The Tragedy of Fritz Haber: The Monster Who Fed The World
[Note: The following contains graphic descriptions of warfare]
By the spring of 1915, The Great War had already scattered the shredded, rotting flesh of men and boys across the once lush Belgian fields of Ypres. Bloated corpses bobbed in the greasy waters of shell craters. Bullets cut through the air in angry swarms as they hunted men down. Deafening mortar shells burst unceasingly around the soldiers. Those that didn’t evaporate in a direct hit were cut to pieces in the blast. This daily chorus of bullets and explosions was joined by the terrified screams of the wounded. In the fortified trenches on both sides of this carnage, muddy soldiers huddled together in filth while rats and flies ate the remains of comrades they’d buried below them. Each breath was of sickly sweet decay and human shit. They fought and died in a hell no previous generation could have envisioned.
On the German side of this horror show stood Fritz Haber. Small, bald, and potbellied, he gazed across the battlefield through pince-nez glasses at his country’s enemies: the British, the French, and their dominion forces. Wrapped in a fur coat against the chill of the late April evening, the German-Jewish chemist prepared the signal. In front of him were 6,000 metal tanks containing his creation. At six in the evening, the wind was just right to put his plan into action. With his typical Virginian cigar hanging below his trimmed mustache, he gave the signal.
“God punish England.”
The shelling ceased. The valves were opened. 168 tons of chlorine gas was released into the world.
The fifteen foot wave of greenish yellow mist rolled across the cratered landscape of rotting limbs, shredded flesh, and the shrieks of wounded men. Leaves shriveled on their branches at its touch. Grass turned the color of metal. Birds dropped from the sky.
Operation: Disinfectant had begun.
The Allied troops watched the gas approach curiously. They were expecting a German charge once the shelling ceased. Carried by the breeze, the gas took on a pinkish hue with the setting sun. A man walking at a brisk pace could outrun it. But no one ran. No one had seen this before.
At a casual stride, the gas filled their trenches and their lungs. Red hot chemical needles jabbed at the delicate flesh of alveoli and blood vessels. The searing pain brought soldiers to their knees. They convulsed in pain, tearing at their throats. Pus and phlegm filled their lungs. Yellow mucous frothed from their mouths before they coughed out blood. Their faces twisted in agony, they drowned on the land. Terrified by this new horror, many Allied soldiers ran, leaving a six kilometer gap in the line.
When the Allied troops regained the position, they found over 5,000 dead men. Their faces black, their tunics and shirtfronts torn open in desperation for breath.
This was Fritz Haber’s plan. He volunteered for it. He wrote to the German high command suggesting it. He pushed back against the generals who said that it violated the Hague conventions of warfare. That it was repulsive. Immoral. Monstrous.
Fritz Haber got his way. On April 22nd, he made hell worse. And he couldn’t have been happier.
Three years later, he won the 1918 Nobel Prize for chemistry. And for good reason. You owe your life as you know it to him. Most of the world does.
They said that he pulled bread from the air.
They were not far off. Before Fritz Haber’s world-changing discovery, scientists believed the human race would top out at 1.5 billion and then face starvation. Fritz Haber set that future by on a different course by solving one of the greatest problems humanity ever faced: How to feed the world. It was a monumental feat for a Jew from Breslau.
Fritz Haber was born on December 9th, 1868. The son of a merchant, he was driven by greater ambitions than small town life. His was the first generation of German Jews to be welcomed into wider society. In Kaiser Wilhelm’s Germany, Jews had social mobility. They could be judged on their individual abilities and achievements, rather than who their parents and grandparents were. The future was constrained only by their imagination. As Haber wrote
Educated in Breslau, he took an early interest in chemistry and followed this passion through university. By 1890 Haber had become a professor of chemistry and electrochemistry at the Karlshruhe Institute of Technology.
That year, Haber met and fell in love with his future wife, Clara Immerwar.
A wealthy Jewish farm girl with a thirst for knowledge, Clara been privately tutored throughout her youth and was fascinated by the natural sciences. Brilliant, hard-headed, and unwilling to accept her gender’s place in society, she’d moved to Breslau to attend a teacher’s seminary where she focused on chemistry. There she met Fritz Haber at a dancing lesson. Despite their immediate spark, Clara refused his offer of marriage to remain financially independent and continue her studies.
By the time Clara met Haber again in 1901, she had become the first woman in Germany to pass the rigorous national entrance exam for pre-doctoral chemistry, as well as the first to be awarded a doctorate in chemistry from any German university, graduating magna cum laude. Haber courted her again and their relationship was rekindled. Clara loved Haber not just for his mind and his success, but for his other endearing qualities. He was a gregarious and outgoing man who loved good jokes. He was also loyal and devoted to his friends. Later in life, he would help his close friend and collegue Albert Einstein through Einstein’s divorce. He attracted a circle of brilliant and devoted young scientists around him, including future Nobel Prize winner James Franck and the great Lise Meitner, who with Otto Hahn made the crucial breakthrough in nuclear fission.
