The Man Who Fed The World And Gassed Millions

The strange dichotomy of Fritz Haber

Erik Brown
Feb 19 · 7 min read

“The power of population is indefinitely greater than the power in the earth to produce subsistence for man”.

— Thomas Robert Malthus, An Essay On The Principle Of Population

In the late 1700’s to early 1800’s a well-known economist named Thomas Malthus made a grim prediction. Human progress would always be limited. As soon as food production increased, population would likewise grow. Once population grew, food production would be stretched again and populations would starve — dropping the population again.

He would create an economic theory called the law of diminishing returns. This theory states that you can only get so much out of a resource before the returns start to dwindle. For instance, imagine a farm. As you add more farmers, you increase your output. Eventually, you can only add so many farmers before you’re not getting additional crops.

“The battle to feed all of humanity is over … hundreds of millions of people will starve to death in spite of any crash programs embarked upon now.”

— Paul Ehrlich, The Population Bomb

Modern theorists were also gloomy about the future as well, saying starvation was a guarantee as the population increased. Paul Ehrlich, a Stanford Biologist, wrote a famous book called The Population Bomb in 1968. If you’ve ever heard the term “overpopulation”, it was made famous by Ehrlich. The earth could only supply so much food, man is destined to face disaster.

Fast forward to the present day. Between the publish date of Ehrlich’s book and 2017, the global population went from 3.5 billion to 7.5 billion people according to At the same time, the average calorie consumption per person around the globe went from 2,300 to near 3,000.

They also report that in 2017 out of 173 nations surveyed, only 2 reported the average calorie consumption of their citizens to be below 2,000 calories per day.

So, how were these intelligent people so wrong? They didn’t take in account technology. In particular, one technology — the synthesis of ammonia.

Synthesis Of Ammonia

Fritz Haber — The Nobel Foundation [Public domain]

“What is the most important invention of the twentieth century? Aeroplanes, nuclear energy, space flight, television and computers will be the most common answers. Yet none of these can match the synthesis of ammonia from its elements. The world might be better off without Microsoft and CNN, and neither nuclear reactors nor space shuttles are critical to human well-being. But the world’s population could not have grown from 1.6 billion in 1900 to today’s six billion without the Haber–Bosch process.”

— Vaclav Smil, Journal Of Nature|VOL 400 | 29 JULY 1999

In order to grow food, you need nitrates and only so many are available in nature. The most ironic part of the nitrate hunt is that nitrogen makes up about 80% of our atmosphere. Nitrogen is very stable when bonded with itself and won’t react with other chemicals under most conditions. In other words, there appears to be no way to pull it out of the air around us.

Chemist Fritz Haber figured out the puzzle in July of 1909 by creating the nitrate of ammonia out of thin air. He would produce a continuous flow of ammonia when he fed nitrogen and hydrogen gases into a hot iron tube that was pressurized to 100 atmospheres over a metal catalyst.

In Vaclav Smil’s article, he recounts how members of BASF were horrified about possible disasters occurring to equipment under these pressures. Their head of laboratories mentioned that an autoclave had lifted into the air at under just 7 atmospheres.

Despite the misgivings of some, BASF would continue with this project. Carl Bosch, an engineer and metallurgist, would improve the process where it could be commercialized. By 1912 A plant in Oppau, Germany would be online capable of producing a ton of ammonia in 5 hours. By 1914 this plant would be creating 20 tons of nitrate product a day.

This nitrate that was being produced was an excellent fertilizer. However, it could also be used to create gunpowder and explosives when natural nitrates weren’t available. Germany would take full advantage of these synthesized nitrates to bypass a British blockade and keep their war effort going.

However despite the war going on, a major hurdle had been bypassed. Something seemingly impossible had been done. Man could pull fertilizer out of the very air with the Haber — Bosch Process. Fritz Haber would win the Nobel Prize in 1918 for this discovery.

The Gifts Created From This Process

Photo by Glenn Carstens-Peters on Unsplash

“Brot aus luft” — German saying meaning “bread from air”

According to an article in the BBC news, the world before Haber and Bosch was only able to support 4 billion people with farming techniques of the time. Once this process for creating nitrates for use in fertilizer was widespread, the human population began to skyrocket. The current world population is over 7 billion and growing.

