Fritz Haber (1868-1934), the German scientist who won the Nobel Prize for Chemistry in 1918, is best known as the father of chemical warfare. He won the prize not for that but for the Haber-Bosch process, which allows fertilizer to be made by fixing nitrogen from the air: “bread from air”. Two out of five people would not be alive today without it.
Fertilizer: Since the 1850s Europe had been making fertilizer from the mountains of bird droppings in the desert of northern Chile. That was not going to last forever. As Sir William Crookes, he of the Crookes tube, noted in 1905:
“The fixation of nitrogen is vital to the progress of civilized humanity, and unless we can class it among the certainties to come, the great Caucasian race will cease to be foremost in the world, and will be squeezed out of existence by races to whom wheaten bread is not the stuff of life.”
Haber-Bosch process: In 1908 Haber found out how to make ammonia from air using iron, high pressure and electricity. His brother-in-law, Carl Bosch, who worked at BASF, made it into something industry could use on a large scale. And with ammonia you could make fertilizer – or:
Explosives: Germany would have run out of ammunition and lost the First World War in 1916: Britain had cut it off from Chile. But thanks to Haber they never ran out. The war went on for another two years.
Patriotism: Like his good friend Albert Einstein, Haber was born a Jew. Unlike him he converted to Christianity, becoming a Lutheran in his 20s. And, unlike Einstein, he trusted German militarism:
Poison gas: He worked out how to use poison gas in warfare, in particular chlorine and mustard gas. Even though:
- International law outlawed it.
- German army commanders found its use “unchilvarous” and “repulsive”, killing men like rats.
- His wife, Clara Immerwahr, also a chemist, called it a “perversion of the ideals of science” and “a sign of barbarity, corrupting the very discipline which ought to bring new insights into life.”
He went through with it anyway. The emperor threw a party. His wife took his army pistol and – shot herself in the heart. Not to worry: he was soon off to the Eastern Front to set them up with poison gas.
After the war, he was wanted for war crimes, but never prosecuted. He unsuccessfully worked on getting gold from seawater to pay back German war reparations.
Pesticides: In those years, his lab came up with Zyklon gas, a poison gas to kill insects.
Enter Hitler: One morning in 1933 Haber came to work and was told:
“The Jew Haber is not allowed in here.”
His Christianity, his patriotism, even his Nobel Prize, meant nothing. Just his race.
He died a year later of a heart attack in a Swiss hotel room, on his way to Palestine.
In the 1940s, Zyklon gas had been turned into Zyklon B, used not to kill insects but millions of Jews – some of them his own relatives.
– Abagond, 2016.
- Albert Einstein
- respectability politics
- Du Bois: The Souls of White Folk
- Martin Luther King’s Riverside Speech