Clara married Haber soon after their second meeting. By January, 1902 their son Hermann was born and they settled into Karlshruhe in southern Germany. Clara’s initial hopes of combining marriage and her research-intensive career were dashed by the overwhelming demands of housekeeping and motherhood. Besides caring for her sickly son, her husband’s ambitious and friendly nature led to frequent dinner parties where he entertained important guests. Clara struck a balance between science and homelife by assisting her husband in his research. In the front page of his 1905 textbook on the thermodynamics of gas reaction was a dedication to his
Meanwhile, Fritz Haber was working on solving a crisis that had come to the fore for Germany in the late 1800s. The country had the sunlight and the land to feed 30 million people. However, without a way to fertilize the crops, another 20 million citizens would face starvation. The solution to the problem was frustratingly simple. It had been discovered in the 1840s, when Justus Von Liebig identified nitrogen as essential in the creation of plant cell walls. The amount of crops one can grow is directly tied to how much nitrogen can be provided. There was no problem in finding that element. It literally was right in front of everyone’s face, and everywhere else in the universe. 4,000 trillion tons of gas, making up nearly 80% of our atmosphere. Beyond our atmosphere, it’s the fifth most abundant element in the universe.
But there was no way to get it out of the air.
The challenge of capturing nitrogen was its strong trivalent bonds. The element’s free floating atoms clung to each other fiercely. An energy source powerful enough to separate them seemed impossible to produce. Countries were forced to scrounge for the main sources of nitrogen at that time: seaweed, manure, and guano. These were such prized commodities that fortunes were made shipping bird and bat guano to Europe. In 1864, Spain and a Chillean-Peruvian alliance went to war over control of caves filled with guano, and in 1879 Chile and Peru went to war over the rights to these same precious piles of bird and bat shit. Chile’s victory in the war grew their national treasury by 900%.
At the start of the 20th century Fritz Haber figured out how to break nitrogen’s bonds. After forcing air into a huge iron tank under extreme heat and pressure, he added hydrogen into the tank. This pried the nitrogen atoms apart as they each bonded with three hydrogen atoms, forming ammonia. Out of the tank dripped liquid fertilizer. He’d done it. The nitrogen had been pulled from the air and could be put into the ground to grow food. In 1909, he unveiled his discovery to the world.
100 million tons of synthetic fertilizer is created each year by this method. For nearly all of the 7 billion people on earth, including you, half of the nitrogen in your body comes from the Haber method. It is perhaps the greatest scientific discovery in history. It stopped wars, fed children, and led to our modern age.
This was Fritz Haber’s dream. He had both served his fatherland while being praised for his brilliance. He had brought glory to his country as a German citizen. It was a meteoric rise for a Jewish child from a provincial town, and it had taken a toll on his personal life.
The marriage began to fray as Haber regularly left Clara alone with their son due to his workaholic lifestyle. However, his ambition and dedication paid off and Haber moved his family the capitol in 1911 to take on a professorship at the University of Berlin. Haber was now socializing with the upper echelon of German society in the capital, meeting cabinet ministers as well as the Kaiser. He loved his newfound status. It both fed his already massive ego and was an enormous source of pride. He genuinely loved Germany. It was a country that believed in him. He was not simply a Jew here. He was a German citizen. As important as any of its children. Perhaps more important as he would consider himself.
As Germany’s population grew along with their economy, the newly formed country became ambitious. The decision was made to further their status in the world by attacking France through Belgium. Their army was stopped at the Marne and hunkered down for what was to be a short war. Soldiers took cover from the bullets and shells in trenches, which spread crablike across the western front before stopping at the sea. The German offensive bogged down. Soldiers died in numbers unseen in history. Everyone began looking for a way to break the stalemate. Things became worse for Germany when the Allied naval blockade cut off the country’s supply of vital raw materials for munitions.
The immensely patriotic Haber volunteered for duty by letter to the war department. He knew he could help. Chemically, the same amount of energy that it took to separate the nitrogen atoms was released when they slammed back together. In his letter, he explained to his superiors that by reversing the chemical reation he used to grow life, he could make explosives. Haber’s discovery and the vast ammonia factories he masterminded helped extend the war by three years.
However, a steady supply of explosive shells would not lead to Germany’s victory. The Allied forces had the same weaponry and far more soldiers. So Haber made another suggestion. The ammonia he distilled from the air could be added to chlorine to make an asphyxiating gas. In desperation for a way to break the stalemate, the German high command acceded to his request.
Haber’s wife Clara, a pacifist, was appalled by her husband’s research. The explosives he was manufacturing were horrific enough, but his work on poison gas had already killed German troops in test runs. She had come out in public opposition of his work, condemning this perversion of the ideals of science as
Fritz Haber had responded by accusing her of making treasonous statements against the Fatherland. According to Haber
“During peacetime, a scientist belongs to the world, but during war time, he belongs to his country.”
Their marriage frayed further as he traveled more and philandered. Haber knew what he was doing was right. That he was helping the country he loved win victory. He made certain he was on the front lines for the first gas attack.