Most of those extra mouths are being fed with food generated from Haber and Bosch’s invention. Crops can now grow in areas where they never grew before. Despite the increased global population, the number of people who go hungry in the world is also on the decline according to the U.N.

It’s more than likely food that you’ve eaten was grown with fertilizers created with this process. According to an article in Popular Science, 50% of the nitrogen in our body comes from the Haber-Bosch process.

With all of these incredible wonders I listed, you might think that Fritz Haber’s face would be etched in statues across the globe. However despite his work that fed billions, he had a much darker side. Some of his other inventions would result in the deaths of millions.

Deadly Creations

Besides his invention being used for making gunpowder and explosives, Haber wanted to do more for his country. He had an idea that could win Germany World War I. Science could create more than fertilizer and gunpowder out of thin air — it could create death itself.

Haber had done some experiments with chlorine gas and saw it could be an effective killer. According to the Smithsonian, Haber’s experiments had accidentally killed some German soldiers. He would have to convince the German army to use his weapon. But, many generals thought the gas weapons were repulsive.

“Gassed” 1919 — John Singer Sargent (Public Domain)

Eventually he convinced the army to try his invention. As director of the Kaiser Wilhelm Institute for Physical Chemistry, Haber put the entire lab in the service of the German army. On April 22, 1915 at Ypres, Belgium 168 tons of chlorine gas would be released from 6,000 canisters.

The yellow wall of gas devastated the French trenches. A soldier who survived said the experience was like drowning on dry land. The cloud engulfed about 10,000 soldiers, half of who quickly died. Afterwards, another 2,000 were captured. The gas would regularly be used at Ypres and the Allied casualties would double that of the Germans.

Haber would be promoted to captain for this display. His wife, who was also a chemist, was horrified and would kill herself with Haber’s service pistol. However, this wouldn’t stop the scientist. Eventually Haber’s lab would move on to mustard gas and figure out ways to put it in artillery shells.

When the Germans used poison gas, the Allies would retaliate with their own gases. Approximately 500,000 casualties would result from the attacks. Many men would become blind due to damage caused by the gases. You can notice this captured in the painting above.

After the war when Hitler rose to power, he attacked Haber for his Jewish roots and harboring Jews at his lab. Haber would resign and move to England. However, he was looked upon as an outcast for his work with chemical weapons.

Haber may have fled Hitler, but the contents of his lab stayed with the dictator. One particular gas in the lab would be used by the Nazis to devastating effects. Zyklon B would be used in concentration camps to kill millions of Jews, some of these would be Haber’s relatives.

The Power To Feed And Kill

“After all man is that being that invented the gas chambers at Auschwitz, however, he’s also that being that entered those gas chambers upright with the Lord’s Prayer or the Shema Yisrael on his lips.”

— Viktor Frankl, Man’s Search For Meaning

The synthesis of ammonia in many ways is representative of science in general. It offers us wonders that seem like magic that benefit humanity in unending ways. Science also offers humanity dark powers to kill and harm. The science in itself is neutral and capable of no malice. It’s the human hand and mind which orders its loyal dog ‘science’ to attack and maim.

This event also shows the strange dual nature of man. Haber would sit in lectures and listen to the warnings of the eventual starvation of mankind. He’d develop a method to defeat this looming danger and give billions life. At the same time, he’d figure methods to kill scores of people with banned gas weapons in a horrific way.

In the end it is up to mankind to decide which face it will show. Will it be the Haber who creates fertilizer to save the starving masses? Or will it be the Haber who devotes a lab to poison gases that would nearly wipe out an entire people?

Lessons from History

Lessons from History is a platform for writers who share…

Erik Brown

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Work out fanatic, martial artist, student, MBA, and connoisseur of useless information.

Lessons from History

Lessons from History is a platform for writers who share ideas and inspirational stories from world history. The objective is to promote history on Medium and demonstrate the value of historical writing.

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