Fritz Haber awarded himself a grandstand seat to watch the culmination of his years of pioneering work. Comfortably and safely ensconced behind the Ypres front line on April 22, 1915, the German chemist watched closely as his creation drifted silently across no man’s land and then sank into the French trenches. Moments later, 6,000 French soldiers lay dead or injured, victims of the first-ever use of weaponized chlorine gas.
Haber declared himself satisfied with his chemical coup. “During peacetime a scientist belongs to the world,” he said. “But during wartime he belongs to his country.”
Few scientists can be described as a monster. But Fritz Haber is one of them. Part genius, part racist nationalist and arguably part mass murderer, the Bond villain lookalike deserves his sobriquet of “the father of chemical warfare.” He took pleasure in starting a gas arms race that killed or maimed more than a million soldiers during World War I, a poisonous legacy that lives on today in places like Syria. Yet that legacy is double-edged. Haber also invented the process to synthesize ammonia, the main ingredient needed to make artificial fertilizer and therefore key to the survival of almost half the world’s population. Although his motivations were far from altruistic, he was awarded a Nobel Prize for this in 1918 — ironically the year World War I ended.
“My work was essential for the economic and military expansion of Germany.”
Haber had welcomed the war. Already a successful chemist, he, along with 92 other prominent German scientists, artists and scholars, signed a proclamation in October 1914 praising the Kaiser’s invasion of Belgium. They said Germany had acted after its enemies incited “Mongolians and negroes against the white race.”
The scientist, who had earlier converted from Judaism to Christianity to improve his prospects, was rewarded with an army captaincy and made head of the Chemistry Section at the Ministry of War in Berlin. Despite the fact that the large-scale use of chemical weapons was banned under the Hague Convention of 1907, he enthusiastically set to work on what he termed a “higher form of killing.”
Chlorine gas, which reacts with water in the airways to produce tissue-corroding hydrochloric acid, was the rough and ready option. It was easy to produce and handle so could be quickly shipped to the front. After consulting with experts about the best methods of dispersal, they hit upon the use of canisters, and together formulated a plan to release the gas against an entrenched enemy.
After its first use in Ypres, the gloves were off. France and Britain retaliated in kind, and all sides moved fast to improve methods of dispersal and improve the gas’s deadly and debilitating efficiency. The ensuing arms race led to the development of the even more hideous phosgene and mustard gases, both of which Haber worked on. Colorless, suffocating phosgene was responsible for more than 85 percent of the 100,000 gas deaths during World War I. Around a million soldiers were injured, with millions more facing the daily psychological torture of a possible attack.
One forgotten casualty of Haber’s invention was his wife, Clara Immerwahr. The first German woman to earn a doctorate in chemistry and a women’s rights activist, she shot herself in the heart at home in Berlin two weeks after the Ypres attack. It is thought she was disgusted at her husband for weaponizing their science.
Haber had no regrets. “I was one of the mightiest men in Germany. My work was essential for the economic and military expansion of Germany,” he told a friend.
That work was not limited to gas. Before the war, Haber had solved a major chemical conundrum: how to produce ammonia, the mainstay of fertilizer and chemical feed, without having to mine nitrates. Ammonia is a relatively simple compound of nitrogen — essential to plant growth — and hydrogen, but had proved tricky to synthesize. Haber came up with a method that captured the abundant nitrogen in air by reacting it with readily available hydrogen, in effect producing food out of thin air.
But there was a twist. In the early 20th century, nitrates had to be imported at great cost from the huge natural deposits in Chile, and Germany understandably wanted to secure its own supply. However this was more about weapons than feeding its growing population: Ammonia is also a crucial component of explosives, and Germany was militarizing ahead of World War I. The so-called Haber process was the perfect solution, and by 1913 Haber had teamed up with Carl Bosch at the chemical firm BASF to begin mass production of synthesized ammonia.
It was in the nick of time: With the outbreak of World War I in 1914, Germany lost access to the nitrate deposits in Chile. Sitting at his desk at the Ministry of War, Haber was able to ensure the shells kept coming.
But after the death of war came life. Lots of it. Makers of fertilizer were quick to see the potential of the Haber process, and were soon turning out millions of tonnes using synthesized ammonia. Haber’s invention of “human mulch” has since saved millions of people from starvation, turning deserts into fields. Incredibly, researchers estimate that the world population would be around 4 billion today without the Haber process, rather than the actual figure of 7.5 billion. Recognizing its potential, and perhaps in a misguided attempt to pull some good news from the wreckage of Europe after the war, the Nobel Committee awarded Haber its chemistry prize in 1918.
It was never going to be the achievement that Haber would be remembered for, however. After the war, he continued his work on chemical weapons, and as head of the Kaiser Wilhelm Institute in Berlin oversaw the development of a new insecticide in the 1920s, called Zyklon. It was the precursor of the infamous Zyklon-B, the pesticide used to kill millions of Jews during the Holocaust.
Ironically, the Nazis also had plans for Haber. Despite protestations that he was a patriot and no longer a Jew, he fell foul of racial laws and was hounded out of Germany. He died of a heart attack in Switzerland in January 1934, just a few years before several members of his family were gassed in Nazi death camps.
Like his chemical weapons, Haber’s legacy lingers on. Syrian president Bashar Al-Assad has shown that he shares Haber’s inability to comprehend humanity’s disgust of an indiscriminate weapon that often cannot be seen, heard or smelt.
David Reay is an editor at Handelsblatt Global. To contact the author: firstname.lastname@example.org