On the evening of April 22, 1915, Haber was ecstatic at the 6,000 men laying dead across the battlefield. The Allied line was broken. However, the Germans did not exploit the opportunity. This had just been a test run. No one had prepared for an advance and the Allies quickly regained their front. Still, Operation: Disinfectant earned Haber a promotion to Captain. A newly crowned hero in the eyes of his countrymen, he went home to spend a few days with his family in Berlin. On May 1st a dinner party was thrown at his villa in honor of his newfound success and rank.
Clara was not in a mood to celebrate.
During the party she confronted him and an intense argument erupted. Clara told her husband that he was morally bankrupt. That what he was doing was monstrous. Haber ignored her. Surrounded by friends praising his patriotic deeds, he saw nothing vile about serving his country. Haber accused her of being an enemy of Germany and something snapped in Clara. She could no longer live by her principles married to such an evil man. That night, while Fritz Haber was asleep, Clara took his army revolver, walked outside to the garden, and shot herself in the chest. She was found by her 13 year old son, with the life about to run out of her.
The next morning, Haber went back to the Eastern Front to direct more gas attacks. His son Hermann was left alone to deal with his dead mother. In the late 1930’s Hermann would immigrate to America, where he would later kill himself.
Haber would be haunted by his wife’s death through the rest of the war. He would write
Meanwhile, the Allied forces quickly developed and launched their own poison gas attacks against the Germans. Further weapons of industrial warfare were developed. For three more years the war dragged on until no more blood could be shed.
At 11am on November 11th, 1918, the last shots of The Great War were fired. Germany was defeated. Millions of soldiers left their blood-soaked, cratered, poisoned hell and went home. 100,000 people had died in gas attacks on both sides, with another one million wounded. Millions more were killed by the explosives Haber’s munitions factories created.
Along with with countless German citizens, Haber was humiliated that his country had lost the war and enraged over the crushing war reparations. Ever faithful to his fatherland and its people, he became obsessed with paying off the debt by himself. For five years he relentlessly devoted himself to finding a way to distill the trace amounts of gold naturally dissolved in the ocean. However, he would not manage to pull wealth from the sea as he did bread from the air. After half a decade, his failure at this was another crushing blow.
Life became worse for Haber and the rest of the world as Hitler became chancellor in 1933. The Nazis soon issued an order that no Jews would be allowed in civil service. Haber was exempt from this due to his civil service during The Great War. However, his employees were not. 75% of them were Jewish, and would have to be dismissed. Haber took a stand and resigned. He’d grown up in Kaiser Wilhelm’s Germany, where he’d only wanted one limit; the limit of his ability. He believed the same for his employees. It didn’t matter who their parents and grandparents were.
Haber left, believing that he’d lost his homeland. He roamed around Europe, eventually taking a professorship at Cambridge in England. There he was shunned by the British, who along with the French considered him a repulsive war criminal. A pariah, he wandered through Europe aimlessly, his health worsening. On his way to Switzerland to recuperate in a sanitarium his heart failed. Fritz Haber died alone in a hotel in 1934. At the end of his life, he repented for using his mind and his talents for waging war.
Haber was long dead by the time the next world war began. But many of his creations were still in use, including a hydrogen-cyanide pesticide called Zyklon. When the Nazis rediscovered this invention, they realized it would fit their needs perfectly. All that was required was a small change in the formula. They had their chemists remove the noxious smell that warned the user not to inhale it.
This was to stop Fritz Haber’s nieces, grandnephews, friends, and millions of other Jewish people from panicking as they fell to their knees, drowning in the air as Zyklon-B poured into Auschwitz’s gas chambers.
To this day, historians are torn on how to judge Fritz Haber. Billions of people would not exist without him. And yet without him, World War I would have ended years earlier. Millions would have been spared a gruesome death and millions more a shattered life. His friend Albert Einstein would later say
However, his life goes deeper than blind patriotism. Haber was not simply a German Jew. He was a human being. All monsters are, and all saints as well. He was creative and destructive, warm hearted and pitiless. He fed billions with his research and rejoiced at the agonized deaths of thousands. He lived in luxury and died broken and alone, repentant of the evil he helped create. There is no easy way to weigh his sins and his virtues on the scales of history. Perhaps there’s no point in trying.
In the end, he was a man named Fritz Haber. As Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn once said
If only there were evil people somewhere insidiously committing evil deeds, and it were necessary only to separate them from the rest of us and destroy them. But the line dividing good and evil cuts through the heart of every human being.…During the life of any heart this line keeps changing place; sometimes it is squeezed one way by exuberant evil and sometimes it shifts to allow enough space for good to flourish. One and the same human being is, at various ages, under various circumstances, a totally different human being. At times he is close to being a devil, at times to sainthood. But his name doesn’t change, and to that name we ascribe the whole lot, good and evil.
Where not otherwise noted, the sources for this essay comes from Radiolab Podcast Season 10 Episode 5: The Bad Show and Dan Carlin’s Hardcore History Podcast Episode 52: Bluprint for Armageddon: Part III
For another history article, read Tobias Stone’s https://medium.com/@theonlytoby/history-tells-us-what-will-happen-next-with-brexit-trump-a3fefd154714#.tfowuhf8p
My book Fighting Monks and Burning Mountains: Misadventures on a Buddhist Pilgrimage is available on Amazon