillery shells of a prolonged war.
Until the end of the War, the Kaiser Wilhelm Institute would continue to produce other chemical agents, most notably phosgene gas and yperite, also known as mustard gas. Haber introduced the concept of “Buntschiessen”, where different kinds of gas shells were deployed in an effort to act as “mask-breakers”. One kind of gas would penetrate the filters, forcing the affected soldier to take off his mask, only to then be hit by an asphyxiating gas shell the next moment. Yet poison gas ultimately did not shorten the war. Instead, it is estimated that by the war’s end, around 1.3 million soldiers were wounded by the effects of chemical weapons, many blinded or with lungs destroyed, many of them killed by asphyxiation or internal bleeding.
Labelled a war criminal
The armistice saw the Entente publish a list of around 900 alleged war criminals they wanted to bring to trial. Haber, as the “Father of Chemical Warfare”, was among the most wanted. The Hauptmann quickly got out of his uniform and fled to Switzerland, but the charges against him were soon dropped and he returned to his Institute in Berlin.
In 1920, he was awarded the Nobel Prize for his ammonia synthesis. At the ceremony no one mentioned his involvement in trying to keep the German war machine afloat, nor how his inventions gave birth to modern gas warfare. Many in Europe’s scientific community simply wanted to return to how it was before the war.
Haber never showed any signs of remorse. Instead, he turned his full attention to the prosperity of his Institute. Under the “great Haber”, it would attract many world-class scientists and promote new ways of scientific thinking. From embryonic quantum mechanics to gas-kinetic studies, to the transfer of energy between the atoms, there were many branches of science at work. One somewhat funny project entitled “gold from seawater” was aimed at combating the Republic’s growing debt by extracting gold from the oceans. Although based on a huge miscalculation and soon abandoned, the idea showed how open-minded the Institute was to unconventional ideas.
Supported by prominent sponsors from the industry, Haber would enjoy another heyday. But this also came to its end. When the Nazis rose to power in 1933, they soon extended their clutches to Germany’s scientific world. Although Fritz Haber had converted to Protestantism when he was 25, he was still a persona non grata to the new state.
Hitler personally hated the “Jew Haber”, who openly supported the democratic principles of the Republic, yet Haber was too well established to be attacked publicly. Instead, they pressured him with new laws, demanding that the Institute fire all scientists of Jewish ancestry. Haber, who believed that science and academia stood above such differences, could not accept this, and instead handed in his own resignation letter. Then he was practically banished from the fatherland he had worked tirelessly to save and improve. At first, he went to Cambridge University then toyed with the idea of moving to Palestine, but he could not bring himself to fully break with his German identity.
Haber died in Switzerland on January 29, 1934, of a heart attack. To this day, his legacy remains controversial, at least historically. From a purely scientific viewpoint, Haber’s accomplishments and contributions to the world of chemistry were indisputably the works of one of the greatest. The benefits of the Haber-Bosch process are enjoyed every day around the globe but the legacy of the horrors of gas warfare is still a dark shadow over Haber’s and mankind’s history.
If you’re interested in a more visual interpretation of the above story, watch our Sabaton History episode, Father – Fritz Haber: